Presentation to the Leadership of Catholic Schools

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‘Schooling Catholic’ - Presentation to the Leadership of Catholic Schools

Most Rev. Peter A Comensoli, Archbishop of Melbourne
29 May 2019

If you were called to introduce Christianity into a society that had never heard of it before (or had forgotten it), where would you start? A possible temptation would be to present the basic tenants of the faith as you have come to know them for yourself: a personal, trinitarian God; the Incarnation; proclamation of the Kingdom; death and resurrection; salvation in the Church.

This is the strategy St Paul initially employed on his first solo missionary journey, which began in Antioch and ended in Corinth. Paul had his stock message to proclaim – the kerygma – which he mainly presented to the Jewish diaspora throughout Asia-Minor. The problem with this approach, however, was that there was a great deal of background knowledge a Jewish person could take for granted, but which a Gentile listener could not. While they lived in the same societies, the worldview of the Hebrews was starkly different from the worldview of the Greeks. And this difference became a problem for Paul.

Things came to a head in Athens. When Paul stood up to proclaim the gospel in the Areopagus, he astutely began by linking Christ to the unknown god honoured in that culture. But his message got lost in translation when he then moved directly onto the resurrection of Jesus, and the notion of rising from the dead. The Greeks were not ready for this; their philosophical and cultural worldview could not comprehend the notion. As a result, Paul was laughed out of the Areopagus and the intellectuals of Athens walked away.

Thankfully, Paul was a quick learner. Between leaving Athens and arriving in Corinth, he had completely changed the emphasis of his proclamation. Gone was the privileging of the resurrection, replaced instead with the message: 'we proclaim a crucified Christ' (1 Cor 1: 23). This would become his principle proclamation to the Gentiles: a stumbling block to the Hebrews and folly to the Greeks, but something both cultures could get their heads around. And for an increasing number, it was the right kind of message that effectively communicated to them the power and wisdom of the one true God.

The point Paul learnt is a simple, but basic one: to get the Christian message across effectively, you have to both know what you believe and know the audience you are engaging with. One size does not fit all. Paul learnt that he needed to adapt the way he was proclaiming the Christian faith to better suit the culture into which he was proclaiming it. The gospel is always ‘other’ centred, so knowing who you are addressing – knowing the culture into which the truth about Jesus Christ is being presented – will greatly aid the getting across of the message.

St Peter also understood the need for the skill of finding the right approach when proclaiming the Christian faith. As he put it: 'always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect' (1 Pet 3: 15). The hope is ours to share, but the question asked about it is theirs. Start, then, with where the questioner is and build from there.

Knowing your audience, so as to find the right approach in engaging with them, is an essential skill needed in effectively communicating to others the inestimable value of living out one’s own life as life in Christ. This is, of course, also a basic lesson in good communicating generally, something that is at the heart of any process of teaching and learning, or at least ought to be. A good Catholic school may be described as a place where the effective communication of knowledge about life, for the sake of life, is undertaken.

What, then, was Paul’s insight, that we might learn from? A message of good news will be conveyed most powerfully when both what is being communicated, and to whom it is being communicated, are given careful attention. The gift of the intellectual life is indeed a powerful message of good news worth communicating.

But how is this to be done in a Catholic school? Paul’s answer was to place himself before the crucified Christ. Here is the strength and wisdom to overcome the stumbling block of human enquiry divorced from God. Paul found in Christ an intelligible way of communicating the truth about God that could speak powerfully to others in their circumstances. He created a Christian environment in the midst of a pagan world. If I were to sum up this lesson for us today, I would say: Catholic schools need to create an environment that is conspicuous for Christ.

The idea of Catholic schooling for today and tomorrow requires more than finding ways of combining ideas around the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘school’. We need to get used to thinking of a Catholic school as the compound noun it is meant to be. We need to think of how we can school people in a Catholic way; out of a Catholic perspective; from within a Catholic worldview. We do not need more Catholic schooling, where the Catholic is the icing that can be peeled off the top of the schooling cake.

No, what we need is ‘schooling Catholic’ – a way of schooling that is infused with a Catholic vision and is imbued with all that our Catholic intellectual tradition offers. We have a way of educating and forming our young people that ought to look different from other ways of educating. We have an understanding of the deep meaning and value of our humanity that ought to be reflected in our teaching and learning. And we have an intellectual tradition that has been tried and tested to be a sustaining good for society. And we have Jesus Christ, he who is the source and summit of every human life, and who invites us to walk in his Way, to tell of his Truth and to live with his Life.

To pursue that task, the task of schooling Catholic, will always be something of a stumbling block to some and folly to others. But to you who are apostles of Catholic education, then may I finish by offering you the consolation of St Paul, your apostolic brother: 'For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4: 9–10a).