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The future of Catholic education
On 20 August 2013, Perth's Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB gave a public lecture on the future of Catholic Education in WA at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle. These are extracts from his address.
When I was a young man in my final years of preparation for ordination as a priest one of my lecturers in Church History, Fr Austin Cooper, often spoke about the role and importance of conservatism in the life of the Church.
At the risk of over-simplifying his views, the "take-away" message from his lectures was, as we might say today, that conservatism is all about evaluating what has been handed on from the past in order to discern what is of lasting value and, indeed, essential, from that received tradition if we are to be faithful to our own identity as we seek to move courageously and enthusiastically into our future.
I was impressed by that insight at the time and remain so today. To manage the present and build for the future with confidence we need to be people who live out of the richness of our past, while not being people who are slavishly locked into that past.
What we can do is seek to identify that which lies at the heart of the Church's engagement with the education of young people and seek to ensure that as we try to meet the myriad challenges which will confront us, and grasp hold of the many opportunities which will be set before us, we do so with courage, with creativity, with energy, and also with fidelity.
The decisions about where we wish to go in the future will need to be in harmony with the fundamental insights which have guided the Catholic Church's involvement in education for the last fifteen hundred years or more.
If we do look to the past, and here I am talking not about the last fifteen hundred years but rather about the last 150 years here in Australia, we quickly realise that there was a fundamental purpose in the establishment of a Catholic education system in Australia in the early years of British settlement.
It is not in fact possible to separate religion from all the other dimensions of life: that education, if it is to be complete and integral, must be informed by and permeated by a world view, an understanding of what it is to be human, which, in the case of the Catholic tradition, places the relationship between a person and God at the heart of what life is all about.
This of course is the very opposite of a secular, or at least a secularist, world-view. Indeed to opt for a secular system of education rather than a faith-based one is as much the adoption of an ideology as is the decision to opt for a faith-based system.
I would propose then that a foundational reason for the establishment of the Catholic school system in Australia lies in a deeply held conviction that there is no true and comprehensive education unless that education is informed by, underpinned by and permeated by, the unshakeable belief that the exclusion of God from the educational endeavour so badly distorts the true meaning of what it is to be human that it is a betrayal of young people.
We live at the moment in a society and culture which seeks to relegate religion to the private sphere. It is acknowledged, sometimes grudgingly and with some perplexity, that religion is important to many people, and the right to freedom of religion is upheld in theory, if not always in practice.
Society is prepared to allow people to "be religious" if that is their inclination, but religious belief is not something to be forced on others, and religious convictions certainly should not be the basis for public policy. What this means is that the question of God is removed from the public sphere and confined to people's private lives.
While there are many examples from history and from contemporary experience of the damage that can be caused by the misuse of religion in public life, and while our own history in Australia is marked at times by a very destructive sectarianism, nevertheless for a believer the practical exclusion of God from public life, and the demand that a belief in God should not and must not have any effect on the way in which believers engage in public life and discourse, makes no sense at all.
From a Christian's point of view, we might say that if God is as we believe he is, if God is as Jesus tells us he is, then God stands at the heart of everything: God stands at the heart of an individual's life; God stands at the heart of people's relationships; God stands at the heart of the common lives we share as members of communities; God stands at the heart of our life as a society.
I went to Catholic schools in Melbourne from 1959, when I was in prep, until 1971, when I completed my secondary schooling. Both schools catered for what we might call working class families.
Mum worked part time in a fruit shop and dad worked in the local pub. They had to make great sacrifices to send both my brother and me to Catholic schools, and it was not easy for them to find the funds for such things as uniforms, books, even bus fares at times, not to mention such things as excursions, although these were in reality few and far between in those days.
In both my primary and secondary schools there were some excellent teachers, some ordinary teachers, and some poor teachers. The facilities were not overly impressive, the resources were limited, the classes were large.
One thing, however, was very clear. The "God question" was absolutely front and centre. Prayer at the beginning and end of the day, regular celebration of the sacraments, daily religious education classes, religious images, and the presence of religious sisters, brothers and priests all pointed in the same direction: God, as God was understood within the Catholic tradition, was the whole reason for the school's existence.
Not everyone embraced it, not everyone liked it, some agitated against it, many just put up with it, but no-one was in any doubt as to just why the school existed.
At the beginning of this presentation I suggested that as regards Catholic education if we wish to manage the present and build for the future with confidence we need to be people who live out of the richness of our past, while not being people who are slavishly locked into the past.
I would now like to suggest that this fundamental pillar of Catholic education, one based on the conviction that a full and integral education of the young is only possible if the existence of a loving God, made known to us in Jesus Christ, informs and permeates the educational environment and all aspects of the educational endeavour, must remain the foundational principle and fundamental philosophy of our involvement in education.
A Catholic school will always be, or at least should always be, a school where the "God question" is front and centre.
A Catholic school or university is a living, dynamic expression of the Church. It is, in Pope Francis's words, "a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who want to share the experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us". To share, to offer, to propose – not to impose, or force, or coerce.
A Catholic school or university will be, and will want to be, a place where this desire to propose and facilitate, but never to impose or force, an encounter with Christ, is at the heart of the school or university's daily life and its self-understanding.
And why? Because this encounter will lead to an experience of deep joy which comes from the gift of salvation and life offered by Christ in and through his Church. It seems to me that if we don't believe this, then we will find it difficult to account for Christ or his Church – and therefore difficult to account for the existence of Catholic schools and universities.
And in a Catholic school or university, the presence of God, as he is made known in Jesus and in the life and teaching of the Catholic Church, will be a fundamental principle which informs all these decisions because an education which does not seek to lead people into a deeper encounter with and appreciation of God is an education which is incomplete, an education which short-changes our young people.
This fundamental conviction informs my vision for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Perth. It is both my hope and my aim that every Catholic school, primary or secondary, and our Catholic University of Notre Dame, are places of educational excellence where our young people are provided with the very best education possible.
But in the light of our Christian faith, I also want to say that our schools and our university cannot be and will not be all this if God is not the heart and soul of all our educational institutions.
And so I also want our schools, colleges and university to be places where Jesus Christ is not marginalised but acknowledged and honoured, where the richness of the Catholic tradition is not minimised but celebrated, where the beauty of the Catholic understanding of what it is to be fully human is not apologised for but promoted and defended, and where the Catholic world-view permeates every dimension of the school's or university's life.
I want our educational institutions to be places where the beauty and power of the Christian faith is never imposed, but always proposed in every way possible.
I am well aware of the challenges and the very real obstacles which make the full realisation of this vision rather difficult.
There is always a significant gap, sometimes even a yawning gap, between where we are and where we are called to be. The challenge and the adventure lie in continuing to strive towards the ideals, while never ever despairing because we are not there yet.
The great mistake would be to believe that because the goals and the ideals are so far beyond where we are at the moment that our only option is to give up, settle for something far less ambitious, and no longer believe in who we are and who we are called to be.
In talking about my vision for the future of Catholic education, I want to acknowledge fully and with gratitude that we are not starting with a blank canvas – far from it.
But in the light of what is already being achieved the question I would put to each of our schools, and to our university, is this: are we yet the vibrant, gospel-inspired, faith-filled and mission-oriented Catholic community that we are called to be? And if not, and to the extent that we are not, what can we do to become more what we already are and what our identity as Catholic schools and universities calls us and requires us to be?
It is my hope that in my time as Archbishop of Perth I can work with our schools and our university, with our principals and staffs, with the director and staff of our Catholic Education Office, with our clergy and religious, especially in the parish setting, and with our parents to find together answers to the question I have just posed. Our young people need and deserve that we do our best for them. I invite you all to join me in responding to them to the very best of our abilities.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 26 No 10 (November 2013), p. 8
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