Making Jesus relevant to the lives of young people given the complexity of New Zealand secular society is the main challenge of religious educators today, said National Centre for Religious Studies director Colin MacLeod.
“Our RE teachers are doing great work but because many of our young people (in Catholic schools) come from families that aren’t churched, the message of Jesus is relatively new to them,” he said.
“And to try [to] make that something relevant to the world in which they live is challenging.”
Mr MacLeod, who was appointed to the position eight months ago, has been involved in Catholic education for the past 22 years.
He taught at Kavanagh College in Dunedin and was one of the school’s assistant principals for the last 15 years.
His new role, Mr MacLeod said, is to encourage and support schools as well as parishes, in remembering that it is Jesus who is at the centre of everything they do.
“It’s not the curriculum that’s at the centre of a Catholic school. It’s not a government statement that’s at the centre of a Catholic school. It’s the person of Jesus, a living faith in the God who loves us that is at the core of our communities,” he said.
He said it is easy to lose sight of that “because there’s so much work”.
“Part of my job [as NCRS director] is to help develop resources and also to look at research that people are writing and trying to integrate that into our programmes and training for teachers,” he said.
Towards this end, Mr MacLeod said the centre is working on a number of projects, including a bridging document for the primary school Religious Education curriculum, a prayer resource for secondary schools and rewriting aspects of the Understanding Sexuality course.
He also noted that many young people, particularly those “who are not churched”, do not connect the character of the school to Jesus.
“They know that their schools are really nice schools and that people are really kind, that we look after people and we’re involved in social justice,” he said. “But they don’t always realise that the reason teachers do it is because they have a personal faith in Jesus.”
“We need to name Jesus in what we do,” he said.
He doesn’t believe Catholic schools are failing at their task of being Catholic.
“I think Catholic schools, in ways that parishes often are not, are actually engaging with people that are not churched and trying to encourage them to gain an awareness and participation in our Church.”
Mr MacLeod was born in Wairarapa and studied at St Mary’s Catholic School and Chanel College in Masterton. He left Holy Cross Seminary after a couple of years, but completed a degree in Theology from the University of Otago.
NCRS produces religious education and catechetical programmes at early childhood, primary and secondary levels for schools and parishes.