Catholic schools

Dec 27, 2013

At the end of each year, the Christchurch Press publishes pages featuring the outstanding senior students from each High School in the region. Each school is asked to contribute the name and photo of one student accompanied by a brief summary of why this student is considered worthy of the title “top student”.

This morning’s Press pages feature three dozen “top students [from] the class of 2013.” They are an impressive bunch who have clearly served well and achieved much in their ultimate school year.

A couple of the brief CV’s attached to each photo suggest that these are the young people to watch over the next few years implying that great things will come from them in the future. I am sure that this is true. But I also know that many young people who have achieved well in the security of school environments and curriculum structures often struggle and fail after leaving school.

At the same time we all know many people who, when they were at school, struggled to achieve even pass results and who never stood above the crowd in any way during their teen years, but have in the years since leaving school become great learners, teachers, and inspiring leaders in every field of human endeavour.

This morning I read all of these students’ summaries and was impressed by the high esteem that almost every school has not only for academic excellence, but also for a broad range of cultural and sporting endeavours and achievements. Leadership qualities and strong values feature as praiseworthy in many of the comments.

I presume that the students’ accolades were written by the senior staff at each school, therefore their few words provide a good summary not only of what each student has achieved, but also of what qualities the staff (and therefore the school) considers to be most praiseworthy in their students. The writers will be well aware that there is no better publicity for their school that these brief and public comments about one of their most recent graduates.

Naturally I was particularly interested to read the comments about the “top students” from our five Christchurch Catholic colleges. As I read I expected that something would mark our Catholic colleges as distinctive since  the Integration Act of 1975 is explicit in its definition of the Catholic character of a Catholic school:

“The school is a Roman Catholic school in which the whole school community, through the general school programme and in its Religious Instructions and observances exercises the right to live and teach the values of Jesus Christ. These values are expressed in the Scriptures and in the practices, worship and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, as determined from time to time by the Roman Catholic Bishop of the diocese.”

However apart from the academic mention of “religious education” in a couple of the comments,  and references to the values of the particular congregations of Religious sisters, brothers and priests that founded the schools, there was no mention of Catholic, God, Jesus Christ or his values, Christian, Church, scriptures, prayer, faith, virtue, or love in any of the Catholic college comments.

There was one local school that did explicitly use several of these fundamentally Christian words in describing their chosen student. This College spoke of their top student as having “Christian character and integrity, taking “every opportunity to pray for anyone and everyone,” noticing and “attending to the hurting and the needy,” concluding with the statement that the school “has been abundantly blessed through the influence of this outstanding young man and his unceasing practice of the commandment to love God and others.”

The school is Middleton Grange, a state-integrated Christian school, which remains unafraid of presenting the person of Jesus Christ as the heart of their educational endeavour in a cultural climate that often causes Christians to reduce the Christian faith to good values, polite behaviour, excellence in actions, and sustainability projects. It was disappointing in this morning’s Press to see the top students of our Catholic colleges simply blending into the model of excellence that is characteristic of every good secular High School. Congratulations Middleton Grange for unashamedly standing alongside Jesus Christ and distinct from the crowd.

I know many of the staff in our local Catholic schools. They are without exception good people, committed to providing a good Catholic education for the students entrusted to their care. The challenges that they face in their roles are enormous, and the sound support and good critique that they receive, even from the Church, is too often misguided and inadequate.

Perhaps Pope Francis, who has been embraced so enthusiastically, gives us a way forward together as he directs the Church and all her institutions anew to the person of Jesus Christ. Last month, in his exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” he enthusiastically embraced the teaching of Pope Benedict when he wrote:

“I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. Evangelii Gaudium par 7

As the staff and students of our Catholic schools take a well-earned summer break, we might ponder this emphasis of these two popes, that the new school year might bring a renewed passion for the heart of the Catholic educational endeavour as outlined in the Integration Act. In this way our Catholic schools will be a more effective instrument through which Jesus Christ brings to the whole school community the new horizon and decisive direction that our world so earnestly desires.


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