HOMILY FOR BLESSING & OPENING OF ST. THERESE CATHOLIC PRESCHOOL & LONG DAY CARE
96 Cartwright Avenue, Sadleir/Miller, Sydney
The phrase ‘salt of the earth’ is commonplace in modern English. It comes, of course, from Jesus’ words in our Gospel passage today (Mt 5:1b-2, 13-16). It has come to describe those who are commonsensical, practical, honest, reliable. But is that what Jesus had in mind?
Well, yes and no. In the ancient world of Jesus, salt was about many things. It was a valuable substance, used especially in food. It was also a disinfectant, and so newborn babies were rubbed with it (Ezek 16:4). It was used in worship (Ex 30:35; Ezra 6:9; Ezek 43:24) and as a symbol of friendship (Num 18:18; 2Chr 13:5; cf. Col 4:6). On the other hand, agricultural land could be ruined by anthropogenic or natural salination (Jud 9:45; Ps 107:34; Job 39:6; Jer 17:6; cf. Mk 9:49) and salt could be contaminated by other minerals and so lose its taste or taste bad. Lot’s wife was famously turned to a pillar of salt as punishment for disobeying the command not to look part at Sodom (Gen 19). So Jesus could have meant many different things by telling us to be salty today. What did he have in mind?
Well good as opposed to useless salt was salt that, first, preserved food – in the ancient world it was used a great deal for preserving meat, fish, pickles. Second, good salt was salt that enhanced the flavour of cooking – garam, a salty fish sauce, was added to almost everything by the ancient Romans. And thirdly, good salt dissolved and dispersed itself, rather than concentrating and overpowering all around it. Good-for-nothing salt, on the other hand, failed to do these things. Jesus seems to have all three dimensions in mind and so to be speaking to three dimensions of the identity and mission of Christian institutions such as the Preschool and Long Day Care Centre we are blessing and opening today.
Like salt, we are called to preserve: to preserve the sanctity and dignity of all human life and especially of the little ones; to safeguard and nurture, in particular, those entrusted to our care; to preserve, also, the teachings of Christ and his Church even as we communicate and apply them. So Jesus insists on the preservation role of Christians as He continues His Sermon on the Mount, declaring that He has not come to abolish the law and traditions of the elders but to fulfil them (Mt 5:17-20).
Salt preserves, but it also enhances the flavour of foods – despite our efforts to reduce our salt intake we all know how bland soups and eggs can be without salt, or how important soy sauce it to Asian food, or salt crystals to a margarita! So Jesus insists on the flavouring role of Christians as He continues His Sermon on the Mount, declaring that they must be out there and visible like light from a lamp, casting that light of faith upon all the world (Mt 5:14-16). We don’t just preserve our Faith: we communicate it, opening our minds and hearts and souls to the little ones in our care through teaching, evangelising and encouraging, hopefully exciting in them curiosity for ordinary learning and for the higher things, feeding imagination and instilling virtues also, so that they permeate the whole dish.
Salt preserves and flavours, but it ultimately disperses itself. Thus Jesus says we must be like yeast in the bread of the world, loving our neighbours, even our enemies, and infecting them with the Gospel, diminishing ourselves so the other may grow (Mt 5:43-8; 7:15-23; 13:33-4; Jn 3:30 etc.). We are not a cult. We put aside our egos and our desire for control. We empty ourselves and let the little ones grow in their own way, discover and learn in their own way, become in turn the ones who are spreading the flavour of the Gospel to their families and school friends.
Next year we will celebrate two centuries of Catholic schools being salt for the children and families and parishes of Australia. We’ve been at it longer than any state system or for-profit provider. And with around ¾ million students and 96,000 teachers and staff, Catholic education is the biggest non-government employer in the country, the biggest charity and a major part of our education ecosystem. It has achieved some extraordinary things. But it must keep pushing the boundaries in accessibility, pedagogies, professionalism, piety and more.
One such boundary that we are crossing at last is into affordable, quality, Catholic preschool and long day care. We know parents want and need it. We know it has learning, social and spiritual benefits for children. We want to work closely with our families and parishioners in a shared family ministry. We are developing partnerships with our parishes, primary schools, CatholicCare and Catholic universities so we can offer the very best preschools. We aspire to be everywhere in Sydney, with more prosperous areas assisting poorer ones. And we bring to that project two centuries’ experience of preserving, flavouring and reaching out that is the salt of Catholic education in Australia.
It’s not about empire building. It’s not even about facilities, staff, pedagogies – important as these are. Those are, in the end, all means to ends. What matters is that we can offer daily opportunities to our students to come to know Jesus better, themselves better, their world better. In their learning experiences; in their play; in their friendships – across the board. Our task is to salt and savour, light and enlighten, build and civilise, transfiguring by grace our homes and families, our workplaces and professions, our arts and sciences, our culture and polity, our whole world, but starting small, starting with the little ones.
I gratefully acknowledge Tony Farley, Executive Director of Sydney Catholic Schools; Dan White, the former executive director; other leaders including Vicki Lavorato, Glenn McLachlan, Peter Clarke, Anthony Smith, and Genevieve Moss; our architects and builders; Director of System Stewardship; Franceyn O’Connor and the Sydney Catholic Early Childhood Services Team; members of the Advisory Board; Fr Paulino, the pastor here at St. Therese with the parents and friends of the school and parishioners of the parish; the architects and builders; and the families who are entrusting their little ones to us. My heartfelt thanks to our excellent, professional staff, who make the students of this school the focus of everything they do. They know that each child is a unique image of God in our world and they want to build here a community of respect, involvement and love of learning so that every kid can realise their full potential. St Therese Catholic preschool and long day care is a true ambassador for the Church as we look for more and better ways of serving our community. Thanks be to God for you all!