Sesquicentenary of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Lismore

April 9, 2010 3:08 pm

Homily by the Most Revd Geoffrey Jarrett, DD, Bishop of Lismore, at the Commemorative Mass, St Carthage’s Cathedral, 28 April, 2010

Feast of St Peter Chanel, Priest & Martyr

Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ: when in 1860 the first Catholic school on the North Coast was opened at South Grafton – just a small group of children and one lay teacher in the little weatherboard church – no one could have dreamt of what we are celebrating today, a century and a half later: the growth, from such tiny beginnings, of a diocesan network of 46 parish primary and secondary schools and colleges educating some 17,000 children and young people. The mustard seed has grown to a great tree, and for this we give thanks to God today. We recall with gratitude the heroic dedication to Christian education of the many hundreds of religious sisters and brothers and lay people who responded to the call of their bishops and priests to ensure that the young would be able to receive an education in the atmosphere of the faith of the Church, the faith revealed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and passed on to us by His Apostles. The Catholic people demanded no less for their sons and daughters, and for a century and more, before justice prevailed and money from the taxes those parents paid began to flow to support their schools, they bled themselves and their parishes white to exercise their right to provide this chosen education for their children. Today one in five Australian children are educated in a Catholic school, and we are thankful that the greater part of the funding of this enterprise, so strongly supported by parents and students alike, flows from that right upheld as a principle by the major political parties of our State and Federal governments.

It was only 80 years before that simple and poor school was opened on the Clarence that the Church herself had been planted in similar circumstances on our shores. The faith had arrived in the colony of NSW with the convicts of the First Fleet. For the first thirty one years the colonial government denied those Catholics the ministry of priests. Better times came in 1819 with permission for two priests, and in 1834 John Bede Polding, as the first Catholic Bishop of Australia, sailed from England with a mission covering the entire country. Against all odds the Church in Australia grew and spread. The faith was also spreading across the Pacific as intrepid young missionary priests like Father Peter Chanel faced untold dangers and even martyrdom in the cause of the Gospel. Even as he was clubbed to death on this day in 1841, the Pope was choosing more bishops for the sees of Hobart, followed by Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Maitland. Our own history commences with the foundation of the Diocese of Armidale in 1871, and it is with joy that we welcome Bishop Luc Matthys, its ninth bishop to our celebration today. It was in the time of Armidale’s second bishop, Elzear Torregiani, that the coastal region of his huge diocese was divided off in 1887 to form a new diocese of Grafton and Lismore, and one of his priests, Jeremiah Doyle, became the first of our five bishops.

No words are adequate to express what the Church and its people owe to the religious congregations which have played so fundamental a rôle in the story we celebrate today. The Sisters of Mercy in Grafton from 1884 and the Presentation Sisters in Lismore from 1886 were the women who consecrated themselves to the enormous task with a zeal and a love which from the beginning was matched only by the poverty of the material resources at hand. Sisters from other congregations also came to work in the diocese, the Sisters of St Joseph, the Ursulines, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and the Daughters of Charity. The Marist Brothers of the Schools came to the diocese and happily are still with us, the Christian Brothers for a time. The priests of the Society of Mary, the Marist Fathers, have made an incalculable contribution to education in the Diocese and to our priesthood through their foundation and long association with St John’s College, Woodlawn, for many years the flagship of their Australian Province. The celebration of this Mass on the feast of St Peter Chanel, with the saint’s relic placed upon the cathedral altar, reminds us of that amazing burst of evangelical energy that came to the Pacific after the devastation of the Church in France after the Revolution. Peter Chanel and Marcellin Champagnat, both to become canonized saints, were among the first young priests to join Father Jean-Claude Colin in forming the new society under the Holy Name of Mary to respond to the call of Pope Gregory XVI to send missionaries to our part of the world. As a teenager Peter Chanel had been inspired by the scene in today’s gospel, convinced that he too, like an earlier Peter and his brother and cousins, had been called to become a fisher of men. Like them he left home, family and country, and eventually suffered a martyr’s death will very little to show for his response to the Lord’s call. A story typical of how the Church has been planted and flourished across the ages, the seed that had to be planted in the darkness before the harvest could grow.

And what of the harvest today, as we look at our parish schools in so vastly different a time, and a hugely changed social and religious climate? And what of the future?

Three years ago Bishop Matthys and myself were among the Bishops of the eleven dioceses of New South Wales and the ACT as we addressed these questions. Our answer was largely embodied in the title of the Pastoral Letter which we published to give a lead into the adventure of Catholic schooling in the twenty-first century. The title is the now familiar /Catholic Schools at a Crossroads/. We noted the tendency towards a progressive secularization of Catholic school life and atmosphere, as students came increasingly from families with little knowledge of the faith or involvement in the life of the Church, and many teachers likewise, from the same generation as the parents, in varying degrees of attachment to the Church’s faith and worship. At these crossroads we pointed in the direction of a more strongly assertive Catholic identity and purpose for our schools, as the practising Catholic parents clearly demand, and an increase in the number of school staff, especially RE teachers, who are practising and knowledgeable Catholics. We stressed the adoption of enrolment policies which clearly remind parents and students of the Catholic identity and mission of the school, and its expectation that they will assist in that mission, and which make it clear that while not excluding enrolments from families that are not Catholic, the first obligation of Catholic education is to Catholic students and their families. It should never be our aim to enrol students, apart from baptised Catholics, from the government sector or any other schools, simply to enhance the financial performance of our schools and colleges. As St Paul reminds us, ‘as we have opportunity let us do good to all, but especially to those who are of the household of faith.’ (Gal. 6:10).

We set in motion plans for a systematic external assessment of Catholic religious literacy, the presence of distinctively Catholic symbols, images and practices, including identifiably Catholic prayer habits from our long spiritual tradition, in the daily life of every school. We encouraged the work of evangelism in conjunction with the local parish, to assist students and parents deepen their knowledge and practice of the faith, and to provide for those who indeed wished to become Catholics. These are some elements of the direction in which your bishops are pointing as we pass these crossroads.

In our own diocese, parents, staff and students have benefited from the clear articulation of our Catholic identity and mission set out in recent years in our statement /Foundational Beliefs and Practices of Catholic Education – the Essential Framework/. I have also particularly encouraged the important initiatives of our Parent Assembly.

As part of the parish community which founded them and gives the reason and means for their continued existence, my hopes for our Catholic schools are strongly optimistic, even as I am aware that they are affected by a secular and anti-religious spirit absorbed from assertive elements in our wider society which oppose the expression of Christian life and belief in the public square and try to silence by parody and ridicule the Church’s voice on social and moral issues.

Against the background of declining religious faith and conviction, the effect of the reduction of marriage and family life to a life-style choice among many options and the consequences, the self-absorption of a hyper-sexualized and morally dysfunctional culture, Catholic school educations has its great opportunity. At its heart is Jesus Christ, his teaching, his claims, his truth, and his grace. As Pope John Paul often reminded us, He alone knows what is in man, He alone can reveal us even to our own selves. The meaning of our human life can only be discovered through him, and it cannot reach its destiny apart from Him.

We can be somewhat flattered that our schools are sought after because parents see that they offer a good education, discipline and the learning of the basics of the difference between right and wrong. But that is secondary. It is what any school should offer. The Church of which we are members holds first of all that the real purpose of education is not just the transmission of knowledge, facts and information, but the formation of the mind, heart and conscience in the light of truth. The heart of education is the education of the heart. Living memory still reminds us of the connection of the most educated minds with the most inhuman hearts capable of the greatest atrocities – how many educated people followed the extremes of Nazism and Communism – and in our democratic West we have learned to be wary of the emptiness of the intellectualising of many of our academics, artists and writers.

The vision and the life Christ offers to all humanity through his Church, humanly speaking made up of sinners as it is, is at the heart of the opportunity that our Catholic schools must grasp. Young lives and minds are entrusted to us to be educated not just for this life, but for eternity. Amid the dominance of their passing enthusiasms, the surge of hormones and the endless texting, MSN chatrooms, email, iPods, computer games and the rest, we Catholic educators will help them to discover something deeper, the rock of goodness and truth on which to set their feet to withstand the restless swirls and eddies of passing currents, to learn and understand what truly makes a real human being, fulfilled not in self but in God and the love and service of others. Let us never underestimate the capacity of the impressionable teenager to best the pressure of conformist peers and latch onto the true, the good and the beautiful, like the fifteen year old John Henry Newman. Much later he wrote that it was at that age that he discovered the faith of the Church, and came to rest in the conviction that there existed ‘two and two only supreme and luminously self-evident beings: myself and my Creator.’

From the many young people I know who have joyfully discovered these things, who today know and love Christ in his Church as a similar revelation to the young Newman, who want to share their faith and happiness with their peers, I have come to understand the great opportunities which our schools have. These young Catholics, now in university and the workplace, have a perspective on our schools from which our educators could learn much to provide for the better development of the faith and Christian character of students and teachers alike. These are the young Catholics who have emerged, often like new converts, into the sacramental life and the spiritual and social apostolates of the Church. They will be its leaders of the future, in family life, in the revival of the consecrated life for both women and men, the renewed ranks of the clergy already under way, and in the future apostolate of our schools.

So, all of us, students and teachers, clergy and consecrated religious, the lay men and women who work in the administration of our parish schools, we look forward with energy and resolve even as we look back on the achievement of one hundred and fifty years. We know the future for our schools will be one of continued striving, even of struggle. St Peter Chanel as he faced his death could look back on hardly four years of priestly work. For all his love and labour he could see little result. “There is one who sows and another who reaps,” he said, and left the future to the Lord. “In so difficult a mission, it is necessary for us to be saints.”

It’s no different for us as we pass this happy milestone on our way, for the heritage of the past we celebrate is the seed, in the ways of God’s providence, which brings forth the harvest of the future.