Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Address at the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta System Leadership Day 2020 at Rosehill Racecourse, Rosehill
“From Curiosity to Clarity: Catholic Education for an Age of Uncertainty”
24 January 2020
It is a privilege for me to be speaking to you this morning, conscious that this year we are celebrating 200 years of Catholic education in Australia. We are proud that besides being the food bowl of colonial Australia, Western Sydney was also the cradle of this Good News story.
The early Catholic educators took a prophetic stance in not simply providing affordable, quality education to the poor masses, but fundamentally in meeting the great cultural challenges of their times. They were pioneers and trailblazers rather than tail lights in leading their people. They were audacious in acting out of their love of God and God’s anawim, that is, the blessed poor and needy. They had the courage to launch into the deep. We stand on their shoulders and continue their spirit of missionary and innovative leadership.
I have been asked to speak this morning about the theme of these bicentenary celebrations: from Curiosity to Clarity. I am reminded of the story of the Samaritan woman who converses with Jesus at the well. You know the one who is a bit of a biblical femme fatale, with as many husbands as Zsa Zsa Gabor had, which was why the disciples were absolutely scandalised seeing Jesus alone with her. She begins the encounter as a curious inquirer and ends as a disciple of conviction. The conversation moves from her frustrating search for water, for meaning and happiness and finishes with her leaving behind her vessel, going into the city, and inviting the people to meet Jesus, whom she recognises as the Messiah. Hers is an extraordinary transformation story and it is the same journey of transformation from curiosity to clarity of vision that we seek to facilitate in every child entrusted to our care.
There are no doubt many reasons why people initially send their children to Catholic schools in our day and age. What sparks their curiosity? There are many points of entry into the system, many hopes and dreams: academic achievements, personalised learning, better facilities, smaller classes et cetera. However, it is our task as leaders to accompany them and help them see with clarity the true purpose of Catholic education. It is our duty to help form them through a caring Catholic community that provides for their holistic development as human persons and beloved children of God.
In a society that increasingly sees education as a commodity that can be bought, we must resist being used as vehicles for socio-differentiation and elitism. Catholic schools find their authenticity in the Gospel priorities of respect for human dignity, outreach, inclusion and special concern for young people at risk of being left behind. Ours are not schools that provide education for Catholics only but Catholic education for all.
Our Parramatta Catholic education system has been outstanding in doing just that: as it has built on the work of many religious and lay people over the decades. We are known to be at the cutting edge of innovative, inquiry-based, technology-oriented and above all Gospel-grounded education.
In a sense, every Catholic school community opens its doors to the local community every day – and invites them to join the journey of growth and transformation. Ours is a Christ-centred community that fosters not only on intellectual growth, but just as importantly young people’s emotional and spiritual growth. And if we are continue to build on the magnificent legacy we have we will all need much creativity and imagination in the task still ahead of us.
Yes, in an age of anxiety with enormous social and cultural changes and so much tumult, people are looking for leadership for transformation.
In recent weeks we have had a bitter foretaste of the effects of climate change and the refusal of some of our political leaders to address the roots of the ecological crisis. Instead of recognising this moment in history calls for, we have witnessed an ingrained culture of denial, fear and defence of the status quo.
The bushfire crisis should serve as a wake-up call to Australia and all Australians. It should also serve as a catalyst for global action in the way that Pope Francis has so prophetically challenged us in his encyclical Laudato si’. We must have the courage to move to the new future where God beckons instead of holding onto the past for fear of change. Courageous, informed and decisive leadership is needed to galvanise whole populations to adopt ways of thinking and living that are crucial in saving our planet from total devastation. The present crisis can be turned into new horizons of possibility, for us but also beyond us, to future generations and to the world that God loves. Catholic schools should be the academy for courageous, informed and decisive leadership that turns crisis into opportunity.
After 200 years of educating Catholics in Parramatta we can truly say: Australians Catholic education has never been more relevant. For as our Executive Director Greg Whitby has just pointed out, our schools are indeed an “oasis” many people turn to see the light of Christ and his compassion in times of so much change.
Let’s then especially never forget we must be on the “look out” for the marginalised and those on the edges so that our young people are taught to value what really matters. Our schools began in service of the disadvantaged. In 21st Century Parramatta with all its multicultural vibrancy – we must ensure the “dangerous memory of Jesus” and his solidarity with those on the “margins” is central to our planning as educators and all the practical implications that follow.
As missionary educators, we are not merely the keepers of the status quo. Rather, we are catalysts for renewal. We explore new frontiers and possibilities. Our job is to keep alive not necessarily memories of the way we were (like the song by Barbra Streisand) but the dangerous memory of Jesus’ life-transforming and socially subversive ethos.
Central also to our moving from “curiosity to clarity” is to continue to ensure that our Catholic school communities deepen their Catholic identity. The Leuven Project is an important tool in that regard. For we are not meant to merely repeat what was done in the past. Rather, we are to incarnate the spirit of Jesus, faithful to the past but also creative to the present and courageous to the future.
It is not by repeating the practices and customs of yesterday but by reimagining our faith story with fresh insights distilled from lived experience that we make it relevant and alive to the students of today.
The words of the prophet Ezekiel in the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones describe what we Catholic educators aim to do. “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive”. That is our evangelising mission. We do not simply mimic what the previous generations have done. We put fresh sinews, fresh flesh, fresh skin to the Gospel that it may come alive again for the students in our time.
And if we want to achieve “clarity” about our mission we must all continue to grow and deepen our faith. I am sure this applies not only to our young people but includes our parents and the staff in our school communities. How can we form people to believe and live their Catholic faith in a secular society where the credibility of our Church as an institution has been badly damaged? That is no easy task.
We live in an age of doubt, when many people seem to thrive on conflict and negativity. It can get you down. One of the worst features of our 24/7 media cycle and the information and opinion overload that we all experience is the insidious way it dulls our sensitivity to faith in God and others. It can’t be answered by old-fashioned apologetics; but we must use new ways to help people understand and live the mystery of faith.
Jaroslav Pelikan, the famous Christian scholar and great teacher, suggested another way for Catholic educators when he commented: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.”
We are people of the living tradition. We have a duty not simply to reiterate what was done in the past but to re-engage the living tradition in the way the prophets showed us. In the exile, for instance, without familiar symbols like the temple, the temple-based priesthood, the festivals, the land, they learned to re-engage their faith tradition critically and imagine their new alien world differently. They taught us the art of prophetic imagination that can re-energise and enliven us with new possibilities.
What a task for the years ahead! That is why Cardinal Carlo Martini SJ, a fellow Jesuit with Pope Francis, used to recommend that believers must take risks. So must Catholic education! For faith is the great risk of life. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but the one who loses his life for my sake will save it” (Matthew 16:25). Everything has to be given up for Christ and His Gospel.
Many of us, like the Jews facing the exile, are fearful of the unknown and uncertain future ahead. We yearn for the certainty and security of the past. Yet, the call of authentic discipleship is the call to walk into deeper waters.
Anthony the Hermit went into the wilderness of Egypt not to seek peace and quiet but to live the unfettered spirit of the Gospel against the backdrop of the emerging imperial Christianity. Mary MacKillop ventured into the colonial backwater of Penola to do something about the injustices and sufferings of the people. We are called to rise to the occasion, to let loose the spirit, to rouse the comfortable, to radically embody the Gospel of justice, love and mercy.
Jesus invited people to “come and see”. So do we Catholic educators…
What are we inviting them to “see”? What is the “clarity” we offer? It is not a clarity where we have all the “answers”? It is the clarity of vision of human flourishing and transformation that Catholic education can offer?
No! Finally, Catholic educators offer a Gospel community of hospitality.
Let me conclude with a story I love about St Pope John XXIII. It’s not his witty remark when asked how many actually worked in the Vatican. “About half” he quipped.
Stout Papa Roncalli had a long and quite varied life before he became Pope. One of his lengthy assignments as a younger man was in Serbia, where there are many Orthodox but few Roman Catholics. He so endeared himself to the Serbs by his disarming warmth and friendliness that, when he left for a new assignment after many years there, people came in great numbers to say goodbye. On that occasion he told them: “Anywhere I go in the world, if someone in need passes by my house at night, he will find a lighted lamp in the window. Knock. I will not ask if you are a Catholic. Two brotherly arms will embrace you and the warm heart of a friend will make a feast for you.”
No wonder, that this holy man opened the “windows” of the Church at Vatican II and let “fresh air” in. For Pope John XXIII was a Catholic educator, not a humourless ideologue who alienated and frightened people away from Christ, the Merciful One.
May our Catholic schools in Parramatta continue to flourish into a new century with such a Gospel vision!
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta