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Catholic schools: Always open

by JP Morrison, Director, Diocesan Education Service

This year the theme of Education Sunday is ‘Ephphatha: Be Opened’ which is taken from Mark’s Gospel reading on Education Sunday. It refers to the way Jesus healed a man who was both deaf and mute with a simple command: Ephphatha. Jesus is telling us to open our ears to the joys of the Good News and open our mouths to praise God. Catholic schools should be seen as open and welcoming places for all.

Openness is central to what it means to be Christian. Our schools have a strong identity and track record of being open and embracing to all. God’s mercy is open to all who seek him and schools can often be the first place where God’s mercy can be encountered. In being open we have to accept that there are those who seek to challenge this openness.

Catholic education has again had to defend itself and its mission from those who demonstrate an extremely limited and skewered view of its role in society. In pluralist Britain the rhetoric of questioning our existence, and whether we really matter and why should the state continue to fund faith education, continually lights up Twitter threads and newspaper columns seeking to spark debate. The truth is the critics have always been there over the last 170 years and they will continue to be there in the future. The State asked the Church to open schools and recognises that they do have a role to play. The recent publication by Clarke and Woodhead’s report on Religious Education was rightly challenged by the Rt Rev Marcus Stock, Bishop of Leeds and lead Bishop for Religious Education who said, ‘the recommendations in the report are unacceptable for two reasons. Firstly, that the State can impose a national RE curriculum, which would dictate what the Church is required to teach in Catholic schools. Secondly, the curriculum they suggest contains no theological content, which is at the core of Catholic RE.’ He is right of course. In reading the responses to this debate I am reminded by the instruction provided by Pope St John Paul II to American educators in 1979 when he said: ‘In order that the Catholic school and the Catholic teachers may truly make their irreplaceable contribution to the Church and the world, the goal of Catholic education itself must be crystal clear. Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others.’ It is this clarity of purpose that needs to be voiced always and especially at times of challenge. Education is one of the most important ways in which the Church fulfills her commitment to the dignity of the person and building of a community. It will always be open.

Our schools are sacramental. They are ecclesial in that they embody the most effective and successful partnership anywhere to educate children in the faith and prepare them to be witnesses to the teachings of Christ. Our schools teach wisdom and life vision in the context of faith. They do this knowing that for many of their students the school is the major driver influencing the search for truth and values. There is a strong voice of young people, articulated daily in their shared experiences in a Catholic school, desiring to be listened to and to learn about themselves and the role they can play in the world. Our schools help students look at the complexity of a modern pluralist society and figure out how to live the counter-cultural message of Jesus today.

Pope Francis, at last year’s Congregation for Catholic Education, emphasised the need for dialogue and appreciation of cultural and religious diversity. He said, ‘Dialogue, in fact, educates when the person relates with respect, esteem and sincere listening, and is expressed with authenticity without obscuring or softening one’s own identity nourished by evangelical inspiration.’ We need to be open.

Our schools are popular with parents and popular with teachers. Our reputation for academic excellence, civic engagement, strong standards of behaviour and proven success over time is well earned, but we cannot use the past as a place of residence but rather a place of reference. So why do our schools matter so much? Why do 91,000 pupils attend a Catholic school in the Diocese of Westminster? Here are 10 reasons, as articulated by Fr Ronald J Nuzi, University of Notre Dame. A different continent but the reasons are as profound here as they are anywhere.

1. An incarnational view of the world, where the student learns that God is presents and active in their lives

2. Immersion in the Paschal Mystery, where the student learns that there is redemptive power in suffering and the power of the cross

3. The value of relationships as a reflection of the Divine, where the student learns to experience God’s grace and presence in their lives through their relationships with family, friends and teachers

4. A nuanced view of Scripture, where the student is given the opportunity to explore the beauty and richness of Sacred Scripture seen through the lens of faith and lived out in daily practice

5. Civic engagement, where the student receives many opportunities to be actively engaged in civic and community activities that have at their core justice and charity

6. Service for the common good, where the student understands that service is an important part of the curriculum and have a responsibility to respond to the needs of others

7. Discipline as faith expectation, where the student learns to promote self-discipline through clarity of moral vision that is based on the teachings of Christ

8. The centrality of arts, ritual, drama, music to the life of faith, where the student is exposed to the richness of Catholic tradition and how these subjects can find expression of divine praise

9. The fullness of the Catholic identity at the heart of the Church, where the student witnesses and lives the greatest work of the Church to go out into society to help shape it to be the best it can be

10. Personal excellence as a spiritual goal, where the student learns that excellence is a response to God’s blessings, and to nurture an altruistic orientation

This Education Sunday allows us to be open to the messages of the Gospel. Open to share why our schools still have and will continue to have such an important role to play in the future.

Pope Francis said: ‘Instead of being a Church that welcomes and receives by keeping its doors open, let us try also to be a Church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But it takes audacity and courage.’ Today we thank all those parents, teachers, governors and students who are being audacious and courageous in shaping and living out Christ’s message of being open to the truth in our schools across the diocese.

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