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Marist Bulletin - Number 129

 

Brother Michael Green
04/03/2004

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Brother Michael Green,
President of the Association of Marist Schools of Australia
AUSTRALIA IS A VERY SECULAR COUNTRY, SOME WOULD SAY A POST-CHRISTIAN COUNTRY. THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL, THEREFORE, IS THE MAJOR OPPORTUNITY FOR EVANGELISATION OF YOUTH IN AUSTRALIA

Bro. Lluís Serra

Brother Michael Green, 48, was born in Sydney, Australia. His studies have included history, education, spirituality, sociology and biblical archaeology. His doctorate, completed at the University of Sydney, explored the ways the Marist charism finds expression in schools. Michael has been involved in teaching, school administration and Province animation. He is currently the Principal of St Augustine’s College in Cairns, a city in the tropical north of Australia. For ten years Michael has been a member of the Provincial Council of the Province of Sydney, and for several years was Director of the Province’s ministries in education and youth welfare. Last year he was elected President of the Association of Marist Schools of Australia (AMSA).


What are the key characteristics of the Australian educational landscape?
Australia enjoys a very high standard of education, and its schools are quite well resourced by world standards. One distinctive feature of Australian education is the large number of non-government schools. Over 30% of Australian children attend non-government schools, most of these being Catholic schools. The government funds these schools to about 80% of their running costs and assists with their capital development, but it does not interfere with their day-to-day management. Because of this government funding, tuition fees can be kept quite low so that most Catholic schools are within the reach of ordinary families. Typically, they are not seen as exclusive or elitist. The Catholic Church in Australia has been extensively involved conducting primary and secondary schools, but only minimally involved in the university sector. Most universities in Australia are large public institutions.

In this context, what is the service of the Catholic school, the Marist school, to the education of the country?
Catholic schools are the largest single ministry of the Church in Australia. Almost every parish in the country has its own primary school, and supports a regional Catholic high school. Catholic education is highly organized at the diocesan level throughout the country. Most Marist schools work within these diocesan systems and cooperate with the educational programs of the local church. Enrolments in Catholic schools have never been higher. The irony of this situation is that attendance at church and participation in parish life have never been lower! That is, for most people, the Catholic school is their only contact with the Church. Australia is a very secular country, some would say a post-Christian country. The Catholic school, therefore, is the major opportunity for evangelisation of youth in Australia. This is a certainly a challenge in such a non-religious environment. Many young people in Australia tend to be materially over-fed but spiritually malnourished.

Who owns the schools?
Most Catholic schools in Australia, including most Marist schools, are owned by parishes and dioceses. A minority of Catholic schools are directly owned by the religious institutes such as the Marist Brothers. Our Province has a range of arrangements with dioceses concerning the governance and administration of Marist schools, but in most cases it does not have any direct financial connection with the schools of the Province, and derives no income from them. It has been our policy to cooperate closely with diocesan administrations as they have built up the system of Catholic schools that exist today. In most dioceses, the schools are encouraged to develop their Marist identity through the promotion of an explicitly Marist spirituality and the expression of the typical characteristics of Marist educational style.

You are the president of the Association of Marist Schools of Australia. What are the objectives you pursue in this organization?
“AMSA”, as it is known, brings together over 50 Marist schools, mainly high schools, around Australia. It also includes five schools of the Marist Sisters and Marist Fathers. Its purpose is to associate the leaders and senior administrators of these schools so that they can more effectively support each other in being “Marist” in the Australian church and education sector. It aims at giving the Marist educational movement an identity, a momentum, and a sustainability that will not be dependent in the future on the religious institutes of the Marist Brothers, the Marist Sisters and Marist Fathers. It organises conferences or programs, provides resources, and generally provides opportunities to bring together the people who are involved in the Marist educational mission.

So, does this imply that Marist schools are directed by lay people rather than Marist Brothers?
Yes, this is increasingly true. About 98% of the teaching and administration in Marist schools today is being done by lay people. A majority of the schools have lay principals, and a larger number of Marist schools no longer have any Brothers in them at all. That is to say, the mission of the Institute in Australia is mainly undertaken by lay people. These people have an increasing understanding of themselves as “Marist”, and a developing appreciation of not only the mission of the Institute but also its spirituality.

How have lay people reached such favorable integration in the Marist charism?
I believe this to be one of the signs of our times, the Holy Spirit at work among us. Yes, the Province has had a detailed plan and has put a great deal of effort into programs to help this to come about over the last ten years, but we have really been overwhelmed by the power of what is happening. Lay people are claiming the Marist way as their own, and are revealing new insights into Marist spirituality. This is especially so when women embrace the Marist way. At the same time, we have a long way to go. The development has not been uniformly strong or consistent. Ironically enough, it I sometimes the Brothers themselves that have inhibited the spread of Marist spirituality among lay people.

What are the greatest challenges facing our Marist schools today in your country?
The most significant challenge facing Marist schools in Australia is, in my view, the same that faces the entire Catholic education sector in this country: the spirituality of teachers. Our schools are relatively well resourced, they are quite well funded by government, and our teachers are well prepared professionally. On these three points, things have never been better. The greatest danger, as I see it, is that the schools will lose their heart, that they will cease to be real centres of evangelization. The genuine Catholic school must be a place where students can encounter the person of Jesus Christ; it must be a Gospel place. For this to happen, it must have teachers who know and love Jesus, whose personal lives are shaped and defined by the Gospel, and who are consciously engaged in the life and mission of the Church. My greatest fear is that many Catholic schools in this country will be reduced to being little more than centres secular humanism with a tenuous religious heritage.

Is there an answer to this danger?
I think a major part of the answer lies right under our noses: our Marist charism. Like any of the great charisms of the Church, it is given by the Holy Spirit to the People of God so that they can more effectively undertake the mission of the Church. In Australia, many of our teachers are not strongly attracted by the institutional Church, and they are not involved in its life, but they do find themselves drawn to the Marist way – both to the Marist educational style and to Marist spirituality. Surely, this is a way the Spirit is gracing us! This is a way that the work of the gospel can continue in a society that is quite secular and in a Church that, in the eyes of many Australians, is discredited. That is why it is so important for us to keep being creative in our thinking about how lay people can become genuinely “Marist”.

What challenges do students present in Marist schools?
Our students cover the full range of social and economic backgrounds that exist in Australia. It would be impossible to categorise them simply, or the challenges that they present. Many students suffer from dysfunctional family situations, something that translates into negative behaviours. The main challenge for Marist schools, however, is that most students have very little connection with the life of the Church. They live in a quite materialist, secular and non-churched environment. The challenge, therefore, is the challenge to make the Gospel in some way relevant or engaging for them. Their parents’ generation rebelled against the Church, but today’s students are not usually rebellious towards the Church or its teachings; they are ignorant of them. “God”, “Church”, “doctrine”, “sacraments” are little more than words to them, words that have no connection with their lived experience.

And what are the greatest joys they give you?
Australian young people are almost always unpretentious, down-to-earth, fun-loving, and relate easily to their teachers. This is certainly the experience of Marist schools. Like young people everywhere they are open, generous, idealistic. Our schools are generally very happy places.

The Marists have some schools “for boys only”. What educational values do you find in this option when the vast majority of schools in other countries are coed?
Most Australian schools, including Marist schools, are also coed. For historical reasons, some of the older schools have remained boys-only. Interestingly enough, these schools (and also all-girls schools) are once again proving to be very popular. They are enjoying something of a renaissance. Part of this can be explained by their reputation for high academic success, but people find other social and personal benefits for boys and girls to be in such schools. The Brothers of our Province have taught in both, and would have a range of opinion about their relative merits.

What type of religious education do you offer to your students?
Religious education is a compulsory subject in all Australian Catholic schools. It is studied by all students from their first year at school until they graduate. The curriculum is determined by each Diocese. In addition, many students in their last two years of school follow a full academic course in religious studies which counts towards their matriculation. Usually Catholic schools offer a range of other experiences to augment the religious education curriculum. These include residential retreats for senior students, liturgies and sacramental experiences, community service, cross-cultural immersion. Many schools also have apostolic youth groups and social justice programs.

What kind of presence and commitment have the parents in your schools?
Historically, and especially before the days of government-funding of schools, parents were extensively involved in practical support of schools. This is still the case, but less so, especially now that usually both fathers and mothers are employed. Other typical opportunities for parent involvement are members of school boards and committees, parent-teacher meetings (usually held two or three times per year), social functions organized by the school’s parent organization, and monthly or quarterly meetings of the schools parent association.

The Brothers are present in other non-formal educational activities and take care of young people with special problems. Can you tell us something about these realities?
Among a range of non-school ministries, a major work of the Brothers of our Province is what is known as “Marist Youth Care”. This agency works with some of the most deprived young people in the State. Many have come through the juvenile justice system, quite a number are victims of abuse, most need to live away from their families or have no real homes. Marist Youth Care conducts about twenty different programs across the western part of Sydney, including counseling, educational intervention, employment opportunities, assistance to indigenous young people, and a number of residential programs. It is the largest provider of out-of-home care in the State. As with other ministries, almost all of the work is now undertaken by lay people. Several Brothers are involved with over a hundred other workers in MYC.

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