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Faithful Catholic witness in schools vital at all levels, expert urges

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Students process through the streets under their school banners during the Walk for Christ on the feast of Corpus Christi in 2022. A new documentary will help Catholics prepare for the feast on 11 June this year. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
School banners at the annual Walk with Christ. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

With the identity of faith based schools under withering scrutiny from parliaments across Australia, an Australian Catholic University education expert has pressed the importance of a strong Catholic witness and religious curriculum in our schools.

Dr Bernadette Mercieca, co-author of new book Witness, Specialist, Moderator: The Critical Role of Catholic Educators in Our Changing World offers support to Australian Catholic educators to strengthen their own spiritual lives and to teach and guide students to form the next generation of the faithful.

“The school is the ecclesial face of the church in the 21st century. The only time most young people are going to experience Catholicism is in the school, so the school liturgies and religious education curriculum are so important,” Dr Mercieca said.

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In the book, she and co-author Ann Rennie argue a need for faith-based leadership density and spiritual formation of staff and for religious education teachers to allow for a contest of ideas to be allowed in a “safe, respectful and inclusive classroom.”

Dr Mercieca told The Catholic Weekly that in order to retain and promote their Catholic identity, it would be enough for Catholic schools to have a strong religious education curriculum provided by key leaders and teachers who practice their faith, regular liturgies with a priest who engages well with young people and an ethos supported by beautiful religious imagery throughout the school.

“Students pick up pretty quickly if someone is just teaching from the book,” she said.

But she said the widespread problem of critical staff shortages in schools in Melbourne, where she is based, and across the country, means that religious education classes can often be attached to a less specialised or convinced teacher, who may not be qualified.

The issue is critical as independent MP Alex Greenwich’s ‘Equality’ bill will be debated in parliament this year despite faith and education leaders warning that if passed it will remove provisions in the Anti-Discrimination Act that permit faith-based institutions to teach their own doctrines on gender and sexuality, and preference hiring staff who will uphold their faith and values.

As already reported in The Catholic Weekly, leaders including Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Kanishka Raffel, Imam Shadi Alsuleiman of the National Imams Council and heads of NSW’s major religious schools bodies say such a move will erode the ability of schools to maintain their faith-based character.

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