A senior Christchurch diocese priest has gone public with concerns over what he saw as the secular way two Catholic schools presented themselves in a local newspaper.

In a posting on his blog “Food for Faith”, Fr John O’Connor referred to a recent feature in The Press newspaper, in which schools promoted themselves in the hope of attracting students.

Fr O’Connor, who is vocations director for Christchurch diocese, wrote that he did not see evidence of a “Catholic vocabulary” in two brief articles by Catholic colleges.

“A parent who followed my advice to watch for the Catholic vocabulary … would not recognise two of the three Christchurch colleges as Catholic,” he wrote.

“One of the three avoids Catholic vocabulary completely, and a second appears to be Catholic only in the name of the school.

“However, the third is clearly unambiguously a Catholic college and unashamedly striving to be an authentic place of Catholic education.”

The priest included clippings of the articles at the end of his posting.

Fr O’Connor said he has suggested  to parents seeking an education that is “robustly Catholic” for their children to look for “Catholic vocabulary” words on school websites and at open days.

Such words might include: “Catholic, Church, God, Jesus Christ, prayer and sacraments, among well chosen others.”

The priest said it was clear from the “promotional blurbs” that each of the three schools featured in The Press is “seeking to provide excellence in every academic, sporting and cultural endeavour”.

“But it is not enough for a Catholic school to top the NCEA charts. All the high schools in this country have this goal in their sights.

“A Catholic school exists for something more.”

He quoted a 2014 publication by New Zealand’s Catholic bishops which stated: “The Catholic school is first and foremost a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”

A source close to one of the colleges said an advertisement for the school in The Press feature mentioned education of boys and girls in the Catholic Faith.

Christchurch diocese Catholic Education Office manager Mike Nolan said all Catholic schools in the diocese are subject to a robust Catholic special character review process.

Mr Nolan said all the proprietors are confident the schools are authentically Catholic in their religious education teaching programmes and mission.

“A single newspaper article does not, in my view, attempt to capture the myriad of aspects and dimensions of any school, let alone a Catholic school,” he added.

The principal of one of the colleges that produced an article criticised by Fr O’Connor said the school’s charism, history and values were clearly mentioned.

The principal said the college had received an “extremely positive” special character review in 2015 which was performed by a reviewer from another diocese.

The review stated that the college is “a community where Gospel values are central, where faith is nourished and where Christian celebration in the Catholic tradition is highly valued”.

The principal said enrolling parents are required to attend a “Forming Faith Together” session.

Criticism seen as narrow

Response from Christchurch diocese deputy for education Fr John Adams to the comments in Fr John O’Connor’s blog. 

Thanks again for this opportunity to comment on the recent blog of Fr John O’Connor. I am pleased that Fr John is concerned about the way in which our Catholic secondary schools are presented to prospective parents.

However, with the greatest respect, I believe that his critique of their Catholic special character via the small articles in a recent issue of The Press newspaper is too narrow.

I have the privilege of working with each of the three schools Fr John identifies, and I can assure you that each of them strive to make Catholic character front and centre in the life of each school.

In my role as deputy for education I am also able to access the results of the regular Catholic special character reviews carried out throughout the diocese.

These are evidence-based assessments that examine Catholic community, pastoral care, and religious education.

One of the aims of this review process is to report to the proprietor that each school is “authentically Catholic”.

I am pleased to be able to tell you that each school mentioned in Fr John’s blog performed admirably in their most recent Catholic special character review. For these reasons I am confident that the Catholic secondary schools under discussion are fulfilling the requirements of their proprietor.

My advice to prospective parents of one of the schools in our Catholic network is to not rely only on what is written in our newspapers, but to go and visit.

Once again, I am confident that one will discover that our Catholic schools not only excel in teaching and learning, but that they are also imbued with a strong sense of their Catholic heritage.