Why Catholic education is actually thriving in Australia

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The article in The Catholic Weekly of 25 October entitled Call to bishops to overhaul education in our schools troubles me. The sub-heading – Act now to remedy the disturbing crisis in religious education – is upsetting, especially to the good women and men who, for many decades, have tried their best to provide formative, relevant and inspiring religious education in our Catholic Schools systems.

I get the impression that the authors of the article – the NPCE (New Perspectives for Catholic Education) – are being very heavy-handed. Our teaching and Catholic Education Office (CEO) staffp are trying their level best. They, too, like the bishops, priests and the fai

thful of all persuasions, would like to see improved Sunday Mass attendance – and not only the young!

Perhaps more offensive than the headings and the article is the inclusion of a highly inappropriate photograph of a young student seemingly asleep at her desk. This photograph (whether of a student in RE or, another class or, between classes or, a student who is not feeling well) makes the generalisation that all our young people are bored during their RE classes. I wish that the authors of the article could see the high quality RE programs that are constantly under review by schools and the CEO.

I wish that the authors could see the students’ creative work that is submitted for assessment. I wish they could witness the commitment of most of our Religious Education co-ordinators and teachers. I wish they could experience those school and class Masses in which students, teachers, parents and priests do their utmost to be brought to “full, active and conscious participation of the Liturgy” [Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963, n. 14].

I am not painting a picture of the perfect class and school imbibing the values of the Gospel and the traditions of the Church in their day-to-day living. There is a lot that can be improved upon in our RE curriculum, as well as growing an authentically Catholic culture in our schools. However, I am confident that the majority of our teachers are being led by faith-filled school and systems leaders who want to pass on to our young ones “the pearl of great price” [Matt 13: 45]. This precious pearl – our faith celebrated in the liturgy – is for many of us “the hidden treasure” [Matt 13: 44] which needs to be unpacked according to ever changing circumstances.

It is now 50 years since the Church received her Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [7 December, 1965] popularly called Gaudium et Spes.

Today, this Constitution is as relevant to us as it was to the children, parents and grandparents of the 1960s. Its opening sentence continues to ring true to the evangelising mission of the Church inserted into a broken world: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”

As a baptised Catholic who is a priest and an educator, I am called to exercise my ministry in the world – our here and our now. I share this ministry with all the baptised who are called into holiness in the world.

While the spirit of Gaudium et Spes is a constant for all periods of history, its call is also for us to “read the signs of the time and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” [GS, n. 4]. To be effective preachers and teachers and disciples of Jesus, we have to make it our business to be aware, as the Constitution proceeds to describe, of the deep-seated changes of our context [n 5.] and the massive changes in the social order and in attitudes, morals and religion [n. 6-8].

Guadium et Spes calls the Church “to enter into dialogue with (the world) about all these different problems” [n. 3]. My experience is that parishes and schools are doing their very best to engage the faithful in the many aspects of their faith “in the modern world”. I was pleased to read in the article of the influence on children of the mass media and social media. However, we would be mistaken to believe that these are only peripheral influences.

People today are being influenced much more by the latest gadget technology, the social media, the saturating presence of consumerism, the increasing secularisation of Sundays and holy days, the dominance of economic rationalism in policy making by governments, the ever increasing role of secularism, the impact of all-too shallow arguments on moral issues presented on the media, the forcefulness of peer pressure. Sadly, for many young people now the influence of the family, the school and the Church is what is peripheral! The list of formative factors for us today could go on and on. Like it or not, our context is soaked in relativism. And, this is the reality with which we as Church must enter into dialogue.

Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate [29 June, 2009] described the world context 45 years on from Vatican II. In addressing many current issues facing the world, including the problems associated with globalisation [n. 22] and “practical atheism” [n. 29], he iterated the importance of engaging with the world if we are to achieve true and integral development.

Our Catholic schools aim to educate the whole person. That’s a mighty goal carried by that work of the Church which is life-giving and formative to many young people and their families. I am proud to say that I have been, and continue to be, associated with Catholic schools where the partnership between families (the place where the primary religious education of children takes place), primary and secondary Catholic schools, and the local church is alive and continues to be nurtured by the majority of stakeholders.

By no means is my situation perfect.

But, amid my own sadness that the church pews on Sundays are not being filled by people of all age groups, I am edified that my collaborators in Catholic schools try very hard to bring children and their families into a deeper knowledge and love of God.

Having parents commit to contracts to bring their children to Mass will not lead to the full participation of the faithful. Coercion is not the answer. Indeed, it is the diminution of personal freedom. Rather, let’s continue to look for the best practices in religious education. Let’s be women and men boldly desiring to be caught up more and more in the mystery of God’s love in a modern world.

Let’s invite the majority of Catholics who are not at Sunday Mass to play their part in building up the Broken Body. Let’s be convinced that the Holy Spirit continues to blow where it wills – even if it may not seem like it to us. Let’s encourage those of us who are doing their best because they love what they are doing and they want others to have “the pearl of great price” that was passed on to them. Let’s value the gift that God has given to the Australian Church – a robust Catholic education system.

This month we begin the Dominican Year of Jubilee – 800 years since the beginning of the Order of Preachers. St Dominic read the confronting signs of the time of the 13th century by establishing an effective way of preaching. As we confront new challenges in this new and unfolding century, let’s be inspired to work collaboratively to bring the Good News of Jesus into the lives of all the faithful and to celebrate it in the liturgy.