Here are notes from an address given by Monsignor Jim Cassin, executive secretary to the Commission for Catholic Education and Formation of the Irish Episcopal Conference.
This address was delivered Nov. 15 to the Catholic Principals Association in Cookstown, Co Tyrone.
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Schools and their future demand diligent reflection and consideration. Schools are important places. We spend a lot of time in them. This includes a significant proportion of that most formative period in life between 4-5 years of age and 17-18 years of age. When schools are working at or near their best they are truly a remarkable human achievement.
I wish to reflect with you, using an article I wrote for Intercom magazine and published this month (December 2013/ January 2013), on the principle characteristics of Catholic schools. In other words I put the question: What is it that makes a school Catholic? There are five essential elements that give the Catholic school its particular characteristic spirit or ethos.
1. The belief that the human person is made in the image of God and is therefore worthy of respect and dignity. Accordingly, Jesus Christ, God made man, is the exemplar par excellence for the Christian person. At all times in Catholic schools, all members of the school community aspire to treat each other in a way that reflects the origin of the human person. All relationships reflect this fundamental belief.
2. The belief that we meet God in the ‘bits and pieces’ of everyday life. Our daily interaction is the stuff of our relationship with God. We are approached by God in ordinary life. The sacraments highlight this when the ordinary events of life become a privileged moment for our encounter with God. Also on our part, moments of reflection and prayer are part of ‘the everyday’ when we become conscious of God’s care and love for us and our dependence on him. So liturgy and prayer will be part of the life of the Catholic school.
3. The belief that we are saved as a community. We are part of each other and it is together that we become the people of God in the world, the body of Jesus Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit, people of ‘a kingdom of justice love and peace.’ The main commandment of Jesus is to ‘love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.’ A key element of the Catholic school will be to learn how to live in respect for one another and with a special care for those who have less or are suffering. So part of daily life in the school will be learning how to form a community of care with an eye to those in the world who are in need and or are suffering in any way.
4. The fact that we belong to a tradition. Schools form part of the tradition of the Church going back to the saying of Christ: ‘Go teach all nations.’ There is a long tradition of faith-based education in the Catholic Church. The Church has made an enormous contribution to the formation of young people and to society over the years from within the Catholic Christian tradition, from pre-schools through primary, post-primary and third level institutions. In our time it is our duty to be faithful to that tradition and to interpret it anew for the people of this time and for the common good of society.
5. The fact that we value knowledge. Knowledge is important to us, to learn about ourselves, each other and the world in which we live. Accordingly, the Catholic school will strive to provide an education of excellence where the acquisition and development of knowledge in all its depth and breadth will be central to the work of the school.
Considering the above five characteristics I put before you five practical applications:
1. For the school it is urgent to focus on deepening young people’s relationship with Jesus through intentional and systematic catechesis. Jesus is Lord and is central to the formation of pupils in the Christian tradition and accordingly it is essential that the young develop a real relationship with God through Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit.
2. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” I quote no 42 of Evangelii Nuntiandi the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Paul VI. The school must recognise that young people are capable of handing on the faith through the experience of ministry in social justice and in peer leadership. There are many examples of such ministry.
3. Parents have a critical role in the religious life of their children. It is essential that parents are catechised and empowered to carry out their formative role as evangelisers of their children.
4. The faith formation of the young which is nurtured and deepened at first and second level in schools must continue at third level and throughout adult life. A key transition takes place with the entry to university. Ways of supporting the catechesis of young people through university is fundamental to on-going development of the faith.
5. If all that we have spoken of here takes place during the school years is it not realistic to expect that some will hear the call to Religious Life and Priesthood? There is no doubt that Catholic schools nurture faith in the young and the lives of many pupils are testament to their faith. The Church and schools need to find ways of vocational recruitment and discernment.
Thank you for the invitation to attend your conference and I wish you well with your deliberations.