The Teachings of Pope Francis: Some Implications for Edmund Rice Education Australia

I thank you for your kind invitation and welcome. It is an honor and privilege to be asked to speak at this important gathering. I hope I can contribute something worthwhile. As I understand it, my brief today is give some account of how the community of schools which form Edmund Rice Education Australia, have responded to some major challenges that Pope Francis has placed before Catholic education.

Introduction

I thank you for your kind invitation and welcome. It is an honor and privilege to be asked to speak at this important gathering. I hope I can contribute something worthwhile.

As I understand it, my brief today is give some account of how the community of schools which form Edmund Rice Education Australia, have responded to some major challenges that Pope Francis has placed before Catholic education.

As we know, he has issued many such challenges and in my limited time today, I will concentrate on just three:

  • The true meaning of freedom
  • A priority for inclusion
  • The call to be a church of and for the poor

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we gather and pay my respects to the Elders, past and present.

I also acknowledge my indebtedness to the nameless people of the developing world for the formation I have received which prepares me to speak today. I have learned more about life, the Reign of God, Catholic education and mission from my time with these people than I ever did in formal University studies.

In these places I have learned that authenticity and excellence in Catholic schooling has little to do with the numbers of Catholics we have enrolled or the standard of our buildings. I have learned that inclusion is at the heart of the Gospel and exclusion is its greatest betrayal. I have learned that a school’s capacity to make a difference is not simply dependent on its physical resources but on humble resolve within the community to build the Reign of God and embrace solidarity with the excluded ones.

Pope Francis has often spoken of the true meaning of freedom

First of all, be free persons! What do I mean? Perhaps it is thought that liberty is to do whatever one wishes. This isn’t liberty! Liberty means to be able to reflect on what we do, to know how to appreciate what is good and what is bad, behavior that makes one grow means to choose always the good. We are free for the good.

To be free to always choose the good is demanding, but it will make you persons who have a backbone, who are able to face life; persons with courage and patience.

-Pope Francis to Students

At the end of apartheid, in the midst of all the celebrations, Nelson Mandela warned his people that they were are not yet free; that they had merely achieved the possibility for freedom. I think he was implying that true freedom in life is something that must be actively claimed by each person.

However, we all know many people who have not made this claim. Meaning is packaged for many people in our society. They are not free! As Michael Warren once wrote: ‘It is not the culture of the people but a culture concocted for the people’s consumption!’

Given this context, one of the central concerns of Christian education should be to awaken in young people the desire to make meaning for themselves and become co creators of their own versions of the world. In the words of Paolo Friere, education must help every individual to win back the right to say his or her own word and name the world. Education then becomes the practice of freedom.

A liberating education celebrates the life giving and ennobling elements within our culture, and offers the Gospel's alternatives to those definitions of reality that oppress and enslave the human spirit. Jesuit Father Jim Di Giacomo once cleverly said that: ‘Christianity teaches us to love people and use things. Our dominant culture can teach us to love things and to use people’.

Our young will only ever be half educated unless they acquire a sense of human dignity and worth, an appreciation of life, the capacity to question, the ability to give and receive love, the knowledge of how to use our limited time wisely, and the determination to leave the world a better place for our having been in it.

The education we offer the young should challenge versions of the world that define success solely in terms of money, accumulation of things and over-emphasis on status and security. It must equip young people to critique our culture and its version of the good, the well lived, the important and the meaningful life.

A liberating education can free our young from being pushed around by peer pressure, prejudices and delusions and from potential nonsense masquerading as truth. It can free them from measuring their worth by how much they accumulate, how much they consume and from shallow ambitions. The Greek roots of the word suggest that the hero is one who can choose. The hero interprets life through her/his own experience. The journey leads to questioning and interrogation of the culture in which one lives. Who am I? What is valuable? How do I find peace and happiness? What does it mean to live justly? These questions disturb the hero who is suspicious of easy answers that are readily on offer in the dominant culture. A liberating education creates heroes!

Clearly it's not the answers we teach them to give, but rather it's the questions we teach them to ask, that will define our education as truly liberating for our students.

Pope Francis is asking us to teach the young that the liberty they enjoy in our society is not a license to do whatever they want, but rather it is the freedom to do what they ought to, for the making of a better world. A liberating education not only frees ‘from’, but frees ‘to and for’. He teaches that freedom and social responsibility are inextricably linked.

He is asking us to teach our young that lasting happiness is always closer to the experience of compassion, acceptance and contentment than it is to the experience of fleeting sensual pleasure.

In this pursuit, we are challenged to lead our young down new paths, since many of the old have become unhelpful, even toxic. We must teach them to question and critique our world, not simply inhabit it. We must teach them not just to teach how to earn a living, but also how to live full lives with meaning and purpose.

Some years ago, while travelling in India, I stopped at a roadside bazaar which sold souvenirs. The seller, presumably a Hindu, had various religious pieces for sale, including a beautifully carved wooden cross. I expressed some interest but as I was about to move on and not buy, the man said: ‘Perhaps sir you would be interested in a similar one I have in my other store. Just as beautiful but it costs a little more because it has a little man on it!” This was an amusing scene and what the seller didn’t understand is that it is the ‘little man’ - the person of Jesus on the cross which makes all the difference to Christians.

In our quest to educate for full humanity and liberation, we introduce the young to this ‘little man’ who was so : fully alive with the life of God, totally loving with the love of God, who possessed the capacity to be all that he could be and through these things, revealing the very ground of being that we call God.

All those who came in contact with Jesus had a new experience of God. He invited people into a new relationship with God and with the neighbour dictated by compassion and love.

Jesus had a vision for a world that arose from his heightened insight into the loving kindness of God – he called his vision the ‘Kingdom’ or the ‘Reign of God’.

Pope Francis is clearly calling the Church to embrace in a new and deep way the priorities of the Kingdom of God.

He is calling us to be ‘Kingdom people’. As someone wise once said:

Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns of justice, mercy and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; Kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world.

The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed ushered in a new world order characterised by relationships based on justice, love and peace. The Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom’. Shalom refers not so much to an absence of violence but to a ‘right order’ – to health, prosperity, security, to political and spiritual well-being; it implies a sense of equity and fairness in our dealings with each other. There is not shalom if children go hungry; if human rights are ignored there is no shalom – there is no shalom in a world indifferent to the common good.

Pope Francis often speaks on inclusion

Education has become too selective and elitist. It seems that only those people or persons who are at a certain level or have a certain capacity have the right to an education. This is shameful. It is a reality which takes us in a direction of human selectivity. Instead of bridging the gap between people, it widens it. It creates a barrier between poor and rich.

The greatest failure for an education is to educate within the walls: the walls of selective culture, the walls of a culture of security, the walls of a social class.

We cannot go on like this with a selective type of education. No one should be denied. We must leave the places where we are as educators and go to the outskirts, to the poor.

- Pope Francis to Educators

Jesus was the great includer of people!

He touched the untouchables; he stood against systemic injustice, more so of the religious institutions. He showed that God was not pleased by the blind following of laws and ritual purity. He entered into the lives of the victims of these laws, whom he characterised as the little ones: the blind, the lame, the leprosy affected, the elderly, those who knew nothing of the law, the poor, those who mourn, hunger, the persecuted, widows: the list of those included by Jesus goes on.

Catholic schools find their authenticity in the Gospel priorities of inclusion and special concern for young people at risk of being left behind.

An expression of this vision in my tradition was articulated by Br Ambrose Treacy in 1882:

The school is open to all who wish to avail themselves of it and its values without distinction of creed, colour or nationality. No child can be refused admission on the score of religion, social standing or of capacity to pay.

In all honesty, some EREA schools have a bit of a problem here!

Inclusive education is one of four Touchstones in the Charter for Edmund Rice Education Australia. Our schools are called to be open to all who seek the values of our gospel, regardless of religious affiliation or financial capacity. We accept that we cannot fully claim the title ‘Catholic’ without this commitment.

We are challenged by ‘The Catholic School in the Third Millennium’ document when it warned that exclusion of the poor on account of their inability to pay fees "leads to a selection according to means which deprives the Catholic school of one of its distinguishing features, which is to be a school for all’.

Some argue that, with important exceptions, EREA is made up of schools that serve the middle class of Australian society; that our schools have become comfortable and attractive to those who may primarily seek, in Carmel Leavey’s words, our ‘fruits but not our roots’. In a society that increasingly sees education as a commodity that can be bought, our schools risk being used as vehicles for socio-differentiation and elitism, we may have become schools of choice for those people who aspire to exclusive, private education.

We have just undertaken a piece of research which pretty clearly says that many of our EREA schools are not affordable to the average Australian. Several are perceived to be ‘exclusive’. Materially poor families are almost certainly underrepresented. In many of our schools, this exclusion on account of capacity to pay extends to many middle income families as well.

In response to this situation, we have instigated a system-wide investigation of affordability. We have challenged each of our school communities to pass the lens of affordability over every decision which may affect a school’s capacity to be inclusive. Fee increase levels, expensive add-ons on top of tuition, enrolment bonds and the design of capital projects are among the things that we are asking our communities to scrutinize through this lens. Clearly, there is much work to do.

Some time ago, I was with my family at an outdoor restaurant in Lima, Peru. We had just finished the meal and were in the process of paying the bill, when a young girl who had been watching us eat from a distance came and sat on the ground beside our table. With this young girl, who would have been about 19 or 20 years old, was a baby; it could have been her own child, or possibly could have been her little brother or sister.

When you eat in this restaurant, you are served a little bowl of corn as an appetizer; it’s kind of like in Australia where we get a bowl of peanuts before you choose your meal. At the end of the meal, as we were about to leave the restaurant, the young girl who was sitting on the ground asked if she could have the leftover bowls of corn that were on our table. To my great shame I found two or three half empty bowls of corn and handed them down to this young girl and her baby, to eat.

A couple of minutes later, the girl noticed that some of our soft drink bottles weren’t empty; that some of our party had left a little in some of the bottles; and she asked if she could have these bottles so that she could have a drink. This was too much for me, and I asked the waitress to bring a fresh soft drink so that the girl and her baby could drink.

We left the restaurant that day, but the image of that young girl haunted me and continues to do so. I profess to be a Christian; a follower of Jesus, the great ‘includer’ of people. The ‘scandal’ of Jesus’ ministry was that he didn’t hand out food; he didn’t hand down bowls to people - he sat down at the table with them. He invited them to the table!

I was deeply ashamed that I’d missed out on this opportunity to invite this young girl to the table. I went back to the restaurant each day at lunchtime; not for the food, but hoping for the opportunity to find that young girl and her baby and invite her to the table.

As followers of Jesus we should never be satisfied by giving to the poor from our excess. It is never enough. It is a hallmark of charity not commitment. Our commitment in inclusion must be to ‘center’ the poor and make our response to their plight the core of our mission. In Gospel terms, who we are is determined by whom we include!

In our efforts to center the poor, we aspire to a vision for Catholic education in which parents, fully informed from the point of original interview, will be proud of the fact that part of their school fee dollar can potentially go towards the support of needy families inside and outside of their school community. We hope that this will be a known consequence of what a Catholic school in the Edmund Rice tradition does, essential to who we are and what we believe.

Do we embrace an ‘option for the poor’ from our excess, or from the core of who we are? Do we offer fee discounts, support for foreign missions and support for local projects from our excess, or does our support for these priorities ‘hurt’ at some level so that it becomes a genuine ‘option for the marginalised’ that we embrace? I use the word ‘hurt’ to describe something more than just giving from our excess; we can all give easily from our excess. Put simply, do we practise justice or charity?

Catholic education in Australia has often limited the number of non-Catholics who can gain entry to schools so that a critical mass of Catholics can be maintained and thus allow us to say that our schools are truly ‘catholic’. Most dioceses have a recommended percentage. However, authenticity for Catholic schools will never be enhanced by excluding non-Catholics but rather, by our inclusion of those who most need us, the poor and those of the margins of our society.

Perhaps it’s time for us to start talking about enrolment in Catholic schools in terms of need rather than entitlement. What do I mean by this? Most of our schools have criteria for enrolment which determine whether or not a person is entitled to be part of our communities. These range from relationship with the Church, family relationships, capacity to pay fees etc. Is it time for us to pay a deeper attention to our enrolment processes and attempt to truly identify those people who need us, who crave what we can offer and whose identity will be changed by the formation can give them? Are there are other ways of dealing with our need to charge fees than a universal price point that identifies us in a competitive market? Could we not say that once we have clearly identified that a person needs to be with us, we will work with that family and agree upon what they can afford to pay? A scale of fees based on the capacity of families to contribute seems to me to be the only Gospel focused way forward. Hard but not impossible! As the life and death of Jesus showed us, radical inclusion can be a highly subversive and dangerous stance.

Yes, this process can be imprecise, difficult and potentially messy. Yes, some people do cheat on their taxes! However, as Chesterton once said, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried!’

Perhaps the best-known of Pope Francis’s quotes is simply: Who am I to judge? He used this response when questioned on his stance regarding same-sex attracted people.

The Pope challenges all in the Church to adopt a similar humility on this issue when he further stated:

‘a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one hiding behind the Church’s teachings, sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families.’

EREA has established a formal working group to assist us in our efforts to be more inclusive of LGBTI young people in our schools. We were deeply moved and strongly encouraged by the words of Bishop Vincent Long in the recent Anne D Clark address in Parramatta. Bishop Vincent said:

We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, whilst at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women and homosexual persons. It won’t wash with young people, especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as “intrinsically disordered”.

Two of our schools attracted significant attention last year as they have been long-term members of the Safe Schools Coalition. There are aspects of this coalition that do not sit comfortably with the schools and we feel that as a national community, we can and should provide guidance for how our schools can better include, value, support and in some cases, protect LGBTI students. We are not alone in taking up this challenge and it is pleasing to note that other Catholic education groups around the country are doing similar things.

I remember sitting on the roof of Loreto Sealdah, a very prestigious and highly esteemed school for girls in Calcutta. The most authentically Catholic school I know. Ironically, there are very few Catholics enrolled. What a study of inclusion! If you are looking for inspiration as a leader in Catholic education try to visit this place. If you can’t visit, at least Google Sr. Cyril Mooney, the dynamic and charismatic principal who refers to her school as a resource centre for the poor.

For generations this prestigious school has been the school of choice for many of the well-heeled people of Calcutta, regardless of their religious affiliation. Under Sr. Cyril, of the school’s enrolment of 1500, half pay high fees and half pay nothing, this half are street kids, the poorest of the poor. They all wear school uniforms and all are equal in this remarkable place. But that’s not all! In this school all the children, whether the well to do, the future leaders of India, or children of street sweepers, every day are asked to teach street kids; kids from the railway stations; kids who have nothing. It is compulsory, regardless of caste or family background.

I remember asking a very eloquent school leader - a young lady of about 15 years of age, why her dad who could afford any type of education, would send her to Loreto Sealdah; a school where, as part of the requirement of the school - she had to engage with people of a caste and a family background very different from her own. She replied very eloquently and I think this is something we can all take note of. She said ‘My dad sends me to this school so that I can receive an education, not just attain a qualification!’

An education for that young girl, who was not a Christian by the way, means engagement with the ‘other’, challenging societal practices that dehumanise and the use of our gifts in service to the marginalised and excluded.

Pope Francis has often challenged us to be a church of and for the poor

How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.

Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.

- Pope Francis

Edmund Rice Education is a work of and for our Church:

  • A generous and inclusive Church that shows deep love for the poor and marginalised;
  • A Church that strives to usher in the Reign of God: the promise of fullness of life and true freedom for all in our troubled world;
  • A Church that proclaims inclusion to be at the heart of the Gospel and exclusion in its many forms, its greatest betrayal;
  • A Church focussed on getting the Kingdom of God and its message of justice and truth into the world, rather than people into its ranks; and,
  • A Church strives ceaselessly to tell the poor and excluded that God loves them and that the Gospel is good news for them as well.

To serve this Church, Catholic education must make bold claims about humanity and the way in which human beings should engage in our world. We must speak for the voiceless and those who are excluded. Bold statements must also be made about the future of our world, about justice, about the way in which we are expected to relate to one another, about the dignity of every human life. As Fr Pedro Arrupe said:

Today’s prime educational objective must be to form ‘men and women for others’…who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbours.

A church that does not stand with the poor betrays the vision of Jesus who himself was a poor person and who identified with those who were poor and at the margins of his world. This is a constant theme of Pope Francis:

Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.

- Pope Francis

I’m sure that he would agree with fellow South American Dom Pedro Casaldaliga of Brazil when he said that: ‘…we must keep repeating it: without the poor there is no salvation, without the poor there is no Church, without the poor there is no Gospel.”

This lesson was brought home to me some years ago when I went with a friend to Sri Lanka to meet up with theologian Fr Tissa Balasuriya. Fr Tissa was once formally excommunicated from the Church because of some of his writings. He was subsequently admitted back but the whole incident caused Fr Tissa enormous personal hardship and divided the Sri Lankan church.

“So you’ve come to talk theology!” Fr Tissa said when we first met. He promptly led us out of the room, down the stairs, across the compound, into the street, into a rickshaw, and before we fully realised what was happening, we had travelled for 45 minutes to the outskirts of Colombo to a slum area in which he had built a school. He took us to an area on the unfinished roof of the school, right in the middle of the slum, sat us down and said: “Now we can do theology. We cannot do theology out of the context of the poor and what the Gospel means for them!” Fr Tissa was implying that to speak of the Reign of God without focusing on the poor is impossible. Christianity is not possible unless the poor are at its centre.

As Joan Chittister argues: ‘To say that we believe that God loves the poor, judges on their behalf, wills their deliverance but do nothing ourselves to free the poor, to hear their pleas, to lift their burdens, to act in their behalf, is an empty faith indeed.’

There can be a temptation for Catholic education to ‘spiritualise’ poverty; that is, to speak solely of the ‘spiritually’ poor, which would probably include most of us gathered here in some way or another.

It is clear that Catholic education has a mission to those in our society who suffer cultural oppression, have lost direction spiritually or who are searching for meaning in the context of a society dominated by rampant consumerism and secular ‘Gods’ and ‘idols’. However, these definitions of poverty cannot be used to ‘let us off the hook’ when it comes to our Gospel imperative to serve the materially poor; to those who are most disadvantaged and whose dignity as human beings is affronted by marginalisation and lack of opportunity and choice. They lack adequate educational and healthcare opportunities and are excluded from decisions that affect them. The poor are those who do not take life for granted, those for whom staying alive is their primary task and many die before their time.

The term ‘preferential option for the poor’ is commonly used these days in mission statements and the like. In Spanish, the verb ‘optar’ implies making a significant decision according to one’s deepest values and priorities. The use of this verb was deliberate and implies much more than a simple choice between alternatives. For us the use of the term should refer to a fundamental orientation in our lives and our structures towards the plight of the poor- their needs and concern.

When Liberation Theologians used the term ‘preferential option for the poor’, they were inferring that God makes a decision to stand with and for the poor. God loves the poor preferentially but not exclusively. This preference is not because the poor are good, but because God is good. As Gustavo Gutierrez says: ‘God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation is contrary to God’s will.’

Edmund Rice Education Australia aspires to model a family of schools where those who can look after those who can’t; where co-responsibility becomes the norm; where the strong accept responsibility for those on the margins. Part of the levy paid by member schools of is used in support for schools and Flexible Learning Centers that work with marginalized and disenfranchised young people. However, co-responsibility means much more than just giving money –as important as this is. It is a win, win process - there aren’t donors and receivers; we all give and we all receive. We all contribute according to our possibilities and we receive according to our need. We are all liberated through our participation in the liberation of the weakest. The poor enrich us and complete our humanity.

Co-responsibility is a way of being in relationship. It is based on an appreciation that the whole is a strong as its parts; that this national family called EREA requires that we ‘cast our lots’ together; that the strong will always assist those who are struggling and that we are all winners through the experience of this relationship. Bringing co- responsibility from the stage of being a mechanism for supporting struggling schools and Flexible Learning Centers, to a deeply held appreciation of our unique way of being in relationship, is a clear priority for our future.

In addressing the demands of an authentic preferential option for the poor, our schools are challenged by potentially hard questions related to our mission to and concern for the poor and those at the margins.

Questions such as:

  • Do certain traditions or parental expectations of us conflict with our embrace of a deeper ‘option for the poor’?
  • Are we currently perceived in the community as inclusive or exclusive?
  • Do our fee structures and enrolment policies really encourage inclusion or are we focussed on priorities that exclude us as a possibility for those who are poor?
  • Does the cost of our ‘informal’ curriculum: our excursions, school functions etc, effectively exclude the poor?
  • With whom do we align ourselves?
  • With whom do we compete?
  • Do our external associations drive us towards agendas and goals that distract us from that core sense of serving the poor and marginalised?
  • When only our deepest values should say who we are, who or what do we let define us? League tables, parental expectations, sporting associations or the priorities of the Gospel?

Our commitment to act in accord with honest answers to these questions may mean that we lose some people and with the greatest of respect, they may be better off having their children educated in another setting. Prior to making this choice however, we hope that we have done all that we can lead our communities into a deeper sense of what the Gospel requires us to be and do as authentic Catholic schools.

Conclusion

As human institutions we struggle to live up to our own vision, to reform our life continually so as to be coherent with this vision. Our efforts to address these questions in the light of the Gospel contribute to our authenticity and capacity to claim the title of Christian community.

It could be suggested that it is easier for Catholic education in India or the developing world to embrace these ideals of the Reign of God and an option for the poor, as poverty is all around. However, as Mother Teresa once said that ‘Calcutta can be seen all around the world if only we have eyes to see.’ Perhaps not just the eyes to see, but the openness, the desire and the intention as well! Friends, our human condition gives us one huge concession: we don’t have to be perfect, just the best we can!

Not perfect but truly authentic!
No one can ask more of a school.
No one can ask more of us as individuals!

On behalf of the thousands of people you do and will influence through your service to Catholic education, I thank you for having the courage to have these discussions.


wayne_news_master_2017Dr Wayne Tinsey Executive Director