St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
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Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony with God's Creation
This annual week has been celebrated for more than ten years. It provides an opportunity for our family of Catholic schools to celebrate our common identity and mission. So, it is not just a period when we feel obliged to defend our corner against attacks. It is a chance to reflect on our identity in this society, North and South – and let others know what it is that that makes us distinctive. If we bring to the educational table nothing different from what other providers do, then why on earth would we exist?
This year's theme gives us a chance to look at one aspect of the message that we try to communicate in our schools – through the formal curriculum and through the hidden curriculum of who we are and how we do things. That theme is Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony with God's Creation. And there is a sub-theme for each day of the school week:
That all sounds very nice and sweet. But our children are growing up in a world marked by disharmony. And I do not just mean that there are conflicts in various parts of the globe or that there is much discussion about a climate crisis. There is a strand in modern culture which seems to be driven by confrontational political leadership and underlined by violent games, songs and films. In the Church there is also a constituency that seems to be set on confrontation within the Church and with wider society. There is an attitude that seems to value anger and condemnation under the banner of being the Church militant. No wonder the world must seem a dangerous place to so many young people.
But, as Pope Francis once said, Christians build bridges, not walls. And that is the topic that we are asked to reflect on this year. Building bridges does not mean everybody becoming the same. Indeed, harmony in a choir, an orchestra or a band needs variety. In our first reading St Paul talks about reconciling all things to God – but elsewhere he recognises that the strength of the human body is that variety is essential. Harmony means cherishing different forms of intelligence and of creative gifts. A Catholic school that thinks only of academic success is a poor school. A Catholic school that thinks some pupils don't deserve the best is a poor school. In a society where 'good' is seen to be the same as 'smart, 'powerful', and 'famous' this year's emphasis on the possibility of living in harmony is not just a nice message but a core part of the Gospel teaching. People are able to live in harmony. People are able to build community rather than just be focused on 'me'. People are able to value the contributions of others rather than merely competing or comparing. The Gospel calls each of our young people to believe they can be saints and not just wimps or nobodies. Jesus says that, with God's help and vision, we can make this a welcoming world that loves life and treasures everybody's unique identity and contribution.
It is interesting that some of our political leaders are now talking about one educational system in NI. I am intrigued that, in an age where apparently diversity and variety in everything must be cherished, accepted and never criticised, we might not be allowed to have any diversity in education! If we want to have an educational structure that delivers quality outcomes for all, helps build a more united society and is value for money, can I suggest that the family of Catholic schools is excellent at all three? Removing our specific contribution would seem to be a very short-sighted proposal. The education system would be impoverished by getting rid of the huge role played by our schools and the communities that sustain them. The ideal is to have harmony in a diverse education system, not banal uniformity.
The range of topics for each day of Catholic Schools Week shows that we are not merely jumping on the climate crisis bandwagon and forgetting the big picture. Jesus' dream for the Kingdom of God is a holistic view. It covers all the dimensions of our being human. The core issue remains what sort of human society we pass on to our descendants. Popes have referred to this as the 'human ecology'. In our own country, the big killer of people is not climate change. It is depression, lack of self-esteem, poor relationships and a sense that my life is not worth living. Turbo consumerism is not just damaging the physical environment. It is also doing huge damage to the human ecology. Care for a cohesive and supportive society cannot be separated from care for the physical environment.Pope Benedict was strong on the link between how we treat the environment and how we treat human beings, especially those living in the poverty and weakness. Speaking to young people at World Youth Day 2008 in Australia, Pope Benedict said
The concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity. They cannot, however, be understood apart from a profound reflection upon the innate dignity of every human life from conception to natural death: a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable .
It is not our job to take one side or another in an angry ideological debate between secularists framed by them in a fractious spirit as a black or white issue. It is our job to be a prophetic Christian voice pointing out the gaps on both sides. I believe that this is where Jesus would wish us to be, building harmony by prioritising the needs of the weak over the wishes of the strong – here and around the world.
I hope that next week will be a time for all of our schools to be proud of their identity and their rich contribution to society, North and South. Together, we can give out a loud message to all our politicians as to what our priorities are. And, by focusing on all the relationships that affect our school communities, we can offer examples of how to live in harmony, valuing difference. We believe in a God who believes in people, a God who offers forgiveness and grace, love and hope, challenge and support. Christ is alive and he wants us to have life in all its fulness. That is a message for which we do not need to apologise!