by Patrick Walsh

In recent years there has been serious debate and reflection on the nature and purpose of our Catholic school network, including the excellent publication by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference in 2014, “The Catholic Education of School-Age Children” and a recent open letter from the bishops, dated July 1, 2016, to trustees of Catholic schools.

The issues and variables are complex, but as a Catholic education leader it seems to me we need to be more solution focused, outward looking, generous and to take a few calculated risks. They include:

  •  Acknowledge that the pendulum has swung too far in providing students with an academic understanding of Jesus and the Church where the focus is on assessment and gaining credits for NCEA. While these are necessary and laudable goals, without interfacing
    with deliberate opportunities for students to have personal encounters with Christ it is a hollow achievement.
  • Educational research consistently demonstrates that the quality of educational outcomes is directly correlated to the quality of relationships between students and teachers. It is self-evident therefore, that our evangelising efforts in Catholic schools depend upon the faith commitment and zeal of the principal and staff when interacting with students. It is these qualities and dispositions which should be given primacy when employing staff for mission.
  • What students remember and value most in our Catholic schools is not their religious education lessons but the lasting effect of high quality retreats, liturgies and social justice programmes. It is a truism that faith is caught not taught. These experiences work because they engage the “mind” and “heart” and lead to a personal conversion. If we are serious about evangelisation this is where we must invest our resources.
  • Catholic schools share the same goal of desiring students to be active members of their local parish. Parishes must collaborate with schools to incentivise young people to attend, including offering young people opportunities to participate, lead and engage in decision making within the parish.
  • The concept where possible, of building or relocating a parish within a Catholic school where the parish priest is in an office adjacent to the principal’s and where parish Masses are a regular mix of young and old is worth promoting. This is perhaps a new paradigm the Church should embrace for its own benefit and survival.
  • It is a sad but modern reality that there is a disconnect between “faith”and “life” including in our schools. It requires constant vigilance to ensure that the Gospel message finds meaning and expression in all aspects of school, including the curriculum, extra-curricular activities, performance management systems, strategic plans and professional learning communities. These are essential tools and levers to ensure the Gospel remains centre stage in all that we do.
  • “God desires all to be saved.” Preference cards are a necessary creature of statue but where possible, Catholic schools should be generous in accepting those who are willing and able to embrace all that a Catholic education entails. This does not dilute or weaken our Catholic character since it should be accompanied by a no-opt clause in relation to religious education and observances. The Catholic bar should be set high for all in our schools with a priority given to its evangelising mission. Above all, Catholic schools must unapologetically put Christ at the centre of their life and mission for all who enter the school gate.

Patrick Walsh is principal of John Paul College in Rotorua and is on the executive of the Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand.