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Vol 41 No 1

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James Quillinan

Neil Darragh

Helen McCabe
THE FAMILY IN AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role

Francine and Byron Pirola
MARRIAGE IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH: He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1

Brian Lewis

Marie Farrell RSM

Desmond O'Donnell OMI




What lies ahead for the Catholic school?


IN A RECENT interview, Pope Benedict urged Catholics:

…to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him…and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morale becomes sterile and loses its point of reference, to give joy as well because we are not alone in this world (Benedict XVI, 2006).

The Catholic school is one of the chief means the Australian Church uses to witness in this way. Like other Church institutions, however, Catholic schools are facing new challenges, arguably as important and as far reaching as those facing our schools in the late 1860s. Once again, the Church is being called on to articulate its vision for Catholic schools. Achieving some shared understanding of the challenges let alone attaining such a shared vision will not be easy.

In Australia, many families are finding the cost of enrolling their children in Catholic schools to be prohibitive. At the same time there is an increase in the enrolment of students who are not Catholic. There is a growing question for Catholic schools as to how best to engage other religious traditions while being authentic to proclaiming the Catholic tradition. There is a decline in religious commitment as we have traditionally understood that to be, particularly it would seem, in parish adherence. There are fewer clergy and religious. There is certainly a loss of autonomy, and government funding is increasingly being tied to specified outcomes, some of which challenge our tradition practice and, I suggest, our beliefs and values. The recent Plain English Reporting requirements are certainly a case in point. There is a problem, shared with all schools across the nation, in recruiting and appropriately training new teachers equipped to teach in a Catholic school. Teaching itself has become much more stressful and fewer people are putting their hands up for senior leadership positions. The ongoing challenges of adequate financial resources are becoming more acute.

Yet our Catholic schools are not in crisis—facing new challenges, certainly, but not in crisis. By far the toughest challenge is discovering and articulating an ‘operative educational philosophy’ (Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) 1988, par. 22) which addresses the expectations of today’s church and indeed, for the world in which we live. Catholic schools are not immune from the societal effects of ‘the growing marginalization of the Christian faith as a reference point and a source of light’ (CCE 1997, par. 1). Articulating the vision is perhaps the most challenging work for schools. On the one hand they suffer from criticism and entrenched opposition from those who appear firmly fixed on the belief that Catholic schools still operate in a predominantly Christian society and that they still exist in a milieu where there is an operative Catholic culture as a clear point of reference. At the other end of the spectrum some others who choose the Catholic school appear to be ‘indifferent and non-practicing, with a profound apathy where ethical and religious formation is concerned’ (CCE 1997, par. 6).

The massive movement of peoples across the world, particularly since the Second World War has increased the number and nature of multi-cultural societies. This movement of peoples has certainly enriched Australia but has brought with it new challenges. New cultures and new peoples have also brought different religious beliefs and traditions. Prosperity has also brought with it the rise of what is called ‘secularism’ and even indifference to religious truth and values. We now live in a ‘pluralist’ society. Thus the Churches represent but one feature of this pluralistic society, and in fact, compete with different religious and political viewpoints. Quite a diverse array lifestyles and attitudes co-exist and compete with each other.

Thus the current context for the Catholic school is one of an increasing divergence between Christianity and modern culture. The reality of a predominantly ‘Christian’ culture is disappearing. In addition, the culture in which students coming to Catholic schools operate is one of ‘pluralism’ where elements of a multiplicity of belief systems are evident. Students are familiar with Islamic, Buddhist beliefs and cultures etc. Many of their parents acknowledge what has become known as ‘something-ism’ (I believe in ‘something’ but I’m not sure what it is). For many students, the Christian story is now merged with other narratives. In addition, the Catholic school today is also subject to the influences of the major challenges of secularization, postmodernism, religious pluralism, globalization, multi-culturalism, inculturation, reconciliation and inter-religious dialogue.

In this environment, Catholic schools endeavour to promote particular views of the nature and purpose of the human person, of knowledge itself, and of the vision of the reign of God for our world. They endeavour to enable students to meet Jesus Christ and to enter into a relationship with God. They are called to present Christ ‘in a way well adapted to the younger generation and the rapidly changing culture in which they live’ (John Paul II 2001, no. 14).

In order to do this effectively, Catholic schools and their communities need to firstly understand and appreciate the major developments in the Church’s understanding of her mission today and her relationships to these social realities. In turn, Catholic schools should articulate their own mission within that context.

Since Vatican II the Church’s understanding of herself in terms of her nature, mission and relationship with the world have undergone a fundamental change. The difference centres around the perception of the relationship between the reign of God and the church. In the pre-Vatican II theology of mission the church was equated with the kingdom, and hence mission was very much concerned with bringing people into the church. This understanding of mission was reflected in the purpose of the school which could be summarised as:

• Saving immortal souls;
• Teaching knowledge and understanding;
• Increasing sacramental participation;
• Building up the Church by promoting the Kingdom of God.

Today, however, there is a new sense of mission. Mission is understood first and foremost as the work of the Holy Spirit calling forth all of creation. As the late Pope John Paul II wrote:

The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions. Indeed, the Spirit is at the origin of the noble ideals and undertakings which benefit humanity on its journey through history (John Paul II 1991, no. 28).

Mission is no longer regarded as the work of the Church alone. It is no longer regarded as being exercised and directed solely through the powers and structures of the Church. In the words of Pope John Paul: ‘The Spirit is mysteriously present in the heart of every person, Christian or otherwise’ (Address to the Roman Curia 24.1.2002).

The decree of the Church in the Modern World and more recently and perhaps more cogently, Pope Paul VI’s ‘On Evangelization In The Modern World’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi, Rome 1975) calls us as the community of believers in Jesus the Christ to be Good News in the world today and for our world today. But to whom and for what? If the mission of the Church and its agencies is not for ‘saving souls’ or building up the church then what is it? What should the Catholic school do?

Theologian Peter Phan argues that prior to Vatican II, the theology of mission within the Church was characterised by four priorities, namely: Church, proclamation, mission and the reign of God (Phan n.d.: ‘Proclamation of the Reign of God as the Mission of the Church: What for, to Whom. By Whom,With Whom, and How?’). The Mission in that era was the product of an institutional model of Church, regarding itself as unique, somewhat exclusive and superior to other churches—certainly definitive, normative and absolute (‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’). The Second Vatican Council and subsequent Church documents have described the Church using very different images and have described its role as being called to live out and proclaim God’s reign. Other Christian traditions have also expanded on this understanding of mission and reign in more depth. This change in orientation saw a theology of mission emerge that, according to Phan now names the same priorities but in a different order and with differing emphases. The order is now the reign of God, mission, proclamation and Church. Such a view seems to be in accord with John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, no.13 in which the pope states that the proclamation and establishment of God’s kingdom are the purposes of Jesus’ mission. So how should Catholic schools respond?

The following questions posed by Phan provide a good framework for Catholic schools to consider and articulate a vision which addresses their circumstances and the current theology of the Church. 

· For what is their mission? If the Catholic school has an ecclesial identity, it should reflect the priorities that the Church articulates as her own mission. Today that is articulated as bearing witness to the reign of God made known in Jesus. It is true that Catholic schools exist to ‘build up the Church’ as it were, but they are to do more than that. If we accept that the mission of the Church is to proclaim God’s reign, it is important to recognise that we proclaim in word and in action. This includes providing a living experience of the reign of God as well as proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Within such a pluralistic world, according to Cardinal Kasper (Kasper 2003, p.19), the role of the Church can best be described as ‘diaconal and dialogical’. Firstly, diaconal does not mean adopting a merely pastoral and therapeutic approach.

The church can never merely be a social emergency organisation. Its priority pastoral task is witnessing and proclaiming the truth. This as true service: no other institution can offer the truth of love, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of mercy which is the most intrinsic message of the Gospel. The Church is called to a specific service to humanity. Especially in our troubled times this message of absolute love and mercy is needed. (Kasper, op. cit. p. 19)

Catholic schools, along with other Church agencies want to teach and give witness to what we believe is the truth. The way to do that today is by dialogue. The way that we promote or provoke that dialogue is by service—not simply providing good pastoral care, but such service that provokes basic questions such as these:

Why are they like this?
Why do they live in this way?
What or who is it that inspires them?
Why are they in our midst? (Paul VI 1975, no. 21)

The aim of every Catholic school is to enable others to meet Jesus Christ by, among other things, imitating the way Jesus bore witness to the truth—he came like a servant, he did not come to rule but to give his life for many. Our credibility in this pluralistic world comes in the way that, like Jesus, we are of service. Jesus was compassion itself but he challenged, he questioned, he criticized, he offered a vision of hope, he offered a vision and an experience of what God’s reign might look like. Catholic schools are called to do likewise.

In being of such service, Catholic schools are called to proclaim the Good News by creating a community experience, an experience of the reign of God. Christian faith, in fact, is born and grows inside community (cf. CCE 1988, par. 53).

Faith grows only in a community—it is where we get our meaning in life, it is where we endeavour to enable our students to experience the reality and challenges of the reign of God. Such a community is where our students come to know that God loves them because they experience that love in the community of the school. It is where students experience the justice of God because they are treated fairly and with compassion. It is where they come to know that they have a God-given mission in life because they have been able to discover their uniqueness, because their talents and abilities have been affirmed and enhanced. It is where they can test out their values and beliefs—give them a trial—and where we can experience and get meaning from the beliefs and living values of that community.
This genuine community of faith seeks to address questions such as the following:

• Do we seek to celebrate life as a gift from God and do we rejoice in the gifts of the Spirit in each person?
• Do we believe that God is present in our working and praying and being together?
• Is there a tangible belief that each person is capable of great things, of reaching the full potential with which God has endowed them?
• Is there teamwork and collaboration among all those involved (parents, students, teachers, administrators, clergy)?
• Do I feel welcome here? Do I feel safe? Is my own search for meaning in life recognized, affirmed, supported?
• What opportunities do I have to learn, to share, to celebrate, to seek greater understanding?
• Do parents feel that they are welcome here, that they are valued as the first educators of their children?
• Do our students have input into what sort of community we are trying to create here?
• Does this educating community share a common vision about the sort of community we want our school to be, the sort of community experience we want our students to have?
• Is our school essentially characterised by an underlying belief in the goodness of each person, in the potential of each person who is deeply loved by God?
• Is there a basic optimism about those we teach and about what we are teaching them?
• Is there a passionate belief that each person is capable of reconciliation, that no student is ‘beyond redemption’?

To Whom?  
The Catholic School participates in the evangelising mission of the Church (CCE 1997, par. 11). In addition, ‘a distinguishing feature of Catholic education is that it is open to all, especially to the poor and weakest in society (John Paul II 2001, no. 33). That distinguishing feature poses challenges in regard to enrolments, policies and practices, whom we welcome into our communities and how we respond. For the Catholic school to be such an agent of evangelization, it needs to be comfortable with a generous, open and inclusive enrolment policy. It is true that Catholic schools are called to teach a specifically Catholic theology, a specifically Catholic way of looking at humans, human destiny and dignity, but the mission of the Church has always been and remains to enable all people to meet Jesus Christ. Mission is outward looking—it is not for Christians only, it is not only about saving souls or building up the church, but it is also about the transformation of society, it is also about recognising where the Spirit may be working in other people, in other faith traditions, in other ways in our world. Cardinal Kasper, for example, advocates an approach in which the Church is seen to embrace and defend plurality, but also seeks to be in solidarity with all those who search for truth. The Church today is, in his view, provided with an opportunity to:

…radically realize her fundamental nature as a community of believers in a more original, and authentic way—to become a sign for the world. (Kasper 2003, p.39.)

With Whom?
Proclaiming the Good News, promoting the reign of God is the duty of all Christians. The scandal of Christian disunity, whether that be among the various faith traditions or even within a particular faith tradition, is at its most poignant in this area. All Christians are called to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him, to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ. Christian unity requires all Christians to work together to give common witness to the Good News. Such working together is also important in Catholic schools—it is imperative that Catholic school communities work to achieve some understanding of the history of each Christian tradition, the various points of contact and division and provide opportunities to work together to proclaim and promote the Reign of God.

By Whom?
In the words of Pope John Paul II, the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of mission. The Holy Spirit is said ‘to direct the mission of the church,’ to make ‘the whole church missionary,’ and to be ‘present and active in every time and place’ (John Paul II 1991, no. 28).

If Catholic schools as agents of the Church are to respond appropriately, then Christian mission has to find a new priority. Mission and evangelisation can no longer be regarded as it once was: a one-way proclamation of a message of salvation to a ‘pagan world’. Rather, mission first of all is ‘a search for and recognition of the presence and activities of the Holy Spirit among the peoples to be evangelized, and in this humble and attentive process of listening, the evangelizers become the evangelized, and the evangelized become the evangelizers’ (Phan, loc. cit. p. 8). Once again, such an understanding challenges traditional practices in our schools.

It is perhaps in this area that we are confronted with a fundamental shift in approach. The Church has been consistent over many years in its call to dialogue. Pope John Paul issued the challenge to all Christians to enter firstly into dialogue with Jesus and then to embrace the world dialogically as his followers’ (John Paul II 1991, no. 10). He was echoing the words of his predecessor Pope Paul VI:

Dialogue calls us, like God, to take the initiative, to be inspired by love, to set no limits, to apply no coercive pressure, to reach out to all, to be accessible to all, to be persevering and ready to seize the appropriate moment. (Paul VI 1964, no.71)

Pope John Paul II argued that given the complexity of our world ‘the method of dialogue is becoming the way to bring the Lord’s comforting message of salvation everywhere’. Cardinal Kasper further elaborated:

The attitude of the Church today is to be one of dialogue. As human beings we do not only carry on dialogue, we are dialogue, we are by nature dialogical beings. This is even more true for our Christian existence, for biblical Revelation is God’s dialogue with human beings (Kasper, op. cit. p5).

For Catholic schools the personal relationships between student and teacher ‘assume an enormous responsibility and are not limited to giving and taking’ (CCE 1997, par.19) but ‘a personal relationship is always a dialogue rather than a monologue, and the teacher must be convinced that the enrichment in the relationship is mutual’ (CCE 1982, par. 38).

So what is meant by dialogue? Firstly it is a recognition and a living acknowledgement of the presence and activities of the Holy Spirit in every time and place. Purnell (1985, p 15) expresses it well when he writes:

I believe that God is present in the whole of creation; deep down in every human being God is there not simply keeping each one in existence but lovingly at work helping each reach that fullness of being which is God’s destiny for her/him. When, there, I venture to share my faith with another, I have to realize that God is already present in the other in ways, perhaps, which may be foreign to my own understanding of God. I came then to realize that faith-sharing required first of all discernment, a sensitivity to the divine.
My task was not to give God to anybody but to help people discover God within themselves as the life-giving and love-giving source of their existence.

Secondly, dialogue is between people who are on a genuine search for truth. Being in dialogue does not mean that we are indifferent—neither is the person we dialogue with. In the words of Cardinal Kasper, two indistinct fogbanks cannot have an encounter, they become blurred in each other. (Kasper, p.17).

In our search for truth students in Catholic schools need to be engaged in a challenging and relevant study of Religious Education. In addition, however, Phan refers to four activities associated with genuine dialogue which were originally outlined by the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue (1991, no.42; Phan, op. cit. p.9).

Firstly, there is the dialogue of life which involves the sharing of joys and sorrows. The search for truth and meaning cannot be disassociated from the realities of life—a purely academic study of religion serves a limited purpose. The challenge to make God visible in the human face of Jesus calls those engaged in dialogue to actively look for the signs of God’s presence, so that, like Jesus we can enable people to recognize ‘God’s amazing plans and to be amazed by God’s activity’ (John Paul II 1991, no. 48). It draws its inspiration from how repeatedly in the gospels we see Jesus opening the conversation with a request or a question (Jn 4:7, Mk 8:23). It also draws on the Church’s continuing call for us to be able to read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel - that is the signs of God’s active presence and purpose in the world.

Secondly, the dialogue of action which calls on us to collaborate in furthering liberation and human development. Being ‘diaconal’, or of service, is also about enabling our students to come to know their dignity as human beings, their eternal value, their mission. Service also means that we are at the service of the society in which we live. That is a profound challenge!

Spiritual leadership has something to do with critiquing the present, envisioning a better future and asking the right questions as we go (Chittister 2001). We are not simply preparing our students to be able to function in this world—the gospel calls on us to enable our students to critique this world and to proclaim a better way!

Thirdly, there is the dialogue of theological exchange which seeks a deeper understanding of the religious heritages of others and a better appreciation of their spiritual values. It is imperative in such a pluralistic environment to develop some understanding and appreciation of others’ beliefs and practices. Cardinal Kasper urges a relationship with other religions in which Christianity acknowledges and respects their giftedness, prophetically criticizes, and invites to encounter with Jesus Christ. (Kasper, op. cit. p. 12). John Paul lists the following qualities as ‘authentic’ in dialogue:

• listening to one another,
• respect,
• refraining from hasty judgements, and
• the ability to avoid subordinating the faith which unites to the opinions, fashions and ideological choices which divide (John Paul II 1984, nos. 25.4; 25.8).

Finally, dialogue of religious experience or the sharing of spiritual riches through common prayer and other religious practices is another source of dialogue and encounter (Phan, loc. cit. par. 8). Genuine faith communities have prayer and worship at their core. Being in awe and wonder of the Creator and the created is at the heart of our faith. Obviously such dialogue can facilitate a clearer understanding and appreciation of each other’s beliefs and traditions but it can also enable a much greater understanding of who I am and what I believe and value. Common worship and prayer is perhaps the deepest form of dialogue if it emerges from profound respect for each other and it is indeed a very potent means of witnessing to God in a world that has problems finding Him, giving joy as well because we are not alone in this world (Benedict XVI 9.09.2006).

Catholic schools find themselves in a new situation. They not only exist in such a pluralistic world but are called on to discern the signs of the times in this new environment and engage with all its positive influences. And there are many. But the great challenge for the Catholic school today is to present the Christian message in an appropriate and convincing way. But Catholic schools are agencies of the local church. Catholic schools cannot be left on their own—local churches wherever they may be are called and challenged in the same way. They too are called to answer the Church’s challenge to develop ways to become ‘an effective instrument of Jesus Christ who now wants to meet the people of Oceania in new ways’ (Ecclesia in Oceania, no. 4). But in discovering these new ways there are also hopes and possibilities. The Church’s mission is to proclaim Jesus as the Living Truth—to do that effectively Catholic schools need to engage with today’s world, to discover the ways in which God is already present, to engage with the Spirit who inspires the hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike. Articulating a vision is never easy, particularly where differing beliefs, values and priorities are involved. If Catholic schools are to witness to the human face of Christ, the starting point is to discover in our culture what we share—our common ground—and to enter into dialogue to discover what is and what is not of Christ.

Jim Quillinan works in the area of spirituality and faith formation. He has given seminars on Catholic identity in various states of Australia and overseas.

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Congregation for Catholic Education (1997), Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millenium.
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Paul VI, (1975), Evangelii Nuntiandi.
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