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Australian Catholic education has undergone significant change over the past forty years. While the various transitions have been relatively smooth, substantial and daring challenges remain.

One such challenge pertains to the meaning, support and resourcing of the faith formation offered to lay Catholic educators. Generally speaking, in the transition of Catholic schools from a predominantly religious to lay staff, formation has not enjoyed the urgency or priority it requires. Yet, without a strong sense of vocation directed to the building of the Kingdom of God, it would be difficult for teachers to effectively contribute to the development of the ‘culture or habitus’ and ‘integral formation’ of students, central to the mission of Catholic schools. Since 2005 substantial formation programs have been developed and resourced by Catholic education authorities giving great hope for the faith nurturance of all who are co-responsible for Catholic education.

Yet, despite these significant initiatives the formation of lay educators continues to be complicated by the tensions and struggles taken up in the inherited social and cultural patterns of the current era. Spirituality is undoubtedly coming back in vogue, but it is often expressed in terms of finding personal meaning and affirmation of self, with a disconnection from religion and Church. Christian beliefs and practices related to selflessness, community and the presence of God do not readily appear compatible with the secular world view. The forces of secular culture are now perceived to be so strong that unless certain actions are quickly progressed, such as the formation of lay educators, the mission of Catholic education may well ‘be doomed to failure’. There is a danger that it may not be possible for lay Catholic educators to recognise the pervasive hold these concepts have over them.

Religious and Spiritual Formation is an Affair of the Heart

The word formation is drawn from the Latin word formo, meaning ‘to shape’. Formation refers to opportunities provided for individuals or groups to prepare them for a special or particular mission. It is also the natural process whereby human beings are shaped through the realities of daily life which challenge them to grow into higher states of living. There is a desire in every human heart for transcendence. Human Beings are created by God and only discover the full wonder of their humanity in being true to their creator. This process in a Catholic spiritual sense involves assistance with a person’s personal growth so that this transformation is embedded in the life of Jesus Christ, and his Body, the Church. Pope Benedict XVI calls for a ‘formation of the heart’ that provides opportunities for spiritual encounters ‘with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirit to others’.

Christian religious and spiritual formation leads a person to a deeper life centred in the Holy Trinity. It is a gift in which all can share, allowing greater growth into the Trinity, the demands of discipleship and the vocations of administration, teaching and parenting. ‘What is needed’, wrote Pope John Paul II 1985, ‘are ministers of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, familiar with their own emotions and able to share them with others, and who are at the same time, contemplatives who have fallen in love with God.’

The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola – Fanning the Flame of Love and Freedom

In order to facilitate this formation of the heart that created contemplatives in love with God a collaborative decision was made in the Diocese of Lismore to develop a six year formation program for all parish schools centred on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises are not a program to be imposed but rather an instrument for touching the faith life of a person, that already exists and to foster its growth. The Spiritual Exercises are immersed in Ignatian Spirituality, a spirituality which belongs to the church and is available for anyone who has come to the realization that belief in Jesus Christ is a life giving experience, however they express it, and want to grow closer to him.

The Spiritual Exercises were chosen because they facilitate a formation of the heart whereby the movement of grace within people allows the love of God to inform their life decisions and resolutions. The exercises create contemplatives within daily life and so address a great spiritual estrangement experienced in our times.

Centred on Jesus Christ and his Body the Church they are a set of foundational exercises that enable a person to deepen the experience of God in daily life and discern how best to serve God, others and creation. They do this through promoting deep conversation, by listening to oneself, others and God, discerning one’s deepest desires for self, others and the workplace, and learning how to help souls more by deeds than words.

Aware that the Spiritual Exercises could prove to be quite daunting for many Parish School Executive members and staff it was decided to provide two years of preparation prior to their introduction. Currently in 2011 1300 teachers and 200 parents are overwhelmingly positive about their participation in the Retreat program.

The Fruits of an Authentic Retreat Program on Teachers’ Faith Nurturance

A research analysis of the first three years of this Retreat Program has provided overwhelming evidence that each participant experienced a deeper engagement with the purposes of Catholic Education. The most frequent group of positive responses related to participants’ enriched interior faith lives and spiritual journeys.

Staff reported enhanced self knowledge, self acceptance, commitment to reflection, a more prayerful life (particularly the Awareness Examen) and deeper engagement in their faith. Affirmed in their faith and spiritually enriched, these responses indicated a pattern of strong energy to continue building the Catholic faith life and community in their parish schools, especially by providing students with access to Ignatian ways of praying, and in particular the Awareness Examen.

By the third year of the program the research showed that staff felt more open to examining their lives, and more confident in doing so, than in previous years. The recognition of the need for ongoing spiritual learning is now strongly established among staff. The theological content regarding sin and grace provoked strong appreciation, clarification and personal engagement. The parish school executive responses referred to an enhanced understanding of their work as vocation and the importance of leading the Retreat Days. Executive members evidenced an increased commitment to their prayer lives and an increased sense of helping others to develop spiritually. The transition to Parish School Executives leading the school Retreat Days in 2010 was strongly supported.


John Graham is a senior staff member at the Catholic Education Office in the Diocese of Lismore.