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Archdiocesan schools survey. Why do we exist?

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By Sr Cecilia Joseph OP

Each year, Archdiocesan schools are asked to survey parents, staff, and students in key areas of their experience in their local school.

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This standardised survey provides objective data for continued growth and an opportunity for stakeholders to give anonymous feedback.

This year, in response to a prompt to describe areas for growth, one parent responded, “I did not send my child to a school of prayer but to a Catholic educational private school.”

As I read that comment I must admit I was a bit disheartened. At the same time, a fire was kindled within me to help parents, staff, and students understand the mission and identity of a Catholic school. Why do we exist? What does it mean to be a Catholic school today?

Let’s be clear: if the only difference between Catholic schools and state or private educational institutions is a combination of character formation programs, improved student behaviour, inclusivity, and higher academic standards and results, we are not authentically Catholic. Schools, no matter what brand, seek to form students in a culture.

Carefully structured programs target the intellectual, spiritual, social, physical, sexual, creative, behavioural, and emotional development of our young people. In the context of education, parents must ask themselves: into whose culture do I want my children to assimilate? 

The Church teaches that the Catholic school’s task is “fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith, and a synthesis of faith and life: the first is reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge through the subjects taught, in light of the Gospel; the second in the growth of the virtues characteristic of the Christian” (The Catholic School, 37). Prayer is one of many ways in which schools can integrate these three elements of faith, life, and culture.

St John Paul II taught that our Christian communities must become ‘schools of prayer’. Only in this way are we able to shape history according to God’s plan (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 33). At St Peter Chanel, we pray a Morning Offering and a seasonal prayer to begin each day (a practice every Christian should have!).

At noon, we join all schools across the Archdiocese of Sydney to pray the Angelus. At the end of the school day, we ask for forgiveness through the Act of Contrition and for protection through the Angel of God prayer.

In total, these prayers take about five minutes of the school day. Yet, these three short intervals at key moments are powerful reminders of our relationship with the Other and give clear direction to our work. 

Catholic parents have the right to expect a uniquely Catholic culture in their child’s school, one that is necessarily different from any other academic institution.

Catholic schools are meant to be counter-cultural, to be more than private educational institutions. Our schools are about forming good citizens of this world and the next.

We are in the business of saint-making.

Upon returning to school this term, Year 1 students were asked to ‘create your ultimate school backpack’. Proudly showing me his work, one boy explained, “This is the ultimate SPC backpack: it has God’s face and angel wings!”

I didn’t dare ask about the functionality of such a creation – it spoke for itself. In his own way, he had ‘caught the vision’ of what it means to be in a Catholic school. Glimpsing God’s face is part of who we are, in whatever way it is manifested.

Catholic schools have a tremendous gift to offer the world. May we always have the courage to authentically live the mission for which we exist.

Sister Cecilia Joseph OP is the principal of St Peter Chanel Catholic Primary School in Regents Park.

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