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The State of Our World

By Mons. Peter Jeffrey:

When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergolio spoke with catechists each year at their annual conference. He had a tender care both for the educator and for the student.

In those talks, he shines a bright light on-

* the human condition,

* our need for the Good News and

* the right way to share it joyfully

Before I say a little about the Pope’s analysis of the context in which we are Religious Educators let us hone into our current Australian culture. Recently I have been reading the latest social analysis of our Australian society by Hugh Mackay. It seems to me, in “Australia Reimagined” he has the courage to face things the way they are. We are experiencing an unprecedented run of economic growth but to date it has failed to deliver a more stable or harmonious society. Individualism is rampant. Income inequality it growing. Public education is under resourced. The gender revolution is quite belligerent. There is a decline in trust of public institutions, including the Church. Political leaders are struggling to hold their impact. As one commentator said “we are more socially fragmented, more anxious, more depressed, more overweight, more medicated, deeper in debt and increasingly addicted – whether to our digital devices, drugs, pornography or just “stuff”.

Mons. Peter

Yet Hugh Mackay remains optimistic. His book is titled “Australia Reimagined” with a sub-heading “Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society”. I found his reflections and statistical evidence helpful as I was reflecting on the environment in which we exercise our ministry within Catholic Education.

Some may have seen it when you were enjoying your sabbatical – I am thinking of a frontispiece on one of the buildings at Harvard – it reads “Who is man that you are mindful of him?” It is a question that needs to be addressed by anyone, like all of us, engaged in Catholic Education in the Australian context.

You may be aware that those words on the building at Harvard are from Psalm 8. It is easy to overlook the fact that the questioner is referring to God! We know that the sum of God’s creative attention to each of us is brought together in Scripture in one word – LOVE. If you watched the Royal Wedding, the Afro-American preacher left us in no doubt about that.

As educators (in the home or in the school) so many branches of your task concern the mystery of the human person – there is the theological approach which is like the nucleus from which springs the philosophical, cultural and scientific areas of education and formation. As you all know so well from personal experience, a Catholic Education is not confined just to an R.E period each day. It permeates the approach to all subjects and the atmosphere of the school community.

Pope Francis speaks about a divine pedagogy. In the Scriptures, we come to the nearness and presence of the Word – the Divine Word - in history. As Pope John Paul 11 said in his magnificent encyclical “Redeemer of Man” - Christ reveals the human person to the human person. As educators if we grow in our appreciation of that basic reality, we will let it shine through in all our interactions with our particular school communities.

As you all know only too well, we are doing this in a setting that is challenging to say the least. Some people have described our “globalised culture” as a “shipwrecked culture”. Expressing it briefly, some aspects of the environment in which you are accompanying our young Australians in their growth are very challenging. Features of this atmosphere include what Pope Francis refers to as –

Secular ‘messianism’ – in the public arena this moves from looking at the acts of a person to the structures in our society. This is far-reaching since it covers over personal responsibility. Then there will be no need for any reference to the dignity of the person and relationship with God. It is hard to capture the hidden effects of this.

Relativism – results in the situation where good and bad do not exist in themselves – rather you just calculate advantages and disadvantages. There are no certainties or convictions. The human person loses support in something that transcends him. We tend to end up as a number in marketing statistics. We become incentives for the advertising industry.

Post-modernity does not advocate an aversion to religion – but it does force it into the private sphere. In this atmosphere, school Masses and assemblies with a religious component to which parents are invited are important counter-cultural experiences.

In this environment, we need to foster what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter”. Reflecting on this I found myself thinking of all the gatherings and programmes that are part of programmes in your schools. You recapture and develop the ‘memories’ in the traditions of your schools. You seek (and I believe you seek well) to rediscover the mission hidden in your remembered history. We are not just starting from scratch, nor do we want to be “bogged” in a bygone situation. We draw on our rich inheritance and express it in appropriate language in our contemporary situation.

The mission of Catholic education is handed on to us to be applied in the present. We need to foster genuine exchange leading to respect for each and every single person. To quote Arch Bergolio “Education must serve formation – that is the structuring of life” then he goes on to say “It is a journey of encounter in which the one who teaches and the one who learns understand each other better in relation to their time, their history, the society, the culture and the world”.

I really liked what Pope Francis says when he observes “Education is not just a matter of selecting concrete offerings of content and methods, but also interpreting and evaluating them”

He says “our mission in the Church is to act in such a way that others will believe in the gospel. Watching you, seeing what you do, how you behave, what you say, how you feel, how you love – this will lead them to the Gospel.”

My observation as a Priest is that principals and teachers in our schools in our current context are conscious that many young people have no directions. This is because no-one in the home has told them that there is something great beyond themselves. Card. Bergolio loves to quote the Gospels where it says “the people wish to see Jesus”.

The vocation of every Christian is to foster a personal encounter with the Lord. I conclude with a comment from Francis when he was Archbishop in Argentina – “To seek God is to seek His face, to enter into His intimacy. Every vocation – especially that of Religious Educators – presupposes a question “master where do you live?” and an answer “Come and you will see!”.

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that personal encounter and intimacy with the Master underpins true discipleship. It will guarantee – can I say - the genuine “flavour” of all classroom activity.

Finally two quotes – first from Pope Francis: Today’s world which is often unhealthy because of secularism and consumerism seems to be losing its ability to celebrate and live as a family.

The other is from St. Teresa of Avila – she wrote to one of her sisters, summarizing what the Christian life is all about viz. “to love Him and to make Him loved”.

My prayer is that in the hum-drum of our daily work (as Priest, parent, teacher) we may not lose sight of that objective.

*This is a copy of Mons' speech for the Bill Reid Address to the Sandhurst Diocese

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