Homily for Mass for Beginning Teachers For Sydney Catholic Schools

10 Mar 2023

Wednesday of the 2nd Week of Lent – St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 March 2023

Launched in 2010 by then Education Minister, Julia Gillard, the My Schools website was a smash hit from the get-go, amassing 1.5 million hits on its first day—and causing more than a few technical glitches. It was intended to offer parents, educators and community as much accessible information as possible about our schools. Student population data would socio-economic advantage, proportion of Indigenous and ESL students, and school attendance rates. School capacity information would include type of schools, location, year range, student and staff numbers, and school finances. Educational outcomes would include NAPLAN results regarding student literacy and numeracy, indications of student improvement, participation in vocational education and training, HSC outcomes and post-school destinations. Australia’s education ministers had agreed that transparency and accountability in such matters would be good for school performance and student progress. Most people agreed.

However, My Schools quickly became controversial. There were disputes about what can and can’t be measured, what the best measures are, and how the data are interpreted. Some argued that the ‘league tables’ comparing schools were deeply problematic. Others thought the focus should be on learning gains. If people made statistically unreasonable comparisons between schools or teachers, parents might select schools apparently on the basis of quality but without regard to the students’ starting points and out-of-school support; this might further disadvantage certain schools and students. In 2020, the function allowing school comparison was removed from the website. There were loud voices for and against.

What can we learn from all of this? Well, for one thing you can’t blame a parent for wanting the best for their kid, or schools or society for wanting the best for their cohort of children. It is a very natural instinct. A school that consistently performs well academically is an obvious choice for parents and the pride of a local community. But even if this was being validly measured, is that all schools are about?

It’s an especially crucial question for Catholic schools. Parents no longer enrol their kids out of mere tribal loyalty as Catholics; they want to see academic results, not just high sounding spiritual or pastoral rhetoric. Justice to our students demands attention to learning gain and academic excellence, but so do enrolment numbers. Yet Catholic schools are called to more than simple test scores and market share. Together with academic formation they must be places of moral conversion; as much as intellectual development, they seek spiritual growth. The animating principle of daily life of the Catholic school must be belief in the person and Gospel of Jesus Christ or else it is dead. All the virtues must be cultivated in staff and students, especially faith, hope and charity, or else it is a fraud. A deeper wisdom must be sought about the meaning of God, the universe and ourselves, or else it is a failure. Much of this doesn’t track easily on a website. Yet children are entrusted to us precisely so that we might attend to and form the whole person.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, we meet an eager mother who wants the best for her boys. The Zebedee brothers, James and John, sheepishly stand behind her at parent-teacher night, and blush in front of their mates as she makes her bold demand. “Promise me these two sons of mine may sit one on your right hand, the other at your left in your kingdom” (Mt 20:21). In her mind, it was a reasonable request. Why should she give up her two sons and the fishing business they had helped her husband Zeb sustain, if they weren’t going to get properly rewarded? Her boys were the best: why shouldn’t they have the places of honour? In the ancient world, like our own, prestige was about power and influence, the high life and conspicuous consumption, being famous for being famous—keeping up with the Kardashians.

But Mrs Zebedee had missed the point of the kind of kingdom that Jesus was inaugurating. He tells her straight, “Girl, you don’t know what you’re asking.” My kingdom aint like that. If she and her sons thought being positioned right and left of Jesus would be all glitz and grandeur, just wait for Crucifixion day and ask those left and right of Jesus on the cross!

“Are you able to drink the cup that I’m to drink?” Christ asks them rhetorically. The subtext here is clear: you are not. You don’t yet appreciate what that means. Will you love others, no matter the personal cost, turning the other cheek, giving expecting no return, even unto laying down your life for them? Are you ready to be ridiculed, hated, even killed? “Can you drink my cup?” Jesus asks. Egged on by their stage mother, the lads boldly say they can. So Jesus says “Very well, then”. Their time of trial will come. They too will drink the cup of wrath.

The mother is ambitious; the lads are naïve; now the other apostles demonstrate their own insecurities and envy. Who do they think they are?” they exclaim. “They’re no better than us.

Christos Paedagogus, Christ the Teacher

Jesus was a patient teacher. When He noticed guests rushing for the best seats at a feast, He counselled taking the lower seat, teaching that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exhorted” (Lk 14:7-11). When His disciples asked who was the greatest in God’s kingdom, He called a little child to Him as an example and said they must be like this (Mt 18:1-4). If you want true greatness, cultivate smallness; the greatest must serve the least (Mt 23:11-12; Lk 9:48; 22:24-27; cf. Jn 3:30).

Jesus gave them Himself as an example of true humility: letting go of His heavenly magnificence to become human (Phil 2:8; Jn 1:1-14); submitting to temptation, want and grief (Mt 4:1-11; 23:37; Jn 4:6-7; 11:35; 19:28; Heb 4:15), to baptism, poverty and obedience (Mt 3:13-15, 26:39; Lk 2:4-7,51; 9:58; Jn 6:38; 2Cor 8:9; Heb 10:9); serving and self-giving, even unto death, washing His disciples’ feet that they might learn to do likewise (Lk 22:27; Jn 13:1-15; Phil 2:8); eschewing all attempts to make Him king and then upending human expectations of power by entering Jerusalem “in triumph” on a donkey (Jn 6:15; Mt 21:5-9); explaining that His “kingdom” was very different (Jn 18:36) and that He did nothing for his own glory (Jn 8:28-29,50; 12:49-50). “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28).

My point is that Jesus taught this lesson, again and again, in different ways, sometimes to the same obtuse students, until they finally got it—so that we read in their student essays, the epistles, that they eventually counted Him the perfect example of humility, worthy of their imitation (Rom 12:16; Eph 4:2-6; Phil 2:3-8; Col 3:11-12; Jas 4:6-10; 1Pet 5:2-6). Jesus was the most patient of teachers, and His lessons drew His students to thinking bigger and better. In today’s Gospel young Jimbo and Jonny still hadn’t grasped what discipleship meant. The lesson would go on, for at least three years, maybe more. And it would be about more than words: they would learn from the example of Jesus’ own life, for the best teachers are first witnesses to what they propose.

Beginning teachers in Sydney Catholic Schools 2023: congratulations on your appointment. Welcome to this ministry and our system of schools. God bless you in the challenges ahead. Sometimes the lights will turn on on your students’ faces and you will have the unique satisfaction of a teacher. At other times you will meet more resistance, perhaps because what you represent in word and deed is counter-cultural or counter-comfortable. People today are searching for wisdom and purpose more than ever, yet many close their minds to traditions and ideals as big and beautiful as those of Christ and His Church. So, your vocation will require courage, perseverance, the sort of thinking Jesus proclaims today: that serves others rather than self, that puts their good ahead of your own or indeed makes their good your own, that loves even at some sacrifice. If all of this sounds otherworldly, it’s because it is: it is your path to heaven. May God bless you in your vocation. Thanks be to God for each one of you!

Introduction to Mass for Beginning Teachers For Sydney Catholic Schools
Wednesday of the 2nd Week of Lent, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 March 2023

It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to the mother church of Australia, St Mary’s Cathedral, for our Beginning Teachers Mass. It is a great joy that so many of you have chosen to pursue this crucial vocation and join the proud and rich history of Catholic education in this country now 200 years young. Teaching is one of the most rewarding human activities but not without its challenges. No two students, classes, teaching days or years will be the same, but what they will have in common is that they will stretch you in ways you can’t yet imagine, and mean you share in your students’ highs of achievement and lows of struggle.

Yet in placing your talents and efforts at the service of the Church, her schools, above all her young people, educating their minds and hearts, you are offering them a very precious gift. So today we ask Christos Paedagogus, Christ the Teacher, to bless, guide and protect you in the great adventure of Catholic education. I acknowledge here with us today the Executive Director of Sydney Catholic Schools, Mr Tony Farley and other senior SCS management and staff; all our school leaders, teachers, and general staff; and especially our beginning teachers.