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Marist Bulletin - Number 272


Religion and culture in catholic schools - Cardinal George Pell of Sydney

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The Australian Catholic Education Commission’s annual conference, that took place last September, explored Catholic schooling in a 21st century Australia that is increasingly multicultural and multifaith.
Cardinal George Pell of Sydney was a keynote speaker and posed a series of questions to educators to focus discussions on religion and culture in Catholics schools. He voiced as significant challenge the need for strategies to have Catholics schools more accessible to lower income families.
Even though in his speech the Cardinal of Sydney has focussed on the situation in Australia, we think that it may be of interest for all those involved in Catholic formation of youth. So, we are sending you the reflection’s conclusion with this bulletin.

“This year Professor James Franklin of the University of New South Wales produced a brilliant little book entitled “Catholic Values and Australian Realities”.
The introduction began with these words “Australian Catholics have had a distinctive image: Irish tribal loyalties, Labor but anti-communist politics, childhoods full of guilt and incense. There is more to their distinctiveness than that. Their central contribution to Australian thinking is an objective view of ethics.” (p1)

Guilt will always be with us, even when it is unrecognized and emerging as hatred of self or society, burning incense too continues at Catholic funerals and in our Cathedrals, but an objective view of ethics among most Gen. Y Catholics has disappeared as completely as Irish tribal loyalties. Our situation is changing.
I realize that my thumbnail sketch of Catholicism in Australian culture requires another paper of equal length spelling out what might or should be done. You will be relieved to know that you won’t be receiving it from me today.
I have not set out to be bland and anodyne anymore than I have set out to ignore our achievements and our considerable strengths. I love the Catholic schools too much for that.

In five years I have visited more than 100 of our 163 schools in the Sydney archdiocese. Overwhelmingly these are happy places of learning, serving and basically satisfying their constituencies, generally in good facilities where the Federal government provides 50% of the capital money and the N.S.W. government covers the interest on the money contributed by the local community and the System. There is no crisis of morale in the Catholic schools and testing results reflect the quality of these schools and the socio-economic makeup of the pupils, being regularly better than national averages.

I also realize that I am not talking to a local parish group, but to the leaders of Catholic-education across Australia who deserve the bad news with the good. We are in a complex and turbulent process of change. Tomorrow Generation Z will be different again just as older generations have their own particularities.
We Catholics are likely to remain around one quarter of the population in an increasingly secular Australia. While ours is a God of surprises we have only a limited capacity to transmit our tradition and preserve our identity. We should clarify our goals, try to learn from our mistakes.

Secularists strive to remove religion from the public domain and restrict it to private life, where individual religious choices reflect personal preferences unrelated to truth and general principles. They see religion as another area for consumer choice.

For us as Catholics our central concern is the presentation of the person of Jesus Christ, with his call to repent and believe. We espouse crucifixion Christianity which leads to the resurrection and believe that everyone stands under the four last things of death and judgement, heaven and hell. Catholicism calls to faith and reason as well as love and hope. This is now profoundly countercultural.

The decisions to believe in Christ are mysterious and individual. But schools can impart religious knowledge, encourage patterns of clear thinking, constructive enquiry and a thirst for answers. We need to inculcate a respect for reason and tradition as well as call to faith, hope and love.

These are mighty tasks, but attempting them is a wonderful vocation. Especially in our challenging environment, catechesis, and evangelisation are not only a duty, but an adventure and challenge, truly one great work of the Holy Spirit.
I thank you for what you are doing and urge you to continue with all the wisdom and perseverance we can muster.

I conclude with a series of questions to help focus your thinking and discussion.
1. Do Catholic schools retain today a capacity to strengthen the faith and improve the morals of their students, as they did in the past?
2. Are Catholic truths presented to your students sequentially and comprehensively over the 13 years of schooling? Do students know what are the 4 or 5 fundamental truths of our faith? What is the place of student text books in Religious Education?
3. What strategies would overturn the assumption that all morality is relative? How can the truths about life, marriage, family and social justice be defended?
4. What strategies might be adopted to strengthen the Christian faith and perhaps make converts among the 23% of non-Catholic students in our schools?
5. What strategies would make Catholic schools more accessible to lower income families? Should our “elite” colleges offer more scholarships to the disadvantaged?
6. Is it a concern that few Catholic schools are listed among the best academic schools?
7. Is there sufficient diversity among Catholic schools?
8. Should more be done for the religious education of Catholics in state schools?
9. What must we do to prepare the next generation of leaders for truly Catholic schools?
10. How can we attract committed Catholic school graduates into the teaching profession?

Pope John Paul II should have the last word from his message at the start of the third Christian millennium “Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm and to look to the future with confidence: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

Amen to that.”

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