I found out last week that she was gone. Whisked away by what was left of her family, another school, starting again, the end result… predictable.
A year before as 200 hundred of her Year 10 peers drifted out of the gym for recess she sheepishly approached me. I had been speaking about intimacy, love and the possibility that they could be happy by understanding what true charity and justice could mean in dating relationships. Like Lucy in C.S.Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when she hears the first whisper of Aslan’s name, the idea of love, respect and the non-hyper-sexualisation of dating relationships for many teen girls is like a rumour from a mystical kingdom, something beyond hope or belief but yet seismically compelling.
Her story was unique only in the sense that it had seen her dragged halfway around the world in a bitter divorce battle but it was sadly ubiquitous in what came next. In the roundabout way of so many wounded young people she offered up a narrative of loss, confusion and pain. Instead of the stable and strong presence of a loving father she had endured rage and emotional violence. Fleeing with her mother she was uprooted from what passed for a home and found herself urgently trying to build a new life a world away. Soon enough she started fighting with her mother and had begun dating a guy in his early 20’s, she was barely fifteen. The fights at home escalated and like an increasing number of girls in Catholic schools she moved in with him.
A moment came when she looked up at me like a jaded veteran from some endless campaign and asked a devastatingly poignant question, “How do you make someone love you more?” A lifetime compressed into one question. What she was really asking was below her consciousness. What she really meant was this:
“My father never provided the deep love and affirmation of my feminine self that I hunger for in the essence of my being. I have projected my pain onto my mother who is dealing with her own loss and abandonment and now I have prematurely sexualised my intimacy needs with an older male who at least notices me. I know that he is going to dump me at some point soon and this will replay my entire narrative of rejection and abandonment all over again so please tell me how I can make him love me before the pain begins again?”
I did what I could. There was no way it could have been enough. I asked the staff about her this year but no one knew much. Moved on. Gone. Things weren’t working out here. Another one lost.
THE NEW POOR
Buried deep inside the magisterial documents on Catholic Education is a simple idea that changed my paradigm. It’s called The New Poor. It is a profound concept that could change your teaching, your vocation, your very understanding of what it is you do each day in Catholic Education. The New Poor develops the idea that while financial disadvantage definitely exists for some students there is a new phenomenon in our schools where young people experience another form of poverty. Here are a few of the distinctions the Church suggests:
“…those who have lost all sense of meaning in life and lack any inspiring ideal.”
“…those to whom no values are proposed and who do not know the beauty of faith.”
“…those who come from families which are broken and incapable of love, often living in situations of emotional, material and spiritual poverty.”
Can I suggest you print this article, cut out the points above and stick them on your desk? The danger here is that we could miss the depth of what they are pointing to. Let me be really clear. When you walk into your next class there are kids sitting if front of you who may live in million dollar homes yet are emotional bankrupts. There will be kids sitting in front of you who get straight A’s in double maths who will flunk the ‘life course’ in human intimacy or spirituality because they have been deprived every moment of their precious young lives.
The idea of the New Poor goes to the very heart of Catholic Education. For most of the founders of the great teaching orders there was often an encounter with young people in profound material poverty, but that was not the only poverty they encountered. When Marcellin Champagnat began the work now undertaken so wonderfully by Marist schools across the world it was because he was reduced to tears that a dying French farm boy, Jacques Montagna, had never heard of the existence of God. It was not so much material poverty in post-revolutionary France that drove him as the possibility that vast numbers of young people may live and die without encountering the truths of the faith, the home that is the Church, and the reality of Christ and the promise of eternal life.
Jacques Montagna died before sunrise. Champagnat walked broken hearted through the storm ravaged fields of rural France convinced this must never happen again. I watched that girl walk out the door of that gymnasium knowing that her story was about to be repeated indefinitely.
What if you knew that many of your students were truly, ‘the poor in spirit?’ What if you knew that many of them go home to families torn apart by conflict? What if you knew that boys were desperate to be good men and girls are crying out to be valued and loved in a culture that reduces them to body parts and sex appeal?
These are the New Poor – our students ravaged by a hyper-commercialised culture marked by family breakdown, loneliness and confusion. This is truly our mission field. To go towards young people, to be with them in solidarity and friendship, to tell them there is good news, there is hope. If we do not find the courage to eventually be a Catholic school that preaches Christ crucified and risen then though we might have all the best programs, multi-million dollar facilities and good intentions we will be little more that St. Paul’s clashing cymbal or booming gong.
There is much that is good about the modern culture. Wonderful advances in science, medicine and technology. Important as these are they are not answers to the great cries of the human heart for meaning, significance and ultimately for relationship and love. Your Catholic school may well be the last place they will encounter the deepest of answers to these questions that define them. They may drown out the questions with IPOD’s and Internet but the questions remain.
Maybe that is what a Catholic school is about. A place where committed Catholic educators wrestle themselves with the great questions and find in their own lives a God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. They find a God who lifts up the poor and the poor in spirit. Perhaps the poor are closer to you than you ever knew. They are waiting outside the staffroom door.