It is a truism that schools reflect the communities they draw from. They must also grapple with the tensions and conflicts that exist within contemporary society, of which they are a part. In recent times, Aotearoa has felt the global impact
of Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the growing divide between rich and poor. On the domestic front, legislation that enables euthanasia and liberalises abortion are topics of interest.
Within schools, growing levels of anxiety of students, the negative impact of social media on self-esteem, cyberbullying, ready access to graphic pornography, and substance abuse are also growing concerns.
These are confronting issues and the stakes are high. These issues cause considerable soul searching and fierce debate. It is reassuring that Catholic schools, which are
Christ-centred and Gospel-focused, have an inbuilt blueprint to address these matters. The response nationally is various iterations of faith, service and community. Our Catholic schools provide the anchor and compass on how to frame a response including:
• Every person is created in the image of God, and is loved irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic circumstances. All people are, therefore, deserving of our respect and love. Christ did not discriminate in the outpouring of his love, including for those who harmed him. He is our role model.
• We recognise sickness and death as the natural path of all humans. We embrace the sick and dying through charity, compassion and karakia.
• As Catholics, we listen to the “cry of the poor” and respond as Jesus called us to. We know those in material need are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are his hands and feet in the world.
• Human life is sacred and a gift from God, whether still in the womb or terminally ill. This shapes our worldview on abortion and euthanasia.
• Your body is a temple of the Lord. What he made in you is good, and he has a plan for you which will bring you real happiness and satisfaction.
You will find messages like the above in school newsletters, spoken by principals at assemblies, and in board reports to school communities. They are distinctly Catholic, and clearly signal to students the Catholic perspective and view and moral compass of the school.
Contemporary secular education experts have devised programmes and strategies to address student issues, including mindfulness, restorative practice and retreats. They have merit, and enjoy a high measure of success. They are, however, not new, and often overlook the rich traditions and practices of the Church which have
worked for centuries. High quality meditation and prayer, such as Taize, and spiritual guidance achieve results as effective as mindfulness. The acts of forgiveness and reconciliation have always been central to Catholic schools, but are now in part reinvented as restorative practices.
Likewise, the rite of reconciliation has a very therapeutic and healing effect upon the person confessing that is not too dissimilar to counselling. I am not suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive or that one is superior to the other. The key message
is that Catholic schools have already a well-spring of practices and rituals
which can support our tamariki’s needs, in addition to these modern practices.
I have been to many secular retreats where we are offered professional input, followed by silent time to reflect and plan. Far from being a novel experience, the format and structure is identical to what we have been offering in our Catholic schools for decades.
There is a growing despondency among young people about their future. They are too often fed messages from adults in their lives that Covid-19 is here to stay, climate change will destroy the planet and technology will take their jobs.
Catholic schools, however, offer a different paradigm, namely that God has bestowed talents on them, and he calls each by name to use in the service of others. Our message is one of optimism. Catholic schools can be the beacons of hope the
world needs, and create the Kingdom of God here and now, which is the imperative Jesus gave us all.
As a Catholic principal of 18 years, I am proud that our network of Catholic schools is turning out young men and women confident in their God-given talents, committed to social justice, and to making a positive difference in the world.
We must, however, remain vigilant that the prime motivation in this is their personal relationship with Christ, and to fulfil the mission of the Church.
Patrick Walsh is the principal of John Paul College, Rotorua.