CATSC/CES Secondary Leaders' Conference

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Given at the CATSC/CES Secondary Leaders' Conference on 28 January 2016 in Marble Arch, London.  

In recent months I have met and talked with two people directly involved in the drama of the recruitment by ISIS of young people in this country. From their different perspectives, one in the context of a charity and the other in formal work on behalf of the Government, both had a similar story to tell. It was a very sobering narrative, one directly related to the challenges we face in our schools.

Both spoke about the use made of social media in the recruitment of young people to terrorism. Both spoke of the vulnerability of youngsters today as being a key factor in the influence brought to bear on them. Both were astonished at the speed at which recruits were brought 'on board'. One said that it was clearly possible to bring a person to the point of being willing to leave all for the sake of their new-found cause, even to the point of embracing violence or suicide, within a four or five week period.

But what was most chilling was the view that the key age for contacting and influencing these potential recruits was 14-15 years old. We are talking about the age of children in your schools, in your care. We are talking about youngsters ‘round here. Indeed one of whom I heard was a girl in West London who had become a real leader in a local sports club, captain of the girls’ football team for her age. She was on the point of travelling to Syria and was dissuaded only by the leader of the charity, after long periods speaking with her about what she wanted in life and what she stood to lose.

In one of my conversations, a phrase used to describe such youngsters was this: they are 'clean skins'. In other words no one has yet made a lasting impression of them; they are, in the classic phrase, still a 'tabula rasa', or a 'blank slate' as yet unformed by substantive values, left 'value free' by their life thus far. This, I believe, is an abstract description as no one reaches the age of 14 without being influenced in many ways. But many do reach that age without a firm basis of values or beliefs by which they can steer their lives or against which they can rebel. In their formal upbringing many have been presented only with fleeting guidance, couched always in the tones of choice - you must decide what you think is right or wrong for you; you must choose your identity. In other settings, they have been exposed to so many different competing pressures and patterns of behaviour, some of which are readily seen to be shallow, others instinctively distasteful, yet demanding an adherence through social pressures.

It is to teenagers such as these that the call of a definitive, demanding faith, one which asks for a heroic sacrifice is addressed. It is cast as a true fulfilment of all the unfocused yearning within them. One month is all it takes to transform a dissatisfied and disorientated teenager into a terrorist.

In this process we learn that social media plays a crucial part. Why might this be so?

I have heard it proposed that there are five powerful drivers fuelling the digital phenomena. They are: the desire to connect and be connected; the desire to access information, to know, and at speed; the desire for guidance, to have someone or some cause to 'follow'; the desire to share thoughts, convictions, expressions and the desire to be 'entertained' or at least amused.

The digital world, in other words, deals with people who sense their isolation, their detachment from each other; who have a sense that the speed of developments are leaving them behind; who are at something of a loss as to where to turn for guidance or direction and are ready to attach themselves to something or someone who comes across with 'credibility', even if it is the credibility of celebrity or notoriety;  who want very much, in their thoughts and responses, to be part of something greater, and who, on the whole, may be finding life to be rather flat, functional and boring. The potential of the digital world to respond to this experiential mix is astonishing. So too is its potential to exploit that need, as we know only too well. (Pornography as a large proportion of its use, and of that a large proportion is child pornography - 30% - if I remember rightly)

The internet has an astonishing capacity to contain and convey countless pieces of information and evocative images. These fragments range over every facet and human experience and emotion. Some are glimpses of violence, of sadism, of rampant greed, of deliberate exploitation. Some depict self-loathing and a searing anger that lashes out at all. At the other end of the spectrum, there are endless stories of heroism, of a generosity towards others that refuses to count the cost. There we meet people of astonishing humanity and of creative genius. So many things are announced in the digital world.

But the real power of this virtual world is the ways in which it can be used to assemble many of these fragments into a coherent, or at least seemingly coherent, whole and focus them into a narrative which compels and captivates. This is the skill that can obviously be put to good use, but it is also the skill of the recruiters of violence.

Permit me to take two images each of which assembles fragments into a unified picture and announces a way of action, a way of life to be followed with dedication and self-renunciation. Interestingly they are literally images of annunciation.

You will be familiar, I trust, with each of them.

The first is the image of Jihadi John: dressed in black, standing defiantly, one hand held high, pointing upward with the bared blade of his knife,  his other hand holding his victim in a position of total subservience, defeated, beaten, about to die.

This is an annunciation. It is proclamation to the world of what is to come, of what is held to be the truth, of how we are expected to respond. It claims to reveal the fundamental subservience of the human person to the absolute authority of the one in whose name this killing is about to take place. It announces where we are to look for our hope and how we are to behave if we are to inherit that hope. It is an announcement that everything else, everything that stands against this project, is to be destroyed, everything that is seen to offend against this ‘truth’. It announces that history itself is to be purified by the shedding of blood and by the destruction of everything not inspired by this radical vision of humanity. And it claims the name of God.

The other image of an annunciation has certain similarities – but only superficially. I describe it in classical imagery. The figure stands upright in white, a powerful yet welcoming figure, reassuring in the face of vulnerability. One hand is held high above the head, with a finger pointing upwards, indicating the source of all that is being conveyed. The other hand of this figure stretches downward, to the second figure, a beautiful young woman. The hand reaches out in order to raise her up in praise and thanks. The second figure kneels, not in subservience but in awe. She too has a bowed head, showing her naked neck, emanating not fear but peace, a loving readiness to say ‘yes’. This image announces the dignity of the human person who has been given life as an act of love and who is being invited to raise both eyes and intellect to understand the full meaning of that gift: a life to be lived in relationship, partnership with God. Here there is no threat, no defiance, no hint of destruction to come, but exactly the opposite: a hint of glory lying ahead at the end of a path of generous giving, of a life lived by the word 'yes', 'fiat'.

Each of these images assembles the fragments of our lives and constructs a vision of purpose and meaning. Each conveys energy, a depth of commitment which challenges the viewer. Each is an invitation to step forward and to find meaning, purpose, belonging and a future. One is dark, drenched in a terror which is both appalling and compelling. This constructed picture has an internal coherency but ultimately does not make sense because it is not grounded in truth. The other is bathed in light and offers an entirely different path, one which demands our courage and distinctiveness and which promises cooperation with the Divine in the work of peace and justice. It is a genuinely coherent picture revealing the truth that constitutes who we are at the deepest level of our being.

Education today cannot just deal in fragments. It must deal in the whole. Education cannot serve our humanity if it lacks the courage to present, explore and develop a vision which is going to grip a young life and act as a point of integration and meaning for all that will occur. The fragmentation of learning, which so characterises higher education, is surely to be resisted mightily in schools, especially in our Catholic schools, formed as we are in a Catholic understanding of the person and of the life to which we are invited. ‘Catholic’ means ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole’ (CCC830). Of course, specialisation is important. But left to itself it increasingly contributes to the fragmentation of human understanding and effort. The preserving and developing of an overarching sense of purpose, the assembly of the fragments of our experience into a coherent vision, is surely key to the task of educational leadership to which you have been called.

The image of the annunciation which I have presented is, of course, the account of the calling of Mary, the unfolding of her vocation. And in this regard it can serve as a template for the task with which you are entrusted. It suggests that central to the compelling coherent vision which we are to present and constantly explore is the fundamental notion of a personal vocation from God for every person given the gift of life by God.

This will not be the first time that this proposition has been put to you: that the notion of vocation should be central to the shaping of Catholic Education. But I am glad to reinforce it today. Here are its central themes:

Each of us has been called into life by God. We are not accidents. We have infinite value in God's eyes. In mercy God speaks a word of love to each of us, especially when we are most broken and feeling lost.

Indeed, in baptism that innate worth and dignity is raised to be a conscious sharing in the life of God effected through our being bound to Jesus, made part of His body and sharers in the Holy Spirit.

The experience of vocation follows from these two themes.

Firstly, we are to develop this foundational relationship with Jesus as the bedrock of our lives. This is the call to holiness: walking with the Lord, in faith, hope and charity. This is the task of every day, of every moment and experience. We live always in this relationship, which is so deeply personal as to be beyond external inspection, yet which is so deeply shared as to serve as the basis for our sense of belonging to each other in a shared humanity and in a shared community of faith.

Secondly, sooner or later, we come to the point of asking 'What is it the Lord wants me to do with my life?' At this point the strength of that relationship with the Lord is vital. That which is most profoundly written into my being, emerges in and through that relationship. Here I begin to find my true self. At this point my place within the community of faith is also crucial. It is within that context that I hope to find the setting, the people, with whom I can truly explore this question. This is a different kind of careers’ guidance yet one that ought to be at hand within our networks.

And thirdly, however we answer that question of a specific personal vocation, we come to recognise that the work which every way of life entails, is the concrete expression of God's purpose in my life. Then, whilst work contributes to my dignity, for through it I achieve my fulfilment, the more I recognise that most fundamentally it is God who gives dignity to my work, through it allowing me to share in his creative and saving work, the more I find dignity in the work I do, whatever it may be. It is this depth of insight that is redemptive, saving us from drudgery, stirring us to get up each morning, knowing how to end a day with simple words such as, 'Well, Lord, I did my best, and I did it all for you.'

Thankfully, it is not my task to translate such a picture of the central role of vocation in the purpose and practice of Catholic Education into concrete programmes of action or learning within a school. But I suggest it may indeed be yours. Grasping such a challenge is not easy, no easier than assembling a compelling image from thousands of small items or fragments. Yet that is precisely one way of approaching this task.

So let me return to the world of social media, seeing it as a reflection of our daily lives.

Both that media and our lives are indeed made up of thousands of fragmentary experiences. Focussing on the positive, there are so many experiences in our daily lives to which we respond with a warmth of heart and a quiet smile of gratitude and admiration: the kindness of a neighbour, the compassion of a friend, the utter generosity of a lover, the creativeness of a gifted person brought to a good purpose, be it the creation of wealth or a work of charity. These are the stories that do not fill our newspapers but do fill our hearts and encourage us along the way. And they are to be found in the life of every school, often in abundance given the generosity and enthusiasm of young people today.

There are two leadership tasks that follow from this awareness.

One is to help others to see how their personal experience or contribution is indeed part of a greater whole, a contribution to the overarching vision in which we will find our fulfilment.  My experience is not just an individual experience, isolated from all else. This can be done formally, in Assemblies and shared reflection. It can be done visually, through mosaic type art work, often seen in the entrance halls of our schools. It can be achieved in less obvious ways, by teaching and encouraging the practice and awareness of prayer which binds us together in our need and in our appreciation of the gifts that God is constantly giving. Moments of prayer are the weaving together of the tapestry of God's goodness in our lives, especially when the circumstances and time permit a sharing of experience among youngsters.

The second task is more subtle. There is an important truth to be remembered: that to see the beauty of a fragment is to glimpse the beauty of the whole. Or, to put it another way, it is the beauty of the whole that is always to be seen in the fragment, in the moment of individual kindness, goodness, elegance or beauty. To see, or sense such beauty, be it in the dance routines of a youngster, or in the work of art that another produces, or in the elegance of phrases contained in an essay, or in the balance and symmetry of a mathematical equation, is to be in the presence of the reflected glory of God and to have a glimpse of an underlying goodness and purpose in this, our created order. It is within the fragment itself that the whole, compelling purpose is written.

And here, then, we come to a crucial point. In such moments of appreciation of achievement and excellence, what are we to do? So often we move quickly to an emphasis on the practical consequences or demands of what has been achieved. This is a talent to be developed, we might say. Let’s get on with it. We might insist that this is a standard to be achieved with regularity, an education goal. But my thought is that first of all we should make space and time for a moment of sheer delight, a moment of wonder and satisfaction, a moment of 'Did you see that!'. For it is only in the space provided by such contemplation that we can realise that the ability or achievement in which we are rejoicing is essentially a gift for which we are to be grateful, rather than a possession to be exploited and from which profit can be gained.

With contemplation comes connection. With contemplation we begin to see ourselves not as talented individuals but as gifted contributors to a wider whole and as people who also receive from that the whole. With contemplation we read afresh and strengthen the narrative of meaning which holds us together, which shows us our way and which forms the basis of our hope.

You will often say, I am sure, that the greatest assets in your school are the rich abilities of your students. This is a valid claim to make. But it poses the question of how we see and use these assets. My proposal is that we see them as given precisely to be developed as testimony to the greatness of God, for the strengthening of our Christian Catholic identity and for the service of humanity. Then the school itself becomes a living witness to the horizon of faith against which we play out our lives, making our decisions, finding our vocation and coming to our fulfilment.

I have fashioned this reflection around the positive points of creativity in our lives. It could also be constructed around the points of failure and of our experience of evil. That, too, is part of our picture and, properly assembled, it leads us to a deep understanding of a capacity for evil within every person and the meaning of ‘original sin’.

To sum up: the service a school can give, the school which you are leading, is that of enabling youngsters to find their place in the world, in their relationships, in their future. They do this best by growing up within a framework of vocation, rooted in a relationship with Jesus and negotiating all the phases of their emerging lives within the strength of that bond and all it entails. They do it best when they see themselves as gifted contributors to a wide and embracing vision of truth and purpose. They glimpse this, for example, on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.  The vision is made up of a thousand items of excellence which have to be drawn together to be seen in their coherence. And this vision is to be perceived in each of those items, each fragment of beauty, shining with the glory of God and calling for our contemplation and awe.

The degree to which you achieve this, as many of you do, is the degree to which our schools will never be sending into the world 'clean skins' ready to be seduced by a corrupt and inhuman ideology, or by any other lesser versions of violence and degrading inhumanity that stalk our streets and our world today.

At the centre of it all is Jesus, indeed our Saviour; in Him we put our trust.

I thank you for your service, your vocation as leaders of our schools and for your attention this morning.


H.E. Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Archbishop of Westminster