‘Called to life in Christ’
As we gather for our days of reflection – as we consider our roles as Catholic educational leaders - it is fitting to reflect upon our context, our role, our responsibilities, our challenges, and our duty.
The following brief thoughts, drawn from the Church’s rich patrimony of educational writings, provide us with the opportunity to explore our vocation as Catholic educational leaders.
We remind ourselves that Catholic education has deeply spiritual aims: to fully form persons in truth, holiness, and the maturity that comes from Christ, whilst building up the Kingdom of God, forming the world in Christian hope, and producing adults capable of contributing to the good of human society.
Catholic education is the “jewel in the crown,” the Church’s pre-eminent means of spreading the Gospel. It is an ecclesial response to Jesus’ command to, “go and teach.” Its object is the spiritual good of every participant. Education in the spiritual and secular subjects is understood to be above-all a supernatural good, because it helps to conform the person to the Image of God – growing in the fulness of knowledge about God and His creation.
It is truly education with the end in mind: The primary “end” is the “good” of the human person - maturation of the human person in conformity with Jesus - leading to the eternal salvation of all participants. This includes the Catholic curriculum, never a secular one, but a curriculum in all its many forms and in all the subjects that we offer: one that is conformed to Christ, that reveals the Father and pours out the Holy Spirit. The secondary “end” of Catholic education is the good it provides to society.
As an ecclesial action of the Church, Catholic education is directed by the local bishop in accord with Canon Law. It carries out the education of students in Catholic belief and practice, with the purpose of forming persons of deep Catholic faith, for spiritual and sacramental life and who will contribute to the good of human society.
The Second Vatican Council in 1965, reflecting upon two-thousand years of mission, defined the goals of Catholic education in a document called: Gravissimum Educationis (the Importance of Education). A rich and continual flowering of educational wisdom has flowed from it since its publication. It is quoted and amplified in all major Church documents on education to this day.
The following key statement has served for more than fifty years. It continues to serve as the bedrock of Catholic educational philosophy. It draws from many precursors among Church writings: it forms part of a wisdom that began in the early centuries with St Clement, St Irenaeus, Origin, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, a wisdom that was later voiced by 19th and 20th century Popes such as Pius XI and XII, John XXII, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Such is the power of this 1965 message, that it is referenced in every major Church educational document to this day.
Since all Christians have become by rebirth of water and the Holy Spirit a new creature so that they should be called and should be children of God, they have a right to a Christian education. A Christian education does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person as just now described, but has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society. (Second Vatican Council, Gravissimum Educationis, 1965 n. 2)
Accordingly, Catholic education is a “maturing” of human person, so that each of the baptised:
It is fitting therefore, to consider adopting as our personal educational and leadership aims:
to bring Christ to our students and staff,
to bring our students and staff to Christ, and through them,
to bring Christ to the world.
Launceston, 6 November 2020
The year was 1965 and the Vietnam War was at its peak, Martin Luther King was arrested at a civil rights protest in Alabama, the Beatles were on a world tour and race-riots gripped Los Angeles. The world-wide revolution of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” was growing rapidly, and Neil Armstrong would not yet walk on the Moon until 1969, another four years into the future.
Each of these events changed the world in their own way. In that the same year, in Rome’s Vatican City, the Pope and the world’s Catholic bishops were holding a world-changing meeting.
It was a global Council that had been called to discern a Christ-based response to a rapidly-changing world. Most of those bishops who participated in that epoch-making Second Vatican Council (the second in some centuries) would have struggled to foresee what our world would look like in 2020.
Yet, the vision they set for Catholic education is so relevant and so necessary, that it continues to be studied and quoted, almost every day, in every Catholic education system the world over. The document they produced: Gravissimum Educationis (The Importance of Education) was far-sighted, radical and bold. Even today, some fifty-five years after it was written, it remains popular as the core reference – the go-to guide - on Catholic education. It was so clear in the vision of Jesus Christ that it is likely to be easily as relevant in the next hundred years.
What is Catholic education?
It all began when Jesus commanded: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28: 19-20)
The Church has a core mandate from God to proclaim salvation by bringing everyone to Christ. Catholic education is the jewel in the crown of the Catholic Church. Again and again the Second Vatican Council reminds us that education is primarily a spiritual activity.
The Second Vatican Council affirms that true education contributes to the whole of the person: mind, body, soul, affectivity and emotions.
In short: Catholic education aims to bring Christ to every student, every student to Christ, and Christ to the world.
What is expected of you as leaders? How can you be Catholic educational leaders.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council were explicit about the fundamental nature of Catholic education. They describe it is an entirely spiritual activity with a supernatural purpose. You may be surprised to hear this – that the goals of education, even of education in the so-called secular subjects - mathematics, literacy and social, cultural and physical development, are entirely supernatural. Keep note of this point as we explore today’s conversation.
The Aims of Education: Secular or Catholic First?
First, a little more context about the aims of so-called “secular” education. A good place to look will be the series of declarations about education promoted by Australia’s federal governments since 1989.
Many Australian secular (Non-religious) documents on education - think, for example of the recent 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe pronounced M-ban tua) Education Declaration - have typically stressed quite practical and utilitarian aims for education. That has been true of all the predecessor documents such as the Hobart Declaration (1989) which was superseded in April 1999 by The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century, then superseded, again, by the December 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians – all very secular - based on the idea that the product of education needs to be a unit of production, a useful citizen and a contributor to society. Very little was said about the enrichment of the human person.
Frankly, the Alice Springs declaration actually turned out to be quite a departure from previous national education statements
Note, the Mparntwe Declaration begins with these words:
Education has the power to transform lives. It supports young people to realise their potential by providing skills they need to participate in the economy and in society, and contributing to every aspect of their wellbeing. (Preamble)
OK, there’s still a bit about participating in the economy, but much better really. Now, here’s what Vatican II said, fifty-five years ago about Catholic education:
For a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end [Eternal happiness in Heaven] and of the good of the societies of which, they are a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, they will share. (n. 1)
And this from the Mparntwe Declaration about the importance of parents and families in education:
Learning is a partnership with parents, carers and others in the community, all of whom have a role to play in nurturing the love of learning needed for success at school and in life. (p. 3)
Now, here’s what Vatican II said, fifty-five years ago about parents and families in Catholic education:
Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs. It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor.
Remarkably similar, aren’t they? Yet there are differences. They may be subtle differences, but they are profoundly significant ones.
Where the Mparntwe Declaration emphasises education as transformative of persons and a contribution to their wellbeing, the Church underpins these same social and psychological aims with a deeper moral purpose – framing education as the pursuit of redemption and salvation in Christ for the good of the person and of human society. These ideas are not in opposition, but in fact are complementary.
Further, Mparntwe, again suituating itself in the developmental and social realm, points to families as places that nurture the love of learning. Yet again, our Church goes so much further and sees the family, grace-filled and sacramentally configured, as the incubator of Christian love and service of God and neighbour.
In the light of all this, consider for example, these further quotes from the Church, ones that clearly transcend even the best of the Mparntwe Declaration:
A Christian education does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person as just now described, but has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (n. 2)
The Church is bound as a mother to give to these children of hers an education by which their whole life can be imbued with the spirit of Christ and at the same time do all she can to promote for all peoples the complete perfection of the human person, the good of earthly society and the building of a world that is more human. (n. 3)
So, it is clear that we all, you and I, participate every day in a “mission from God” (Blues Brothers reference). We aren’t running secular state schools that may have a few Crucifixes, statues and holy pictures around – making them places that provide a secular state curriculum with some added Catholic bits. Rather, we are called to embrace a particular, an entirely different, form of education that is founded in the great work of Jesus Christ, first and foremost. And that’s before we even get to thinking about the curriculum. The person of Jesus Christ and the Church’s mission are the standard before which all aspects of the curriculum must be shaped and understood. All of this is because, according to the Church, we deliver a curriculum that is beautiful. We must be concerned first and foremost with, “… the whole of the person's life, even the secular part of it insofar as it has a bearing on our heavenly calling.” (Introduction)
We note here again, that the secular subjects we provide in our schools are therefore provided because they do have a direct bearing on our heavenly calling. They exist and are taught for more powerful reasons than just for the development of the knowledge and understandings of Mathematics and Science, or the skills of sport, or the wonders of poetry and literature, or the wisdom and lessons of history, or the gifts of the creative arts, or the pursuit of excellence in English, etc. For the Catholic school, the real value of the secular subjects lies in how they express the glory of God’s creation and how they were designed by God to lead us all to Him. For us, there is something even more important than the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty within every one of these secular subjects. In the end their meaning and purpose is to raise us above the ordinary and the mortal, to bring us closer to God.
As deputy principals you are called to lead in this deeply Catholic environment. To be part of the Church’s mission of education, redemption, faith and salvation – to be Christ to your students and to the staff with whom you work. To bring Jesus Christ into their lives, so that knowing and loving Him, they may take His glory into the world.
No pressure …
Some of you may know that my doctoral studies were in the area of senior Catholic educational leadership and that, from my many years of research, I developed a comprehensive framework for Catholic leaders. What fascinated me was the fundamental differences between leadership in a Catholic education setting as opposed to leadership in a secular educational setting – much as we just unpacked in the earlier discussion about the aims of education. Little did I know when I was engaged in that research that I would be sharing some of it with you today. Today, therefore, in a spirit of sharing and support for you in your senior leadership roles, I offer you just some initial thoughts about your leadership role. The subject is deep and the implications are wide. Today, let us just touch on some of the key features of this thinking.
What is leadership in the context of Catholic education?
The internationally acclaimed leadership theorist, Peter Drucker says the best definition of a leader is someone who has followers. Clever, trite, but not very informative. It’s a bit like saying a football club is a club of footballers – a self-referential definition. We all know that leadership is much more than this.
My research has led me to a respectful understanding of the many complexities of leadership in the Catholic educational setting. Unfortunately, we will not be able to explore in full, even this single idea that I propose you today, and it remains a subject of deep reflection based on years of study, research, observation and personal experience.
Just one understanding of leadership is to see it as relationships with purpose. It’s a quirky notion, one that can be understood in a number of different ways. Here are just some possibilities:
Developing our Catholic Educational Leadership
Lester Nation, our risk and compliance manager, recently observed that, at times of crisis, our leadership calls us to make explicit decisions, even when we don’t have all the answers or all the facts. He’s right. Our recent Covid experiences have taught us/me that much. What then does a leader rely on when faced with an imperative, a decision that must be made, but in the full knowledge that we don’t possess all the necessary information to make that decision with any confidence? There are plenty of decision-making options:
I would suggest that in such a situation a good leader will always apply as many of these approaches as are possible.
So, Catholic educational leadership is relationships with a Catholic educational purpose. Together here today we have only just begun to explore what that purpose may reveal itself to be in all its fullness in our personal and professional lives.
My advice to you, if you wish to grow your leadership is this. Work at it.
Pray that you will grow as a leader. St John Bosco, the founder of the Salesian order of teaching religious, always encouraged his Catholic educational leaders to pray each day for those under their care. The more troublesome they are, the more we pray for them. That is sage advice.
Leadership is a gift, an art, a skill, a science, a vocation, a challenge and a risk. Once we accept that our leadership will at times be all or some of the above, we will commit ourselves to the personal project of me. What do I mean by that? The ancient Greeks believed that we could achieve little as leaders if we did not possess virtue. They established our first understanding of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Courage, Justice and Temperance.
These are the four essential pillars of leadership. Without them we cannot lead effectively. Let these be our touchstones as leaders. Let’s measure ourselves daily against them, striving every day to grow in virtue
I am speaking to you today because I value your contribution to Catholic education and I want to help you to grow as leaders. In the ordinary course of events, your role is a pathway to principalship and to system leadership. It is not an easy path - at times thankless and discouraging – but always deeply rewarding, for, in the end, you know you are working for the Kingdom of God. You are presently serving as a valued apprentice, learning, growing and developing. Look to your peers, the people in this room, for assistance and offer them assistance too.
I was asked to suggest some recommended reading to help you grow in your Catholic education leadership. I have three books in mind, two written by Americans and one written by God. You can work out which is which. Each book is challenging in its own way and each one deserves to be read with great care and concentration. I offer them without commentary, yet I also promise you that none of them, if you read them with an open heart and mind, will leave you unchanged.
Leaders Eat Last – Simon Sinek
Life of Christ - Fulton Sheen
The Holy Bible