Catholic Schools and the New Evangelization: 'A Most Valuable Resource'

Coadjutor of Armagh Asks If Catholic Schools Should Help Young People Grasp the Truths of Faith

Dublin, (Zenit.org) | 1744 hits

Here is an address from Archbishop Eamon Martin, coadjutor archbishop of Armagh, given today at the Edmund Rice Schools Trustees (NI) Annual Foundation Lecture.

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"We need a bigger beach" ran a newspaper headline last July on the morning after World Youth Day 2013. It was an amazing sight - two and half miles of Rio’s Copacabana beach crammed with three million young Catholics from all over the world, including Ireland.

Pope Francis left the young people in no doubt that they have an important role to play in the New Evangelisation. 'The Lord needs you for His Church', he told them. Unapologetically, he called them to be missionaries. ‘Be active members of the Church’, he said, ‘go on the offensive… build a better world of justice, of love, of peace, of fraternity, of solidarity’. ‘Don’t leave it to others’, he said.  ‘Don't be observers of life’. 'Get involved’. ‘Be protagonists of change’. At the final Mass he said that the best tool for evangelising the young is another young person and he challenged them: ‘Do not be afraid to go and bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent’.

It’s impossible to talk about ‘Catholic Schools and the New Evangelisation’ without first being aware of the Holy Father's challenge to young people. A few weeks ago we celebrated Catholic Schools Week, acknowledging that our schools are distinctive – they are not only centres of excellence and learning, but they are also places of faith. So, if the Holy Father is calling on our young people to be agents of the new evangelisation, it is important to ask ourselves: to what extent do we, in our Catholic schools, facilitate young people in grasping the truths of faith, growing in love of God and neighbour, and in becoming witnesses for Christ?

I am aware, of course, that this is a sensitive topic, controversial even. Some question the role of the school in helping a young person deepen her or his faith? Is that not primarily the responsibility of their parent or their parish? And if the Catholic school does have a part to play, then have we the necessary resources and formation in place to make that possible?

Pope Francis has no doubt that Catholic schools are vital to the New Evangelisation.  Just before Christmas he published the Apostolic Exhortation,Evangelii Gaudium, (The Gospel of Joy) in response to the XIII Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelisation. In ‘The Gospel of Joy’  he says:

‘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’ (EG 134).

His words are reminiscent of those of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Speaking to US bishops on an ad limina visit in 2012, he described Catholic schools as ‘an essential resource to the new evangelisation’, whose task is not just to pass on intellectual knowledge, but also to ‘shape the hearts’ of young people.

But how might Catholic schools take their place in the New Evangelisation? And what challenges does the Pope's mandate present? Tonight I would like to reflect on three particular issues: firstly the New Context in which our Catholic schools are working; secondly, what is this New Mission that is being given to us?; and thirdly, I offer my thoughts on some 'New' Partnerships to assist our schools in taking up the challenge.

1. A New Context

Last Monday evening I had the privilege of returning to my alma mater, Saint Columb’s College in Derry, to speak to several hundred senior pupils from the Catholic post-primary schools in Derry. Standing in the Assembly Hall of my old school, I couldn’t help thinking back 35 years to the time when I had been an Upper Sixth student. It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the changes that have taken place since then - in education, the Church and society. The world is now a very different place.

The past twenty years have seen a steep decline in weekly practice and prayer amongst Catholics here. Ireland shares with other parts of Western Europe a certain loss of the ‘sense of the sacred’, increasing individualism and disengagement from community, and a tendency towards ethical relativism.  Schools and their pupils are not immune. Teachers and parents struggle to compete with all the contradictory messages which contemporary culture hurls at our young people - the cult of the celebrity, binge drinking and drugs and pornography. Ironically, the digital communications revolution has brought with it a certain breakdown in real and meaningful communication and friendships. Perhaps the most saddening feature of recent years is the prevalence of depression amongst the young, and the creeping despair and emptiness which has tragically taken the lives of too many of our young people through suicide.

In Ireland as elsewhere, the gradual drift of people away from Mass and the sacraments has grown stronger and increasingly we are finding people who live their lives with little or no reference to belief or trust in God. A considerable number of baptised Catholics in Ireland are in need of what Pope John Paul II termed the 'new evangelisation', finding themselves at a remove from Christ and the church and having 'lost a living sense of the faith' (RM 33). There is also no doubt that the dark cloud of abuse, with all its shame and scandal, has, as Pope Benedict put it (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland 2010),  ‘obscured the light of the gospel’. It has not only brought such tragic consequences for victims and their families, but has also undermined trust among some parents in the involvement of the Church in our schools and other educational establishments.

The new context shows itself in various ways. It is not uncommon for Primary School teachers to notice that some children starting school have not yet been introduced to Jesus and have little or no foundation in prayer. And even when the school does its best to prepare and create an environment of prayer and practice, in many cases pupils are not brought to the sacraments outside of school. More teachers nowadays are finding themselves quite literally 'in loco parentis' as the first teachers of these children in the ways of faith.

With the decline in family prayer, and in a culture of faith in many homes, perhaps some parents simply lack the confidence to teach their children about God, or how to talk to Jesus as their loving friend. Others, because of their particular life circumstances, may feel disaffected or even excluded from the family of the Church. On the other hand there are many young parents, who consider it as a great privilege and responsibility to hand on the faith to their children – recently a young couple told me they have both come back to God and the practice of their faith following a pre-baptism course in their parish. And I should mention the importance of the vocation of grandparents in supporting their children and grandchildren in coming to know God – the Catholic Grandparents Association is already making a tremendous contribution to the New Evangelisation.

As I said, schools are not immune from the influences I have been speaking about. Often teachers will express their personal lack of confidence when it comes to witnessing to their faith in any kind of public manner. In some cases they too may have fallen away from regular practice of their faith, or perhaps they have had insufficient support or mature formation in knowing and understanding the truths of the Catholic faith.  For whatever reason, they may feel uncomfortable in leading prayer, or talking to their pupils about faith matters – especially in an age when young people are well able to put you 'on the spot' over a tricky moral dilemma or about some aspect of the Church’s teaching. Our schools are also becoming increasingly diverse with pupils and teachers from a wide variety of cultural, religious or non-religious backgrounds.

Last weekend, Pope Francis, speaking to the Plenary session of the Congregation for Catholic Education, pointed to the multicultural environment of Catholic schools and universities, where many students are not Christian or do not believe. He reminded us that Catholic education has, as its aim, not only the full development of every person, but also the desire 'to present Jesus Christ as the meaning of life, the cosmos and history’. He said the new context of dialogue and encounter in which we find ourselves is not unlike that in which Jesus began to proclaim the Good News - a 'Galilee of the nations', a crossroads' of people, diverse in terms of race, culture and religion'. Here, our Catholic Schools are called to maintain what Pope Francis calls ‘a courageous and innovative fidelity that enables Catholic identity to encounter the various 'souls' of multicultural society’.

Having spoken about the New Context in which Catholic schools are finding themselves, let me consider now some aspects of the New Mission that awaits them.

2. New Mission

Pope Francis 'never tires' of repeating these words of his predecessor Pope Benedict: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.

Surely this is the key mission which unites us as parents, teachers, priests - to help our young people find a personal relationship with Jesus within the communion of the Church. At times we can present our faith as if it were simply a collection of guidelines, rules, rituals and routines, symbols, structures and historical characters. Of course it includes all of these. But if we reduce it to these entirely and neglect the 'spark of faith' and that personal encounter with the love of God in Jesus, then we will end up with something 'worn out' and joyless.

Pope Francis makes no apologies for putting the ‘joy’ back into the vocabulary of our faith. In Evangelii Gaudium (The Gospel of Joy) he mocks our tendency towards 'joyless' Christianity. An evangeliser, he says, must never be 'self-absorbed' or gloomy, looking like 'someone who has just come back from a funeral'. (EG10) He has no time for ‘defeatism’ which turns us into ‘disillusioned pessimists' - or “sourpusses” as he calls them. He insists: ‘Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelisation’; ‘let us not allow ourselves to be or ‘robbed of hope’ (EG83).

Instead, Pope Francis challenges us to get out there to bring faith to life. He says (EG)  ‘I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security…. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life’.

I find these words exciting, but also quite disturbing of my own 'comfort zone'. When I look at my own life, I wonder how much do I keep Jesus locked up inside myself? Because at the heart of the message of Pope Francis is the radical call of Jesus to go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News.

I would like to suggest three particular ways by which our Catholic schools might respond to this challenge:

a. Instil confidence in pupils and teachers to be public witnesses for our faith.

b. Let God’s presence in his Word and the Eucharist transform our schools from within

c. Reach out to the poor and tackle inequality

a. Confidence to be witnesses

The Gospel readings these Sundays, drawn from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), leave us in no doubt that we are all called to be ‘witnesses’ for our faith. Jesus says: ‘You are salt for the earth; You are light for the world’. Tasteless salt or hidden lights are worthless and should be thrown out.

It is difficult, of course, to be public witnesses for Christ nowadays, particularly in schools. Perhaps it's because pupils or teachers don’t want to come across as pious or ‘holier than thou’ in front of friends and colleagues; or, because they are conscious of their own personal weaknesses and sinfulness? Or is it that they do not have the maturity of language or vocabulary in order to communicate the truth of the Gospel message in a sometimes aggressively secular world? To be a witness to Christ nowadays is becoming increasingly counter-cultural. More and more, faith-based opinions are being given the 'cold shoulder' in the public square.

How many of us have not found ourselves floundering at times to understand and articulate Gospel values and Catholic teachings about life, love, the family, charity, a fair distribution of wealth, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation?

If we wish to become witnesses for Christ today, we have to be able to draw upon both reason and faith in order to express our vision of the dignity and vocation of the human person, linked to the common good. All the more reason, then, for our Catholic education system, from infancy to young adulthood, to play its part in providing a progressive catechesis, one which gradually and systematically helps pupils and teachers to grasp and present the essential content of our rich Catholic tradition and doctrine.

All Catholic schools, with the help of their Diocesan Advisor, might usefully examine their ethos and curriculum in order to evaluate the contribution they are making to pupils' knowledge and understanding of salvation history and of the four so-called 'pillars' of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1)What we believe (the creed); 2) how we celebrate (liturgy and the sacraments); 3) how we live (Christian morality); 4) how we pray (Christian prayer)

Because of the many influences on them, not least in the digital media, young people are often left without moral reference points and are easily swayed by ethical relativism, or by a comfortable ‘spirituality without challenge’. Sadly, as one young R.E. teacher told me recently: more young people are tempted towards a kind of 'nihilism', viewing life as basically meaningless.

Our Catholic schools have a vital role to play in developing a ‘creative apologetics’ (EG 132) which will help our young people to present and explain to their world a ‘consistent ethic of life’, and, as the first letter of Peter puts it: "a reason for the hope that is within us" (1Pet 3:15). We must aim to send our pupils out 'in the service of love', emboldened with the Gospel of Joy, to change the world. We must help and encourage them to say a resounding ‘Yes’ to a culture of Life and ‘No’ to the creeping culture of death and destruction.

In all this we must remember, as Pope Francis says, ‘on the lips of the catechist, the first proclamation (of the Gospel) must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’ (EG164)

b. And that brings me to the second feature of the New Mission for our Catholic schools, to let God’s presence in his Word and the Eucharist transform our schools from within.

Obviously this means finding more opportunities in Catholic schools for pupils to hear or read God’s Word,  and then to reflect on what it is asking of them. The Word of God is the ‘wellspring of renewal’ in the life of the Church and in our own personal lives (Verbum Domini). But if this is to happen then we need to make the Bible a more natural part of the daily life of our schools.

St Jerome once said: Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, so let us seek new opportunities in our Catholic schools for teachers and pupils to meet together to read and study the Bible, to reflect upon it prayerfully, to get to know who Jesus is, his life and ministry and relate it to their lives. e.g.  in Assemblies, Bible Study Groups and Lectio Divina groups. Pope Francis describes the Word of God as a 'sublime treasure'. He says 'the study of the sacred Scriptures must be a door opened to every believer’; evangelisation demands familiarity with the Word of God. You may be aware of the website, 'Sacred Space’ which is hosted here in Ireland. In a few clicks it offers opportunities for a few moments of prayer and meditation for each day, drawing from God’s Word, offering thoughts on how that Word relates to daily life. Something like this would be the ideal beginning to every day for pupils, teachers and school chaplains.

God’s powerful presence in the Eucharist is another source of nourishment for our Catholic schools. Most of our schools already make a big effort to ensure that school, class and Year Group Masses are celebrated regularly with joy and reverence. Pope John Paul II, who invented the term ‘New Evangelisation’ was always clear that there is no authentic celebration of the Eucharist that does not lead to mission. The  Eucharist is the summit and source of the Church’s life and mission. Regular celebration of the Eucharist, as well as opportunities for young people to meet God in adoration and prayer before the Eucharist can bring new hope, enthusiasm and renewal into the life of a school.

A few weeks ago during Catholic schools week I attended a wonderful liturgical celebration with 800 children from all over Dundalk. Towards the end of their hour-long celebration of joyful prayer and song, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, and the children were led in a meditation and silent adoration, before ending with Benediction – it was deeply moving to see 800 children praying intensely in silence before Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Pope Benedict once said: ‘Eucharistic spirituality must be the interior motor of every activity’. (Homily at Conclusion of the Year of the Eucharist 23 October 2005). Might all our Catholic schools harness this power in driving the New Evangelisation?

c. The third aspect of the New Mission flows from Word and Eucharist and from the desire to be a public witness to Christ - it is one which Pope Francis mentions almost every day: Reach out to the poor and tackle inequality.

The problem of world poverty remains a huge challenge for all of us. The recent observation by Oxfam that the 85 richest people in the world earn more than 3.5 billion of the world’s poorest people stopped many of us in our tracks. Apparently one third of all the food bought in Ireland is thrown out – and worldwide there are 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste every year. Pope Francis refers to the 'scandal of global hunger'  and says ‘we cannot look the other way and pretend that global hunger does not exist’. ‘We must try to give a voice to those who suffer silently from hunger so that this voice becomes a roar which can shake the world’.

The disturbing thing about this challenge is how easy it is for us at home, school and parish, to become comfortable with our share of the world’s material goods, and even to get caught into the pursuit of more riches and pleasure, oblivious to those in the world who are much less fortunate than we are. It is true that Ireland remains one of the most generous countries in the world when it comes to supporting development aid and our schools raise large amounts for charity. The 5 million euro raised by Trócaire before Christmas for Syria and the Philippines was an extraordinary act of generosity and solidarity.

But I think that Pope Francis is reminding us that solidarity with the poor is about more than giving from what we have left over. He is calling us to examine our whole lives, our mindset, our personal attitudes to money and possessions.  And these are issues which our Catholic schools must present to our young people who are so easily caught up in the materialism that surrounds them. Where do we find fulfilment in our lives?  Is it in the material things that we own, or is it in becoming a more rounded and generous person who is deeply conscious of the impact of our lifestyle on the earth and on the poorest peoples who share this planet with us? Pope Francis is asking us to confront our worldliness, that ‘throwaway culture’ which reduces everyone and everything to consumers or units of consumption; he invites us  to be permanently 'tuned in' to hearing the cry of the poor, the excluded, the marginalised, the forgotten. Indeed he goes further, he asks us to go out to the peripheries, to meet the poor and excluded where they are at.

I applaud those Catholic schools that organise outreach programmes for their pupils, who have established youth branches of St Vincent de Paul Society, who organise trips to Lourdes as helpers of the sick, educational visits to orphanages in Romania, or to mission countries like Kenya or Uganda.  These experiences can have a profound, lifelong impact on our young people and on the teachers who accompany them. Development education and Catholic social teaching ought to be a compulsory part of the curriculum in all Catholic schools so that teachers and young people can be aware of issues such as solidarity, fair distribution of the world’s goods, and about the impact of poverty on the dignity of the human person. If we are to meet the challenges of the New Evangelisation, Catholic social teaching must not remain, as some say, the Church’s best kept secret! Trocaire’s website has some excellent resources. By way of introduction for teachers and principals, I recommend Donal Dorr’s classic text: Option for the Poor and for the Earth –which traces the development of the key principles of Catholic social teaching over more than a century.

In this regard, within our Catholic education system as a whole, we must continue to look out for those who are left behind or neglected in any way. The holy founders and foundresses of many of our Catholic schools, like Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice or Venerable Nano Nagle were clearly inspired by a preferential option for the poor. We must examine the inequalities in our system with its widening gap between the highest and lowest achievers, where too many of our young people leave without meaningful qualifications or opportunities, where the responsibility for children from the most deprived backgrounds or for those with the greatest educational needs falls unfairly on the shoulders of only some of our post-primary schools, where too many of our newcomer children continue to struggle with literacy and language skills even after a considerable number of years among us. Let me quote Evangelii Gaudium again: ‘None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice (201)'; (Christians) 'are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth. But the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favour an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life (EG209).

3. ‘New’ Partnerships

To conclude I would like to offer examples of ‘New’ Partnerships to assist the New Evangelisation, or should I say – ‘renewed partnerships’ , for many of these partnerships already exist in some form.

The first is as ‘old as the hills’ – partnership between home, school and parish.  I am convinced that, if the New Evangelisation is to be a success in Ireland, we must revisit and revitalise this important set of links. Clearly much value can be added when home, school and parish share responsibility for a coherent programme of catechesis, linking home, school and parish is in place. This is the vision of Share the Good Newsthe national Directory for Catechesis in Ireland. I think it is timely to revisit the Veritas Parish Catechesis Programmes such as 'Do this in Memory' , 'The Bridge' and the Confirmation support programmes to examine and harness greater potential from a coherent home-school-parish linked programme of catechesis. For example, as children and young people are introduced to traditional prayers like the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross, opportunities emerge for engaging with their parents and the parish in sustaining these ancient devotions. I would advocate that the writing of all school catechetical materials in the future should include resources for adult catechesis. We must grasp all opportunities for conversion and re-awakening the faith of parents and teachers.

To this end, an 'ex-officio' presence of the school principal, chaplain or R.E. Coordinator on the Parish Pastoral Council, and the involvement of suitably trained teachers as parish catechists is worth considering.  Many parishes are already introducing the Robert Barron Catholicism Series, or the Maryvale Adult Faith Programmes.  Might we encourage our teachers to avail of these programmes and, indeed, to be trained as facilitators of these programmes for other adults or senior cycle students in a parish setting?

Such initiatives can only be a success if we promote partnership between all those involved in Catechesis and 'Adult Faith Formation' at National, Diocesan and Parish Level.  We might usefully begin now to develop 'home-grown' programmes for Ireland to accompany the promotion of Youcat and the new Adult Catechism in this country.

The National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland, Share the Good News, situates 'catechesis within the call to evangelise... and provides principles and guidelines for evangelisation, catechesis and religious education today motivating us to study and research all the means available to bring the Gospel to life anew every day' (preface, SGN)

Speaking here in St Mary’s University College, I call for a further 'renewed' partnership, between you, our teacher training College, and those responsible for Catechesis and Evangelisation in our schools and dioceses. The teachers you prepare have so much to bring to the New Evangelisation through their daily witness in our schools and the associated links with parishes and homes.  But they will need continuing education in faith and theology. Often they end up ploughing a lonely furrow in school as R.E. teachers or Liturgy Coordinators. One young man who qualified from this College within the past five years told me that already every single letter that even vaguely looks like religion, faith, charity or Catholic ethos lands on his desk! I would encourage a great College like this to become centrally involved in the saving mission of the Church by supporting in concrete ways the New Evangelisation in our Catholic schools. This might be done by surveying knowledge of our faith amongst young people of various ages as well as adults and researching the effectiveness of various catechetical methodologies. There is a pressing need to write and pilot new resources and deliver training programmes on the New Evangelisation for Catholic teachers and parish catechists.

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lumen Gentium which called for lay people to act 'like a ‘leaven’ sanctifying the world from within '. In the coming months hundreds of our young people will be receiving the Pope John Paul II Award in recognition of their contribution to bringing faith to life. Just imagine the possibilities if the thousands of young people who have already received this Award around the country were to drive the new Evangelisation in Ireland in their 20s and 30s as young parents and parish, school and community leaders.

As Pope Francis said to the young people in Rio, 'The Church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and your joy'.

Our Catholic schools remain a valuable resource in helping our young people, parents and teachers to understand and bear witness to our faith in public and to bring the Gospel of Joy to the world. In reflecting with you on the New Context, a New Mission and New Partnerships this evening, I am inviting our superb Catholic schools to join us in the New Evangelisation and help us to sing a new song to The Lord!