A Vision for Catholic Education
Waterview, Bicentennial Park, Sydney, 24 March
Thank you. This is my first opportunity to address our priests
and principals together. You are my chief collaborators in the great tasks of evangelization and education in the
Archdiocese of Sydney, and so I am grateful for your presence today.
Just prior to my visit, a homeless man was buried in the Vatican graveyard. It would have been unremarkable in the
early days of the Church – the reason St Peter's bones are where they are is that the Vatican Hill was a cemetery in
the less desirable, marshy part of town, with a circus in which Christians were martyred as public entertainment.
But in recent centuries the 'Teutonic' cemetery was reserved for North European nobility, as well as a sprinkling of
cardinals, artists and benefactors. What made the headlines was that the Pope had directed that a street-person,
whose corpse had been in the morgue awaiting identification since he died in December, would be buried there.
Willy Herteleer was well known around St Peter's. The 80-year-old Belgian lived in the
“small town” of the Borgo adjacent to the Vatican. Swiss Guards, shop-keepers and clergy would feed him and pay for
his morning cappuccino. He attended the 7am Mass daily at Sant' Anna for 25 years, saying Holy Communion was his
“medicine”. He was “rich in faith” if not in money.
A canon of St Peter's, Monsignor
Americo Ciani, knew him well, presided at his funeral and has painted his portrait. He described how Willy engaged
people in conversation as they passed to and from St Peter's. He'd ask “Do you remember to go to Confession every
now and then? You should, you know, because you won't get to heaven without it!” or “Are you going regularly to
Mass? You should, you know, because otherwise you're missing out on Holy Communion!” Whatever was behind his
destitution, it had not shaken his piety and missionary drive. Though Willy preached from a position of social
“inferiority”, he was a new evangelist.
I've been asked repeatedly what my vision is for the Archdiocese, including education. When I say I haven't
come with marching orders from the Vatican or some grand strategy of my own, people suspect I have a hidden
agenda. So at my Installation I laid it out in these terms: my hope is for “a Church in which the Gospel is preached
with joy, the wisdom of our tradition mined with fidelity, the sacraments celebrated with dignity and welcome, and
the seminaries, convents and youth groups teeming with new life; a Church in which our parishes, chaplaincies and
educational institutions are true centres of the new evangelization, our laity theologically literate and
spiritually well-formed, our outreach to the needy effective and growing – and God glorified above all.” St John
XXIII was pope when I started my Christian journey and if you were searching for a theme that unites the six popes
I've lived under, it would surely be “the new evangelization” that began with him and his Second Vatican Council.
So it's not just a personal idiosyncrasy! Clearly, the
165 Catholic schools in our Archdiocese educating over 85,000 students are an enormous opportunity. If we get it
right, they will not only be centres of the new evangelization but platforms for other parts of my dream,
such a well-educated, well-formed laity, a Church for the poor and a well-beloved God. Combine the schools with our
137 parishes, the 100,000+ people at Sunday Mass (and 500,000 Catholics yet to be brought more regularly on board),
and our various agencies, and you – priests and principals, with your collaborators in the field – have a tremendous
Before saying more about the what and why of this, a
little bit about my relationship with education. As a boy I attended four different Catholic schools in this
archdiocese – and not because I was a serial offender! In this photo I'm in the jersey of the first Rugby League
team of St Michael's Lane Cove. For some years I also taught Catholic school teachers, again in five different
tertiary institutions. I've chaired the SACS Board and its Parramatta equivalent and am finishing up as chair of the
CECNSW after a decade. So schools are not foreign territory for me! A large part of my pastoral energy has been
committed to reaching out to young people, most obviously with World Youth Day 2008 and as the Bishops' Delegate for
Youth since then. Evangelization, education and formation loom large on my horizon, as I know they do on yours.
In 2005 the US National Study of Youth and Religion, headed up by sociologist Christian Smith, published
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
It identified what it called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as the fastest growing religion amongst the young. Its
key doctrines are that:
- There is a god, who created and orders the world and watches over human beings
- This god wants people to be nice to each other, as taught by the Bible and most world religions
- Being nice makes you happy (i.e. feel good about yourself) and makes the world a happier place (the purpose of
- You don't have to involve god in this too much, except when you've got problems, and
- Whatever particular things people do or not in their lives, good people (which is most people) go to heaven when
Another American researcher suggests that teenagers and
young adults are commonly alienated from family, community and institutions, sceptical of Church authority, and
think Christianity largely irrelevant to the public square and private life. Traditional Christian approaches to
matters such as sexuality seem to them oppressive.
This rings true for our culture too. 72% of Australian youth who attend church as youngsters drop out as they grow
older. One social scientist describes the 18-29 age bracket in Australia as the “black hole of church attendance”.
Later today Anthony Cleary will discuss some findings of a survey of the faith of 14,000 of our students from
Years 5, 7, 9 and 11. There are positives and negatives there and, to be frank, if it was all positives I'd be
suspicious the research was rigged. Nonetheless, I'm always open to being surprised. I was happily surprised to
learn that one in five reports attending Sunday Mass – a rather high figure by Australian standards – but sadly
unsurprised to learn a quarter of them only ever attend Mass at school. Again, I was pleased to learn that half our
students attend Reconciliation at least annually, due to the generous provision of Confession by our priests in our
schools, but sorry to hear a third never go. A quarter or more of our students are agnostic or disbelieve in God.
Though I suspect our pastors, principals and parents would be none too pleased to have a street-person frequenting
our school grounds, we need some Aussie Willy Herteleers challenging us on the way to St Peter's!
or confirming belief and practice is, of course, the experience of God. More than a third of those surveyed don't
think or aren't sure whether they've ever experienced being very close to God or Christ. Almost half are unconvinced
that religion helps at the big moments in life or influences the way they live. Most thought there are no moral
absolutes and that morality is a personal choice. None of this will shock those working in the field with our young
question is: should we just resign ourselves to the inevitable slide of the culture religiously or is there still
something(s) we can we do about all this?
- Call [to Missionary Discipleship]
Put simply, evangelization “means proclaiming the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Its goal is bringing
people to faith through a personal encounter with Him.”
Catholics are always comfortable with the word evangelization: it conjures up images of televangelists and
door-knockers trying to liberate people from Babylonian captivity to Rome or preaching the prosperity Gospel. A UK
survey ranked evangelists “better than tax inspectors but worse than prostitutes”.
Yet as the last six popes have never tired of reminding us, evangelization is not optional for Catholics,
not something we can leave to the official 'missionaries'.
This month we celebrate two years of Pope Francis. His
decision to bury Willy in the Vatican speaks volumes about his commitment not just to the poor but to
evangelization. His first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's
World, says “Missionary activity still represents the greatest challenge for the Church” and that the
mission field is not deepest darkest Africa but “on the peripheries” of our own homes, workplaces, parishes and
classrooms. “I dream,” says the Pope, “of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of
transforming everything, so that the Church's customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and
structures, can [all] be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today's world rather than her
self-preservation.” “I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, to
a Church which is [pallid and] unhealthy from being confined [indoors] and from clinging to its own security.”
To be a missionary, on-the-streets Church requires that our proclamation be always faithful to the Tradition we
have received but our language contemporary and accessible;
that our catechesis begin with the very basics of our faith
and lead to a “solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled” formation;
and that it be fed in that interior space that is prayer and so give Christian meaning and direction to all our busy
are called to be not merely maintenance-men in our schools and parishes but “missionary disciples”.
Consistent with Vatican II's reminder of the priestly, royal and prophetic dignity of the faithful, the Pope argues
that “every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization”. That includes those in
our Catholic schools:
Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit
proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelization of culture, even in those countries
where hostile situations challenge us to greater creativity in our search for suitable methods.
And that means fostering a personal encounter with Christ.
- [Still at a] Crossroads
This is the call of the contemporary Church. Will we respond? In 2007 the NSW Bishops recognized that Catholic
schools were at something of a crossroads, not just with respect to enrolments, funding, curriculum and pedagogies,
but with respect to their very identity and mission. They challenged us to ensure that our schools are truly
Catholic in their identity and life, are centres of the new evangelization, enable our students to achieve high
levels of Catholic religious literacy and practice, and are led and staffed by people who will contribute to these
considering the Catholic 'soul' of our schools, the Bishops emphasized:
- a school-wide goal of forming Christian disciples, with appropriate world view, character and behaviour
- an attractive RE curriculum, texts and resources, taught by teachers with appropriate RE qualifications and
- priority for RE in staffing, time, space and resource allocation
- schools as places of Catholic imagination and spirituality, centres of prayer and sacrament
- schools that involve families, parish and diocese in the evangelizing and catechizing process.
Scriptures, history and tradition, and how these are to be lived in the world; that there have been many attempts to
ensure an affective experience of God beyond the cognitive understandings; and that at least some will have been
fired up to believe and live these things beyond their school days.
Is this an unreal expectation? I remember a conversation with a prominent, non-believing academic whose
wife is Jewish and whose daughters attended a Jewish school. At the time we were both teaching future Catholic
school teachers, including RE teachers, at ACU. He told me he was mystified that children at Jewish schools emerged
well-versed in the theology and traditions, customs and heroes of the Jewish religion – whether or not they believed
or practised Judaism – but that the Catholic school students we were preparing to be teachers so often did not, and
Catholic leaders and systems seemed resigned to that. We must aspire to better.
- Response [Achievements and aspirations]
Anyone who thought that eight years on we've ticked all the boxes in Crossroads would be delusional. It
would be like saying we've done the Gospel. But we can certainly point to important initiatives in response to the
charge in that document and other Church rhetoric. In large part due to your efforts:
- Our schools are committed to providing a diverse range of individual and communal prayer experiences
including Adoration, the Rosary and Christian meditation.
- Our schools have a robust RE curriculum, texts, religious literacy testing and focus on religious
experience and moral reasoning.
- As I know more intimately and appreciate more gratefully than anyone, Catholic schools played a huge part in the
success of World Youth Day in 2008 and have been generously involved in local, national and international
festivals of faith ever since. Sydney leads the Church in Australia in this and dedicated youth
ministry modelled on and complementing these experiences is increasingly commonplace in school and
- The Family & Faith Programme in many of our schools is strengthening the faith of parents and
connecting families to the religious life of school and parish.
- The faith formation of staff is approached comprehensively through academic degrees, PD programmes,
pilgrimages and immersion experiences, prayer and retreats. Each school has a three-year faith formation plan to
support continuing faith development of staff and students. Over 400 of our teachers are undertaking further
- The Archbishop's Charter lists aspirations and expectations for our schools. It recognizes the complex
goal of educating children in the Scriptures and Tradition, and forming them intellectually, morally,
imaginatively, liturgically and socially.
- Last year's external review affirmed the many good things happening in Catholic education in Sydney, especially
in Catholic identity and mission on the one hand, and quality teaching and learning on the other.
But the more we learn in life the more we realize we don't know. So, too, the better we fulfil the
identity and mission of the Catholic school the more keenly we feel the need to do better. Here are some of the
pressing challenges and goals for Catholic education in Sydney:
- In a few days' time we go to the polls to elect a new state government. Education hasn't featured much in the
campaign and our every effort to get the major parties to commit to assisting us to build new schools and
enlarge existing ones for the bubble of enrolments on the horizon has met only vague sympathy. Of course, there
are many issues apart from capital funding for schools. Every election is an opportunity for Catholics to apply
a well-formed conscience to the choice of leaders, and this highlights the important task for Catholic education
of ensuring our graduates have a social conscience. There are, for instance, persistent threats to
human life and love in our city. It is likely that the next parliament will face moves to further widen the
licence for abortion, to legalize euthanasia, to take away rights of conscience in these matters from
health-workers, to remove religious liberty protections from Anti-Discrimination laws, and to redefine the
fundamental institution of marriage and family. Catholic education should offer future voters wisdom for
navigating such complex intersections of private morality and public policy. Yet many teachers avoid such topics
because they lack sympathy with Catholic positions on these matters, fear offending someone, or lack confidence
in how to approach such contentious areas.
- We must work just at 'growing' our system and our individual schools, but at growing our Catholic
enrolments, especially in schools where this is already below three-quarters.
- Likewise we must look for ways of increasing the percentage of our students who are not only nominal Catholics
but who have some passion for faith and practice.
- Another challenge is the loss of Catholic cultural identity and confidence for many young Catholic
teachers. If Catholic students are sometimes mocked by their peers for going to Mass or Confession, so too young
Catholic teachers may feel odd being passionate about the faith. We must identify idealistic young people to be
our future priests and religious, spouses and parents, school principals, RECs and teachers, and create
environments in which that idealism is fostered and those vocations flourish.
- Our schools must be oases of Catholic prayer and life in which each person is welcomed, formed and
sent. We are doing a lot in this area but it is still uneven: we are, for instance, often more comfortable
talking and doing social justice than other areas of Catholic morality, in talking morality than the rest of
faith, in talking comparative religion than full-cream Catholicism.
- Youth festivals and youth ministry in schools are relatively recent initiatives and no doubt more can
be done, especially in linking these with parish. Last year, I published a document on the effects of such
festivals on young Australians and how we might maximize these.
I would like to see attendance at such 'intensives in Catholic faith life' as an ordinary part of the formation
of beginning teachers.
- Strangely, around age 16-18 when young people are most intensively asking the big questions about God, the
universe and themselves, about vocation and morality, and are about to enter the world of universities and
workplaces, we tend to reduce our religious education input. I am not against the study of comparative religion,
but I do think our children should know their own tradition best. So I, for one, am an enthusiast for developing
a Board approved, HSC winning, Catholic Studies unit amongst the options for the HSC.
- Deepening collaboration between school and parish is a perennial challenge. They must not be separate
silos into which we put students, parishioners and energies: they are different faces of the one evangelising
mission and so must complement and support each other better than they presently do.
- Missionary disciples making an Angelus of their lives
Tomorrow the Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation. A late school-aged girl sits, deep in prayer and
contemplation when the angel of the Lord appears and declares unto her the Hail Mary. The ancient fathers
imagined all humanity past, present and future, all the angels and animals, the whole material and spiritual
universe, hushed, anxiously listening: the first Eve said NO, what will this new Eve say? After some consternation
and explanation she says “I am the handmaid of the Lord: be it done unto me according to Thy word”. By her consent
God comes to dwell among us, as one of us. All of history turns on this instant: everything is either bc, before
that moment, or ad, after it: the moment of the Angelus.
From ancient times the Angelus was said at noon, when the sun is highest in the sky, and sometimes at dawn
and dusk when the light is coming and going. Bells are customarily rung to encourage people to stop work, if only
for a few moments, and reflect upon God's gifts to us; to ask themselves what all the busyness is for and how it
serves the enfleshment of God; and to say yes, please and thank you!
When I was a young auxiliary bishop in
Sydney, awaiting a permanent secretary, we hired an excellent temp who knew almost nothing about religion beyond
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I explained that one of her jobs would be to ring the Angelus at noon each
day. “No problem,” she said. But later in the day she came back to ask: “What's the phone number of that evangelist
you want me to ring each day?”
After I introduced the ringing of the Angelus in my parish I got many
favourable comments. But a non-Catholic lady complained that the bell was tormenting her dog and wondered why I did
it. I explained the value of stopping to ponder what life's all for, to give thanks and to consecrate our day at its
mid-point to the service of God and people. She responded that she thought that was a lovely idea! I don't know what
she prayed each day thereafter: probably that her dog would stop barking! But she saw the sense in stopping,
thinking and thanking. I've already heard of a school that rings the Angelus observing workmen onsite stopping and
praying at the sound of the bell with the school community. The bell itself is an evangelist!
Now we'll be
doing it together, as an Archdiocese, perhaps 100,000 of us staff and students in our systemic and congregational
schools, in parishes and agencies too. I plan to do it each day with my chancery staff. So we will all be praying at
once and in the same terms. What a sign of unity as the Archdiocese of Sydney becomes a veritable powerhouse of
prayer around midday each day! Whether or not it will answer our state government's energy needs, it will certainly
help power the Church!
So, from tomorrow, the Angelus will be prayed in all our schools at noon every school
day. I'll leave the details to the RE&E team and each school. Some may do it over the P.A. Some may have
students or teachers lead it in class. Some already have or will get a bell and there will be much competition as to
who rings it. By cultivating such habits, we are helping ensure that breaking and praying are part of the ordinary
rhythm of life for our young people, like tooth brushing. And then, when the hard times come, when the puzzle is
deep or the need is great, they will know where to go.
Herteleer is dead and buried but his story goes on. Mass and Confession, loving God and neighbour, talking to both
about both, a relationship with Christ lived in poverty and at the peripheries yet still at the very heart of the
Church – this was his simple formula and it touched the lowest to the highest. He shows that we are all in this
together. Great things have been achieved; yet we confidently look to those in our schools to achieve even greater.
By the gift of yourselves we can hope to see more young men and women of faith and character whose gifts are
nurtured and who will contribute to building up God's kingdom. Thank you for your part in that sacred adventure.
2.E.g. Bld Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi: On Evangelization in the Modern World; St John Paul II, Christifideles
Laici: On the Mission of the Lay Faithful 44; Redemptoris Missio: On the Mission of the Redeemer 3; Ecclesia in
Oceania: On the Church in Oceania 18 & 13; Novo Millennio Ineunte: At the Beginning of the New Millennium 40;
Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 113-114; Pope Benedict XVI, Ubicumque et semper: Establishing the Pontifical
Council for the New Evangelization; Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium: On the Proclamation of the Gospel in
Today's World (EG).
3.Christian Smith and others, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American
Teenagers (2005). Cf. also by Smith (with or without others), Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives
of Emerging Adults (2009); Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011); Young Catholic America:
Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (2014).
See also by Christian Smith,
Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (2011) as summarised in
Hughes, “Young People”.
5.Cited in Philip Hughes, “Why Young People are Leaving the Church” Pointers 25(1)
(March, 2015): 1-7.
6.ACBC Pastoral Research Office, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment, December
2013, p.3 noted that almost a third of our Mass attendees are aged between 60 and 74 and that there is a
“preponderance of women and [a] lack of young adults of both sexes” amongst them.
7.NSW and ACT Bishops Pastoral
Letter, Catholic Schools at a Crossroads, p. 12.
8.”Bishops ponder how to reach out to a secular society,” The
Tablet, 26 Oct 2002, p. 37.
9.EG 15, 27, 49.
16.Bishops of New South Wales and the ACT, Catholic Schools at a Crossroads (2007).
pp. 10 & 14.
18.Anthony Fisher OP, Effects of World Youth Days and Australian Catholic Youth Festivals