Last weekend, I had the great fortune of participating in a historic event in our province: the first provincial conference gathering representatives from all the Catholic school boards of Ontario, both French and English. Actually, two conferences were held simultaneously in nearby hotels in Toronto, one in each of our official languages. However, the two groups did come together to celebrate Mass, to share in a banquet and to listen to a bilingual keynote talk given by yours truly.
Parents and teachers, students and priests, trustees and administrators: there were over 800 of us assembled to reflect on the enduring of gift of Catholic education in our province, to consider present challenges and to imagine ways of moving forward. The theme of the English symposium was: “Living our Legacy, Forging our Future”, while the French symposium was entitled: “Enfants de Dieu, citoyens du monde: toute une différence!”
My own contribution was to propose a reflection on Catholic schools at the crossroads of faith and culture. I started by defining what I meant by culture: not a narrow view which limits culture to opera and museums, but a broader view where culture can be defined as “the habits of the heart”. Indeed, our culture is found in the air we breathe and shapes our attitudes, our tastes and our convictions in subtle ways that we don’t even recognize. Some of the characteristics of our present Western culture include a focus on individualism, on consumerism, on rationalism and on pleasure. Our culture is secular, in the sense that it excludes the idea of God as a integral part of its worldview. In our culture, religion is seen as a personal, private matter only.
If all schools are meant to impart culture, to help students assimilate their culture, how can Catholic schools do so without betraying their religious heritage? This truly is a major challenge. I suggested that Catholic schools can respond to that challenge by focusing on two broad issues: identifying how our Catholic tradition can enrich our present culture; and forging new ways of presenting our tradition so that it resonates in the present culture.
All of this is intimately bound to the broader Church’s struggle with what Blessed John Paul II called the “New Evangelization”. He claimed that we need to find new ways, new languages and new energies to proclaim the unchanging Gospel because of the changes in our culture. Benedict XVI has taken up this same focus, establishing a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, and calling for the next international Bishops’ Synod to focus on this issue.
As Catholics, we do not turn away from our culture, nor despise it. We recognize it for what it is, with all its beauties and weaknesses, and we want to contribute to it. Culture can be life-giving or life-crushing; it can enhance human dignity or disparage it; it can help people become all they are meant to be, or stop people from truly realizing themselves. Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom of justice, peace and joy. Certainly, these are gifts that all Christians can bring to whatever culture they inhabit. The challenge is for Catholic schools to bring these gifts to our students and to our province alike.
Participants in last week’s symposium have shared with me their renewed enthusiasm and commitment for Catholic education. I pray that the seeds planted by this event will blossom in every corner of our province.