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  • The Priest:  Foundation of Catholic Education

    June, 2010

    As our “Year for Priests” draws towards its close, it is timely to reflect on the extraordinary contribution these men have made, especially – but not only – to Catholic Education.  Catholic schools in turn, have clearly made and continue to make an enormous contribution to our Australian society.  We need all to be grateful to our Priests.

    We need to express our gratitude not only to those serving us now, but to the generations who have gone before and also to the many fine and good men who served in the priesthood for some years, but whose changing life circumstances led them to believe they were called in other directions.

    Catholic Education in Australia, as with so many other things, got off to something of a rocky start.  There was certainly no grand strategic plan!  In most cases, in the early decades of the 19th century, it was the Parish Priest who saw the need for a Catholic school in his parish and so set about finding an appropriate teacher who is usually a lay person and usually without training.  It was the vision, commitment and energy of those Priests that laid the foundations for the mighty work we have today.  It was they who, in the first instance, built schools with their roots in parish, gave us the gift we have today and very often that building was with their own hands.

    Of course time and history march inevitably on.  The debate and controversy surrounding the “free, compulsory, secular” moves of the 1860s and 1870s saw Priests once again rising to the defence of their schools.  Led, of course, by their Bishops, they continued to play a powerful role in seeking Religious, most from Ireland, but also from France and other European countries.  They also played a role in the development of our own Australian Orders such as Mary MacKillop’s Sisters of St Joseph and the Good Samaritan Sisters.

    Throughout these tumultuous times, the school continued to be seen as a work of the parish, so the Priest was always central to its life and its work.

    Then, through the busy years of the so called State Aid debate, Priests were prominent in the public eye, but just as importantly, Priests stayed faithful to their own schools, being always supportive and ever present.

    Of course, our Church is both divine and human and there have been times when things did not perhaps go as well as might have been desired.  Overall, though it is very evident that the strong relationship between Priest and Catholic school has been a major contributor to the life of every Catholic school.

    In today’s Church, our Priests continue to play a central and critical role.  Our schools, certainly in Sale, are, for the most part, parish of regional schools.  Clearly, they do the work of the parish and the role of the Priest remains preeminent.  In our diocese, we are blessed with the Priests we have.  They may be small in number, but they remain powerful in presence and in influence.  I can assure you that I have never worked anywhere where the relationship that exists between Parish Priests and school is stronger or healthier than it is here in Sale.  That is to the credit of the Priests, their Bishops over the years and school personnel.

    We are, though, forever changing.  There are stories of Priests in the early days of the colony whose parish reached from Yas to Port Phillip, and that on horseback!  We have not returned to that and, please God, we never will.  We look around today, though, at some of our Presbytery’s that were built for a Parish Priest and two or even three or more curates.  There are empty bedrooms in them now.  It seems unlikely that we will fill them again soon, though our hope and our prayer is that vocations will flow once again.

    That situation places ever greater demands on Priests.  It would be unfortunate if Priests and the people they serve held the same expectations of them now as were held 40 or 50 years ago.  We need to be examining the role of the Priest in schools to ensure their health and wellbeing, while enhancing their sacramental and pastoral presence.  There is always change afoot and we have to adapt to it.

    There are other changes afoot, too, that will impact on the role of the Priest in the school.  Increasing Government accountability and intervention along with growing legislative complexity are two of the greatest.  They are already bringing change.