I can look back now after almost a decade at the forefront of Catholic education and teacher formation to one single moment that provided a clear indication of what we were up against.
I had just finished speaking to several hundred students on relationships and love. I was doing a second Masters at the John Paul II Institute and I had a head and heart full of what young people could experience, achieve and contribute. As I learned over the decade that followed travelling the world and speaking to over 300,000 young people from Manila to London, young people have a great desire for love, truth and meaning. The problem is not the message. The problem is the sheer force of the surrounding cultural narrative and the fact that many of the people within Catholic education who should care the most about helping young people live the kind of relational heroism and personal integrity John Paul II called them to, frankly, don’t care.
So there I stood as students began to pack up chairs. It had been a great day. I was genuinely struck by the fact that many of the young men at this tough inner city school had revealed a capacity to respond to challenge. I had called them on their attitudes to women and to a higher standard of sacrificial living for others. The change in their physiology, at key moments, was profound.
As the room emptied, a deputy principal came and stood next to me and said the words that have stayed with me ever since, “Well that was nice but we always need to remember that this is just our story, it’s just one story.” Looking back it seems a bit like Hillary coming off Everest and the Prime Minister of New Zealand saying, ” Well we need to remember it’s just a mountain.” My deflation was profound.
In essence what the principal was communicating was this, ” I don’t really believe pretty much anything the Catholic Church teaches about human relationships but it’s nice that we ticked a box here today.” I was struck by the sudden awareness that the lunatics were running the asylum. The people who should be providing a clear counter-cultural example and calling young people to greatness were pretty much nihilists with a barely disguised disdain for the faith they were supposed to be passionately sharing.
How nice it would be if this were the only time I saw it happen. Sadly, it played out time and again in schools across this country. The people who should be providing a profound and heroic witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and making his Church an appealing home for young people were often deeply compromised. When you are deeply compromised in your personal beliefs and practice you have two options. You either repent of sin and seek grace or you attack the message with disdain. It is so much easier to attack the Church and her teachings than it is to live them. As Chesterton famously said, “Christianity has not been tried and found too difficult. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Another common option is just to ignore it all together and get on with improving test results, having sustainability audits and dealing with behaviour management issues.
Before I descend into the kind of cynicism I am highlighting I want to point to a way forward. In our online teacher formation program Going Deeper, we explore the Church documents on Catholic education. Each week we get to read and study core Church documents on teaching and put them into an easily accessible format for teachers around the world. One of the themes that has come up over and over is the the fact that the Church frequently calls Catholic teachers to become what she calls living catechisms. The Church sees the staff in a Catholic school almost like a book that students are reading on daily basis. If our witness is off then is it any wonder that our students leave our schools so profoundly unformed and uninterested in the faith. If we don’t give much of a damn about it why should they?
My passion is to remind catholic schools and catholic educators just how heroic, noble and challenging the call to be a living catechism really is. I have a passion to see teachers evangelised, inspired and formed. Our schools must, once again, become genuine centres of fearless evangelisation and this cannot happen when the bulk of staff are not passionate about Jesus, knowing him more deeply and basing the entire arc and trajectory of their lives and vocations upon Him, his Gospel (including the awkward parts about sin and judgement) and the Church that he founded.
If you’d like to take free trial of the Going Deeper resource for your school click HERE