By Sr. Cecilia Joseph, OP
A few weeks ago I was sitting with a group of students who had expressed repeated interest in the Sacrament of Baptism and becoming a member of the Catholic Church. At one point in our conversation they began excitedly explaining their Chinese background. I then decided to interject with a smile, “do you think I am Chinese?” to which they began giggling and said, “No way!”
Fifty years ago, our Catholic schools were filled with a majority of students and families who shared a common faith and cultural heritage stemming from Europe. With the 2021 census showing the largest groups of immigrants coming to Australia from non-Christian countries such as China and India, as well as a dramatic increase in those associated with ‘no religion’ (affectionately referred to as the ‘nones’), we have to be honest: this is not business as usual in our Catholic schools. Over the years, we have welcomed these families, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, into our schools with open arms. In doing so, our school populations have been tremendously enriched, but the demographics have shifted. We must think differently about how we bring these families to know and love what is true, good, and beautiful, leading them to the One through whom and for whom all things exist.
Now is the time for active evangelisation. Principals and teachers must be leaders of learning and leaders in evangelisation. Our schools must be places of encounter with the living Jesus Christ for those who already know Him and for those who do not. I clearly remember a turning point in my own approach to education a few years ago when I was teaching a Year 7 student who, coming from a local state school, was beginning her Catholic secondary education. On the first day of class she looked at an image of the Annunciation and asked “who is that woman?” After some questioning, I learned she had never heard the story of salvation nor the name of Jesus. Today our Catholic schools are mission fields to the catechised and uncatechised, children and parents alike.
In her documents on Catholic education, the Church states,
“Schools, even Catholic schools, do not demand adherence to the faith, however, they can prepare for it. Through the educational plan it is possible to create the conditions for a person to develop a gift for searching and to be guided in discovering the mystery of his/her being and of the reality that surrounds them, until they reach the threshold of the faith. To those who then decide to cross this threshold the necessary means are offered for continuing to deepen their experience of faith through prayer, the sacraments, the encounter with Christ in the Word, in the Eucharist, in events and persons.” (Consecrated Persons and Their Mission in Schools, 51).
Our Catholic schools are places where we educate in freedom, for the full flourishing of the human person. At the same time, we must speak effectively and convincingly of the gift of faith we have received. In a very real way, every staff member in our schools participates in the missionary efforts of the Church. We must go out to our students and families, embracing them in their everyday lives, showing them in word and in action, the path to true joy and peace found in Jesus. And sometimes it can even start with a simple invitation, “have you ever considered being baptised?”
At St. Peter Chanel, I inherited a beautiful RCIC (Rite of Christian Initiation for Children) program, more commonly known as our Baptism Program. Given the large number of unbaptised children in our school, we offer families the opportunity to learn more about the Catholic faith and the sacramental life of the Church. Children and/or families who are interested can then formally seek reception into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism. By the grace of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit, this year we will have 15 children baptised. God-willing, this tremendous response of faith will become the new normal in all our Catholic schools as children and families meet Jesus Christ through their life-changing encounter with Him.
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)
Sr. Cecilia Joseph, OP is the principal of St. Peter Chanel Catholic Primary School in Regents Park.