I am a sister of the Holy Faith Congregation, founded by Margaret Aylward in 1867. The congregation was founded to assist the poor of Dublin to receive a good Catholic education. I have spent over forty years in teaching and leadership roles in schools. I spent my first seven years teaching in Ireland where nearly all the primary schools were Catholic but under state governance.There was no need for a Diocesan system of schools. The schools were part of a strong national Catholic culture.
When I came to Australia I was overwhelmed by the commitment I found among teachers in the Catholic system here. How true it is that when one has a choice in life one tends to have a greater commitment to the choice one makes. Our teachers here have made a choice to teach in our system and, for the most part, are still very faithful to the passing on of the faith, which is the main reason that the system exists. Has this commitment changed over the years? Is it as strong as it was thirty years ago? Will schools still be Catholic in 2030?
At the moment I am Principal of Holy Family Primary School, Emerton in the Mt Druitt area of Western Sydney. The school was founded in 2004. The population is 60% Catholic, the vast majority of whom are not regular church goers. This fact is no different to any Catholic school where the majority of families, even though they may be Catholic in name, are not regularly attending church. We welcome all to Holy Family, as long as they are willing to accept our values, are happy for their children to attend religious education lessons and take part in our liturgies. I have only had one family whom I considered were not accepting of this and did not go through with their enrolment after our discussion. When the school started the student Catholic population was 40%. This statistic has changed in ten years for many reasons. The Catholic families in the area have become more aware of our existence but we also have a number of families who have had their children baptised as a result of being part of our school community. For many of our families the school is their local community and their only connection with the church. In fact the school is their church. It is where they come for prayer, liturgy and friendship. Many of them are disadvantaged financially and socially so the school is an integral part of their lives and helps provide for them a sense of belonging and a connection with their God.
I think that schools will still be Catholic in 2030 if the school and system leaders are fully committed to their Faith and show by their example that the reason they are leading in a Catholic School is because they want to bring about God’s kingdom in the world.The whole staff may not have the same commitment. As we are aware many of our young teachers, but certainly not all, have been raised in families who have not practised their faith in the traditional way of going to Mass each week. If the leaders are fully committed, it is amazing the influence they will have on other staff members. If the school community has a culture of prayer, good liturgies, great connection with the parish and faithfulness to the teaching of religious education, there is a great chance that the Catholic spirit will be strong and influential. Coupled with all of this of course, must be a spirit of respect for the dignity of each person.
There is great emphasis now on professional development of teachers in all areas of the curriculum. However I think that the area of spirituality is being neglected and unless this trend is reversed there is the danger that we will be no different to our colleagues in the state system. A Catholic school is not just a good academic school. We were founded for more than this so there has to be commitment to helping our young teachers develop and nurture their faith.I have been greatly inspired and challenged in my faith by many wonderful lay colleagues. I would not be the person I am today were it not for their friendship and inspiration.
The Catholic School system owes a lot to the men and women of religious orders who were the foundation blocks in the early days. I do think, however, that there are wonderful lay people around to carry on this great work. Let us make sure that those in positions of responsibility in the system do not lose sight of why we exist. Let us make sure that those chosen as leaders in schools are committed to their faith and are regular church goers. Let us not forget to give time and energy to the development of our young staff in their faith, so that they will be instrumental in passing on this great gift to generations yet to come. Given the Faith commitment I witness among many school leaders and teachers I am confident that schools will be authentically catholic in 2030. Let us make sure,however,that we do not take this for granted.