Our Lens into Catholic Education

I would like to talk about mission, our charism and some ideas on our Charter; our particular lens into Catholic education.

I would like to talk about mission, our charism and some ideas on our Charter; our particular lens into Catholic education.

I would firstly like to acknowledge the people of the developing world from whom I have learned that authenticity in Catholic schooling has little to do with the numbers of Catholics enrolled or the standard of buildings and facilities; but rather on humble resolve within each community to build the Reign of God and be in solidarity with the excluded ones.

Our God is a missionary God. Mission is a movement from God to the world; we are called to collaborate in that mission. To participate in mission is to play our part in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.

So the primary purpose of mission is representing God in the world. As the Brothers in India so beautifully put it: Putting a human face on God. Our model in mission is Jesus who did this perfectly. The entire ministry of Jesus was rendering visibility, tangibility and concrete-ness to the divine love. So is ours!

Vatican 2 taught us that when considering our mission, we must read the ‘signs of the times’. And so what are some elements of our current context for this mission?

We gather today:

  • At a time when purposelessness, disconnection and loneliness abound, particularly in the lives of many of our young people. A world so connected electronically but so lacking in true and profound human relationship;
  • In a culture where meaning is packaged for many people; not the culture of the people but potentially a culture ‘concocted for the people’s consumption’. A culture where things can be valued over people, where having is valued above giving and success can sometimes be limited to how much we accumulate. A culture which is different from Christianity in one very important way: ‘Christianity teaches us to love people and use things. Our dominant culture can teach us to love things and to use people’.
  • We consider the Christian vision at a time when according to recent Census returns, 35 percent of Australians claim no religion as their position, making them the second largest religious denomination, and,
  • We consider our mission at a time when the formal practice of religion is rapidly diminishing in Australia (8% on average) and an increasing number of Australians say that they can live out their Christian vocation more fully through belonging to Rotary or another Service Club than belonging to a formal church.

We participate in mission inspired by the charism of Edmund Rice.

  • A charism is a particular lens into the Gospel story; the vision and experience of one person shedding light on the core priorities of Jesus.
  • It is an indicator of ‘true north’ in our attempts for greater authenticity in mission.

The Edmund Rice charism has inspired our Charter and Touchstones.

We proclaim Liberating education!

We accept that our young will only ever be half educated unless they acquire a sense of human dignity and worth, an appreciation of life, the capacity to question, the ability to give and receive love, the knowledge of how to use our limited time wisely, and the determination to leave the world a better place for our having been in it.

A liberating education identifies and celebrates the humanising and ennobling elements within our culture, and to offer the Gospel's alternatives to those definitions of reality that oppress and enslave the human spirit.

We aim to form young people who can critique their reality and undertake the production of meaning themselves, first by becoming questioners of the products handed to them for consumption and then by becoming co-creators of their own versions of the world.

In a world where values of justice and equity can be abandoned in favour of the value of markets, education then can become the practice of liberation. In Hindi: ‘aasha aur mukti’. Hope and liberation!

In this country most of us enjoy liberty. However, liberating education must form our young to know that liberty is not license to do whatever you want to do. It is freedom to do what you ought to do. A liberating education not only frees ‘from’, but frees ‘to and for’. Implied here are action and social responsibility.

We proclaim Gospel spirituality!

Jesus is referred to in the Gospels as the Son of Man: The Human One. This gives affirmation to the humanity that Jesus shares with every single individual. Jesus is the fulfilment of humanity’s aspirations and possibilities. Not only what Jesus was, but also what he did, point to how humans are to live a full human life with all its glory and dignity.

Jesus, who showed that it was possible to be fully human through passionate engagement in the world. It gives us great heart that despite the messiness that can abound our lives, God himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race.

In our quest to educate for full humanity and liberation, we introduce the young to Jesus: so fully alive with the life of God, so totally loving with the love of God, and through these things, revealing the very ground of being that we call God.

In Jesus we have an undistorted picture as to who God is. All those who came in contact with Jesus had a new experience of God. Jesus invited his hearers into a new relationship with God and with the neighbour dictated by compassion.

Jesus preached not a religion, nor an institution, not even himself but the Kingdom of God, a concept that is essentially about the righting of humanity. Jesus had a vision for a world that arose from his heightened insight into the loving kindness of God. Jesus had a phrase for this vision. Jesus called his vision the ‘Kingdom’ or the ‘Reign of God’.

The Reign of God that Jesus proclaimed ushered in a new world order characterised by relationships based on justice, inclusion, love and peace. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Shalom refers not so much to an absence of violence but to a ‘right order’ of things; it implies a sense of equity and fairness in our dealings with each other. There is not shalom if children go hungry; if human rights are ignored there is no shalom – there is no shalom in a world indifferent to the common good.

In doing our part in the bringing of this ‘shalom’, our education must challenge versions of the world that define success solely in terms of money, accumulation of things and over-emphasis on status and security. Our aim is to equip young people to critique our culture and its version of the good, the well lived, the important and the meaningful life. How well we do these things should become our guide to authenticity, our measure of success.

We proclaim Inclusion and an Option for the Marginalised!

Returning to Latin America after Vatican 2, theologians Juan Luis Segundo and Gustavo Gutierrez did not find that their traditional European theological education addressed the needs of Latin America. European theology of the time was preoccupied with the question of unbelief. This was a reasonable concern – given all the problems of post-War Europe, particularly reflection on the Holocaust. The key question for theology in this context became: How can we believe in God anymore In the light of this horror?

For Gutierrez, however, in Latin America the problem was not ‘unbelief’ but the issue of the non-person, the poor or insignificant person, those who suffered because of their defence of the poor. The problem was one of injustice, poverty and lack of dignity. The key questions for theology in this context became: Where is God in the reality of these people? And how do we tell these people that God loves them and that the Gospel is good news?

A new way of doing theology would emerge. Liberation theology addressed particular needs and concerns of a people through the lens of the Gospel. That which was dehumanising or contradictory to the values of the Reign of God was named and critiqued.

The term ‘preferential option for the poor’ is commonly used these days in mission statements and the like. Where did it come from?

In Spanish, the verb ‘optar’ implies making a significant decision according to one’s deepest values and priorities. The use of this verb was deliberate and implies much more than a simple choice between alternatives, it denotes one’s stance in life.

When Liberation Theologians used the term ‘preferential option for the poor’, they were inferring that God makes a decision to stand with and for the poor. God loves the poor. He loves them preferentially but not exclusively. ‘The last will be the first and the first will be last’. The rich will be there but they will be last. The preference is not because the poor are good, but because God is good. As Gutierrez says: ‘God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation is contrary to God’s will.’

For the liberation theologians, without the poor there is no salvation, without the poor there is no Church, without the poor there is no Gospel.

Jesus was the great includer! He touched the untouchables; he stood against systemic injustice, more so of the religious institutions. He showed that God was not pleased by the blind following of laws of rituals and ritual purity, but by entering into the lives of the victims of these laws, whom he characterised as the little ones: the blind, the lame, the leprosy affected, the elderly, those who knew nothing of the law, the poor, those who mourn, hunger, the persecuted, widows... the list of those included by Jesus goes on.

The scandal of Jesus’ ministry was that he didn’t hand out food; he sat down at the table with them. He invited them to the table.

As followers of Jesus we should never give to the poor from our excess. Our commitment must be to ‘centre’ the poor, make our response to their plight the core of our mission. Our authenticity will also be measured by who we invite to the table.

This vision for inclusion was articulated by Br Ambrose Treacy our forebear in Catholic education in the ER tradition in 1882:

The school is open to all who wish to avail themselves of it and its values without distinction of creed, colour or nationality. No child can be refused admission on the score of religion, social standing or of capacity to pay.

The Charter for Edmund Rice Education and the foundations upon which we stand clearly direct us to the ‘margins’, to the poor, the disadvantaged, to those who lack hope and must be included.

To say that we believe that God loves the poor and wills their deliverance but do nothing ourselves to be in solidarity with the poor, to hear their pleas, to lift their burdens, and to advocate for them, is an empty faith indeed.

Christians don’t have a monopoly on this imperative. Just recently I read: “He is not a Muslim who goes to bed satiated while his neighbour goes hungry”. (The Prophet Mohammed)

Pope Francis speaks very strongly on the topic of inclusive education. At the Global Congress on Catholic education in 2015, he proposed that:

Education has become too selective and elitist. It seems that only those people or persons who are at a certain level or have a certain capacity have the right to an education. This is shameful. It is a reality which takes us in a direction of human selectivity. Instead of bridging the gap between people, it widens it. It creates a barrier between poor and rich. The greatest failure for an education is to educate within the walls: the walls of selective culture, the walls of a culture of security, the walls of a social class. We cannot go on like this with a selective type of education. No one should be denied. We must leave the places where we are as educators and go to the outskirts, to the poor…

There is a temptation in our Western Church to spiritualise poverty; that is, to speak solely of the ‘spiritually’ poor, which would probably include most of us in some way or another. It is clear that Catholic education has a mission to those in our society who suffer cultural oppression, have lost direction spiritually or who are searching for meaning in the context of a society dominated by rampant consumerism and secular ‘Gods’ and ‘idols’.

However, these definitions of poverty cannot be used to ‘let us off the hook’ when it comes to our Gospel imperative to serve the materially poor; to those who are most marginalised and whose dignity as human beings is affronted by marginalisation and lack of opportunity and choice. As former Congregation Leader of the Christian Brothers Philip Pinto says, these are the people who suffer all forms of poverty!

Edmund Rice Education is a work of and for our Church; a Church that our new Pope describes as a ‘Church of the poor’:

  •  A generous and inclusive Church that shows deep love for the poor and marginalised;
  • A Church that strives to usher in the Reign of God: the promise of fullness of life and true freedom for all in our troubled world;
  • A Church that proclaims inclusion to be at the heart of the Gospel and exclusion in its many forms, its greatest betrayal;
  • A Church focussed on getting the Kingdom of God and its message of justice and truth into the world, rather than people into its ranks;
  • A Church not so worried about how the world might change it but rather, how it might strive to change the world; and,
  • A Church that strives ceaselessly to tell the poor and excluded that God loves them and that the Gospel is good news for them as well.

Conclusion: It could be suggested that it is easier for Catholic education in India or the developing world to embrace these ideals of the Reign of God and an option for the poor, as poverty is all around. However, as Mother Teresa once said that ‘Calcutta can be seen all around the world if only we have eyes to see.’ Perhaps not just the eyes to see, but the openness, the desire and the intention as well!

Catholic education in the Edmund Rice tradition, through words, deeds and witness, is called make bold claims about the way in which human beings should engage in our world. We must speak for the voiceless and those who are excluded. Bold statements must also be made about the future of our world, about justice, about the way in which we are expected to relate to one another, about the dignity of every human life.

We must be prepared to lead our young down new paths, since many of the old have become unhelpful, even toxic. We need to teach them to question and critique our world, not simply inhabit it. We must teach them not just to teach how to earn a living, but also how to live full lives with meaning and purpose.

It's not the answers we teach them to give, but rather it's the moral questions we teach them to ask, that are the measure of the formation we give to our young.

As human institutions we struggle to live up to our own vision, to reform our life continually so as to be coherent with this vision. On behalf of the thousands of people you do and will influence through your service to Edmund Rice education, I thank you for having the courage to have these discussions.