Catholic Schools: Rooted in Jesus Christ

This text was delivered by Michael McGrath, Director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, at an event in St Joseph’s Boys’ School, Derry on the evening, Monday 24th January 2011 to launch Catholic Schools Week in Ireland.  The theme of Catholic Schools Week for 2011 was: Catholic Schools: Rooted in Jesus Christ.


Rooted in Jesus Christ

The metaphor of being “rooted” in Jesus Christ is a powerful one.  It can help young people to understand the importance of their lives being securely connected to the very source and inspiration of life.  This “rootedness” can provide stability and security to young hearts and minds which can easily become disconnected and rootless in a world which offers so many distracting sources of comfort, pleasure and apparent fulfilment.  To use the metaphor with which we are familiar from the Gospel, we know that often the soil of our young people’s lives - the environment in which these fragile young plants grow up - has not been well prepared, can be rocky, may be filled with weeds which will choke young shoots which instinctively want to grow straight and tall and to thrive towards full and healthy maturation.

We know also that being “rooted” will ensure that our human growth remains nurtured and healthy throughout our lives.  The Jesus whom we come to know and love in our childhood is surely the same Jesus who guides us in our adult lives.  What changes is our relationship with him because it is dynamic and it develops as we come to know him, to understand his teaching and to respond to him in our faith which matures throughout our lives.  Such healthy growth relies on a continuing source of nourishment through prayer, through the liturgy and through the reading of sacred scripture.

A rooted life of faith is also a living personal faith, a faith which is fully alive to all that is happening in the world.  Faith in Jesus Christ is not dead or fossilised, as some people would contend.  It enables me to make sense of the wonders of our world and to be grateful for the beauty of God’s creation.  It encourages me to develop my own talents and to see their fulfilment in being used for the benefit of others.  Faith teaches me to appreciate the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death and to respect the dignity of each person, whom I know to be made in God’s image and likeness.  A living faith in Jesus enables me to respond to the ethical challenges of our world and guides my conscientious moral decision-making which is informed by the teachings of our Church.

Given this understanding, being “rooted” in Jesus Christ is, without doubt, vital to the development of our young people if they are to grow into well formed and mature people of faith, loving parents who can nurture their children in faith, mature and responsible citizens whose actions are grounded in Gospel values and whose lives of discipleship are enriched by the practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love.

So, your theme for Catholic Schools Week this year provides a powerful reminder of the responsibilities we all share - in our family homes, our parish communities and our schools - to help young people to understand the need for their lives to be rooted in Jesus Christ. 

 

The Catholic School

Of course, I am here principally to speak about Catholic schools and their mission to provide Catholic education for all who wish to avail themselves of its benefits.  My personal experience of Catholic education - as a student, a teacher, a parent and in my present role - is based entirely in Scotland.  While my experience is particular to a fairly unique form of provision, as I shall explain a bit later, I know from my reading, from school visits and from conversations across the world, that those who work in Catholic education usually talk the same language about young people, about the aims of education and about the challenges we all face today, whatever our national contexts.

For many parents and children, of course, the key objective of schooling is to ensure that intellectual capacities are developed and excellent academic qualifications are obtained so that young people can gain access to higher education and to professional careers.  An aspiration towards this kind of “excellence” is perfectly valid, of course, and is reflected in the agendas of most educational systems around the world.  And so the Church expects every Catholic school to have the highest expectations for pupil achievement and a commitment to excellence in all aspects of its provision.  But our understanding of “excellence” goes beyond academic attainment; we see excellence as a state of perfection in which, through developing fully all of our God-given talents, not only for our own benefit, but in the service of others, we can reach our eternal destiny and “abide in love” with God.

 

The Gospel imperative

In various documents over the years, the Church has articulated its expectation that the Catholic school should be guided in all it does by the Gospel which determines a philosophy of education which is “attentive to the needs of today’s youth and illuminated by the Gospel message” (The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 1988). 

The vision and philosophy of the Catholic school, as one of your own documents states, should be based on the truth revealed in Jesus about ourselves, our life together in community and our ultimate destiny in God.

Our belief in the Gospel message that God was incarnate in Jesus so that we may have “life to the full” determines the need for the Catholic school to address itself to the holistic formation of the whole person and all his or her talents and capacities: intellectual, physical, emotional, moral and spiritual:

The person of each individual human being, in his or her material and spiritual needs, is at the heart of Christ’s teaching: this is why the promotion of the human person is the goal of the Catholic school. (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1998)

Our belief in the innate dignity and worth of each individual, made in the image and likeness of God, shapes how Catholic schools promote respectful, caring and supportive relationships in communities which are welcoming and inclusive.  It underpins school approaches towards pastoral care, behaviour policies, anti-bullying strategies, support for learning and relationships education.

Our obedience to the commandment to “love your neighbour” requires our schools to help children and young people to commit their energies to working for a more just and caring society, both in their local communities and further afield.  The historical commitment of Catholic schools towards supporting the developing world has been hugely influential in contributing to the global citizenship agenda now being addressed by schools throughout the UK.

Catholic schools understand that our Catholic faith is not merely something to be “learned about” but something which should be “professed, celebrated, prayed and lived” across all areas of our lives - in the values we proclaim, in the relationships we nurture and in the commitments we promote.  This is what is encompassed in the much-trumpeted “Catholic ethos” of our schools.  It is only when the life of faith is the driving force behind every activity in the school that young people may discover the joy of entering in to Christ’s being for others.  In this way, Catholic schools help young people “gradually learn to open themselves up to life as it is and to create in themselves a definite attitude to life as it should be.” (The Catholic School, 1977)

Such learning happens across the life of the Catholic school, across the range of experiences and outcomes which are offered, and through their inter-connectedness - the ways in which the whole curriculum is underpinned by a Christian understanding of human life, human relationships and human destiny.  As the Holy Father recently said to Catholic school pupils in the UK, “All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship.”  

In recent times, Pope Benedict XVI has often commented on the nature and identity of Catholic education in the modern world. He has characterised the Catholic school as “first and foremost . . . a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (speaking to Catholic Educators, Washington DC, 17 April 2008)

The challenge for the Catholic school is to structure such experiences of encounter with Jesus, not only in religious education programmes but in the focus on the social, moral, ethical and philosophical issues studied in science, social subjects and literary and media studies.  Not only in the school’s liturgical celebrations and provision for spiritual development, but in the nurturing of caring and compassionate relationships within the school community and the cultivation of outward-looking service and servant leadership.

 

The Pope’s UK Visit

My references to the words of Pope Benedict XVI are not haphazard.  I do often refer to his comments on education because I think that they are very instructive.  But it is particularly appropriate that I do so now, given the proximity of his wonderful visit to Scotland and England in September.  This was truly historic in very many ways - the first State visit of a Pope to Scotland, being met by the Queen in the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, joyous scenes in Edinburgh and Glasgow, lengthy applause in Westminster Hall following his very significant address to British society, the Beatification Cardinal Newman.  I could speak at length about the significance of each of these events.  Indeed, I believe that many of his words deserve to be re-visited if their full significance is to be realised.  But for now I wish to focus on some of the most significant things he said about education and faith - words he spoke to young people and to teachers - words which I hope will resonate with you.

I am delighted to say that he commended Scotland’s Catholic schools for their success in helping young people “not only along the path of spiritual and human growth, but also in entering the professions and public life”.  Encouragingly, he described them “as a sign of great hope for the Church”.  I hope that you can take comfort from those words, as we did.

He dismissed a purely utilitarian view of education, stressing that education is about “imparting wisdom” and that true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of God, something which was understood by those who provided education in the earliest monastic communities in our lands. 

He expressed deep appreciation to teachers who devoted their lives to the “noble task” of teaching the young: “You form new generations not only in knowledge of the faith but in every aspect of what it means to live as mature and responsible citizens in today’s world.”  These words reminded us that this responsibility - to form new generations, to shape lives, to nurture growth towards holiness - is indeed great.  But it is a sacred duty, one commissioned by the Lord who honours us in his calling, in granting us this vocation of being called to teach.

As well as praising teachers, he encouraged them and other Catholic professionals and politicians to use their talents and experience in the service of the faith, to be examples of faith in public, and to engage with contemporary culture at every level and he urged them not to be afraid to promote faith in the public forum:

“Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility”.

This was, perhaps, the central theme of his message to wider society in the UK and beyond - that the religious voice needs to be heard in the public square.  It can offer wisdom and experience which are rooted in the truth about humanity and can guide human actions to ensure that we are not blown about by the winds of relativism.

But the Holy Father’s central message to the Catholic community, I believe, and one which he repeated at various times throughout his visit, was encapsulated in his references to Cardinal John Henry Newman whose Beatification he had come to declare.  Newman reminded us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, “we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest aspirations.”

The Holy Father acknowledged the personal sacrifice required of each of us if we are to accept the truth of Christ and commit our lives to him.  But surely, he told us, if we are passionate about this truth, we must live our lives according to it.  “The truth that sets us free cannot be kept to ourselves; it calls for testimony, it begs to be heard. . .”

As Catholics then, our lives, our daily actions must match our rhetoric of faith, for “Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness . . .”

Of course, he acknowledged that, where the sacrifice required of Christians in former centuries was martyrdom, today the price to be paid is more likely to be that we become the victims of ridicule, parody, suspicion or outright hostility.

Perhaps some of you who work in Catholic schools or support the provision of Catholic education have had such experiences.  Perhaps you have been falsely accused of promoting an ideology which is exclusive and hostile to certain groups or individuals.  Perhaps you have come under significant pressure to conform your views and your practices to some orthodoxy which claims to safeguard important freedoms - such as equality - but is really intent on limiting freedom by imposing uniformity. 

Perhaps you have been the one who has had to stand up and speak out about some aspect of educational policy which ignores and even marginalises the beliefs of people of faith.  In all such cases, the personal or professional cost might be high, but we have to be prepared to pay it.  We must articulate our beliefs; we must remain true to our mission; we must work for the Kingdom of God.  We do so when we allow the light of faith to shine in our hearts, sustained through prayer and the sacraments of the Church.  And thus we become light for others, helping them to find their way in a world which can be dark and confusing.  And when the light of Christ shines through our lives, Christ assures us, it will be seen by others who will praise our Father in heaven.

Pope Benedict XVI sees such commitment as being vital to the success of the Catholic school.  A school’s “Catholic ethos”, he said, is not merely the consequence of its teaching being in conformity with Church doctrine.  For a school to be Catholic, he made clear, “the life of faith needs to be the driving force behind every activity in the school, so that . . . young people may discover the joy of entering into Christ’s being for others.” 

Before I complete my remarks about the Papal Visit, I must refer to those words which struck me as being among most significant of all.   These were the words he used when speaking to children and young people. At the Mass in Glasgow, he urged young people to “learn of your own dignity as children of God” and he urged them to search for, know and love Jesus who would free them from “slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society”.   

At the Big Assembly in St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, he eagerly took the opportunity to speak directly to those present and to those watching via the Internet: “There is something I very much want to say to you.”  Speaking very lovingly to them, like any good head teacher, he expressed his hopes for their lives and urged them to follow God’s wish that they should grow in holiness:

“What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.”

He asked them not to settle for second best in their lives and warned that happiness is not to be found in money, career, success or relationships, but in God.  He proceed to teach them about how they could become holy  -  by growing in friendship with Jesus.  You know what it feels like, he said, when you meet someone with whom you want to become friends - you come to admire their particular qualities and you begin to behave like them.  It’s like this when you become a friend of Jesus - you are attracted to the practice of virtue:

“You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.”

And finally, outside Westminster Cathedral in London, when he spoke to young people from across the Dioceses of England, Wales and Scotland, he was at his most disarming, I think, when he spoke from his heart:  “Think of all the love that your heart was made to receive, and all the love it is meant to give.  After all, we were made for love.”   He explained that we were made to receive the love of families, friends, teachers and we were made to give love, to make it “the most enduring thing in our lives” - a choice we make each day.  And the source of all that love - Jesus - can be found in the silence of our hearts.  When he urged them to set aside time for moments of silent prayer each day, I was struck by the thought that some of our schools could, perhaps, do more to help young people to acquire the discipline of “real prayer”.  At the various Masses and liturgical celebrations during the visit, it was remarkable how these large congregations were stilled for long periods of silent prayer and reflection.

Catholic Education Week in Scotland

Given all that I have said about the Pope’s visit, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that the theme we have chosen for this year’s Catholic Education Week in Scotland is inspired by the words of the Holy Father:  “Grow in holiness; become saints of the 21st century”.  The materials which we have produced to support schools, parishes and families in their time of reflection and celebration are intended to support exploration of what these words can mean for the lives of our children and young people.

This is one strand of our strategy to sustain something of a legacy from the Pope’s visit.  We are keen not only to record memories of the various events but to plan for how the Pope’s various messages can continue to be explored by young people at different stages in education.  I believe that the Holy Father has provided us with various tasks, challenges and targets - an action plan, if you like - which will enable us to build on our efforts to develop schools which will provide Catholic education for the 21st century.

Catholic Schools in Scotland

You will know that, in Scotland, Catholic schools have historically experienced some hostility from some quarters.  We have been accused of sustaining separation and division among children and even of encouraging sectarianism.  All such allegations are entirely unsupported by any evidence; indeed they are made despite clear evidence to the contrary.  For the record of Catholic schools is excellent.  Statistics demonstrate how they add significant value to the educational provision in Scotland, how they have built social capital.  Historically we have worked against the odds, with the most deprived communities, to overcome barriers to learning and enhance opportunities for social mobility.  We have met the challenges of raising attainment and promoting wider achievement.   Research and reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectors have consistently demonstrated the quality of our pastoral care, the satisfaction rates of our customers - pupils and parents.

While the Catholic community makes up about 15% of Scotland’s population, Catholic schools educate about 20% of the school population.  Our schools are all non-selective and comprehensive in their intake.  Many non-Catholic parents choose Catholic schools because they admire our work and wish their children to benefit from what we offer.  At a time when the traditional governing structures of state education are coming under pressure, it is becomingly increasingly obvious that Catholic schools are confident in the coherent vision which they embody, in the distinctive philosophy and values which they articulate and in their sense of community which shines out for all to see.  The Catholic Church in Scotland has sustained faith schools, in partnership with Government, when other denominations have allowed their schools to wither.  That fact, itself, is a source of complaint from some quarters who accuse us of enjoying an unfair privilege.  And yet, I meet many Christians and people of other faiths who say to me: “Catholic schools are a force for good; you must sustain them.”

Unusually, Catholics schools in Scotland are fully managed and governed, not by the Church, but by local education authorities.  Since 1918 when we agreed to transfer our schools over to the State, the Church has retained statutory rights over teaching appointments and the religious education.  Beyond these two areas, we have to try to exert influence on national and local education policy, through discussion with politicians and officials.  This process is time-consuming and is subject to the vagaries of political fashion and expediency. 

We have also made a considerable effort to define our vision for the distinctive education provision we offer, supporting teachers through in-service training and resources which build their confidence in understanding and expressing what we are about.  So, building on the Charter for Catholic Schools which defines the 10 key characteristics of the Catholic school, we have recently developed the resource Shining the Light of Christ in the Catholic school which is a tool to support schools in the systematic evaluation of their faith mission. 

Yet, while never being complacent, we are confident that no Scottish political party with serious designs on high office would try to abolish Catholic schools.  Before the current Scottish Government was elected, the Greens publicly declared their opposition to Catholic schools.  After the election (in which they lost 5 of their 7 parliamentary seats) they formed a loose coalition with the Scottish National Party so that a Government could be formed.  But we were given an absolute assurance that the new Government would be fully supportive of Catholic schools.  I have to acknowledge that they have been faithful to that promise.

This was most famously demonstrated in 1998 when we invited First Minster Alex Salmond to deliver the Cardinal Winning Education Lecture to mark the start of Catholic Education Week that year.  The First Minster’s unambiguous message of support for Catholic schools - in “celebration of their work” - reverberated across Scotland and across parts of Europe also.  He made clear that Scotland owed its identity and survival as a nation to the Catholic Church.  He spoke at length of his admiration for the contribution made by Catholic schools to the welfare of Scottish society, highlighting how they endow our children with:

  • a strong moral foundation
  • a positive and distinctive identity
  • a keen sense of personal responsibility and the common good
  • a strong commitment to charity
  • and a belief in the basic principle that each of us can and should make a positive contribution to our world.

He also celebrated how Catholic schools “retain a central role in shaping a modern, compassionate and just nation”.

The First Minister drew his lecture to a close by saying: 

"I am proud to support Catholic education in Scotland. . . . The point is not merely that Catholic schools get good results. They do, of course, and that is vital.  What also matters is that children in Catholic schools gain a wider sense of responsibility and identity - and a desire to help improve the community in which they live."

"Today I am proud to join with you in celebrating the particular contribution of Catholic schools to our society.  I use the word 'celebrate' quite deliberately.  For far too long the attitude of some has been at best, grudging acceptance of Catholic education, and at worst, outright hostility."

"My contention . . . is that it is time to celebrate diversity and distinctiveness. And to openly welcome the contribution that faith based education can make to Scottish education."

 

I hope and pray that, in your coming Catholic Schools Week, and in years to come, a similar generous spirit of celebration will prevail.


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