Changes on the way for high school chaplains

  • February 16, 2007
TORONTO - As Ontario’s high school chaplains try to figure out a new name for their job that fits canon law, they’re also making a bid for some respect. And they’re starting to get it from the province’s bishops.
At the request of the Ontario bishops, the Catholic School Chaplains of Ontario will propose a new title for their role of spiritual care for Catholic high school students at a Feb. 23 meeting. Two weeks prior to the meeting the most likely candidates for the title were “campus minister,” “chaplaincy team leader” and “pastoral co-ordinator.” Canon law reserves the title of chaplain to priests and high school chaplains in Ontario generally are lay people.

But the name issue is just a preliminary to some deeper concerns Ontario’s bishops want to address in an upcoming letter to the Catholic education community, said Alexandria-Cornwall Bishop Paul-André Durocher.

“Vocabulary is a minor issue compared to the broader issue of the importance of this kind of ministry in our high schools, and the support the bishops want to give to it,” Durocher told The Catholic Register.

At present there are no standards for training or even an agreed upon job description for high school ministry from one school board to the next, said Catholic School Chaplains of Ontario past president Dominic Pullano.

A chaplain with 18 years experience at Notre Dame Secondary School in Burlington, Ont., Pullano has a Master of Divinity degree and works at the job full time. But Pullano knows of chaplains in other parts of the province with very little formal theological training — some of them part-timers and others who are teachers with spiritual care tacked on to their classroom responsibilities.

In advance of further consultations, Durocher isn’t ready to say whether the bishops will favour the M.Div. degree as the standard for high school ministry.

Professional ministry requires a professional degree for ministry, said Regis College academic dean Fr. Gordon Rixon.

Today the Jesuit theological college is training lay people to do many of the jobs once done by priests, including campus ministry. If lay people are going to take on roles once reserved for priests they’re going to need the training that was once reserved to priests, said Rixon.

“The M.Div. right across North America is sort of the standard that’s accepted,” he said.

Two year Master of Arts degrees in theology might be appropriate for people who already have several years on the job, but for a young person looking for a career in ministry the M.Div. is the degree, according to Rixon.

In Toronto, high school ministers may not all have the professional degree for ministry, but they all have teaching certificates and Bachelor of Education degrees. They are among a minority of high school ministers with union representation through the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.

But Pullano doesn’t want OECTA’s protection if it means he has to get a teaching certificate.

“We don’t think it is a teaching position. There are a lot of different jobs in education that aren’t teaching positions — that require different sorts of qualifications,” he said.

Getting school boards to understand that ministry to young people requires more than patience and a kind heart is essential, said Pullano.

“In any profession you need some kind of minimal standards. If you go to see a doctor, you assume the doctor has gone to medical school — has been certified,” he said.

Ministry to young people challenges all the skills and knowledge acquired through an M.Div., said Marilyn Elphick, campus minister and director of chaplaincy at the University of St. Michael’s College.

“You really have to know what you’re talking about. If you haven’t got a broad theological base, how are you going to address the questions that the students ask? They ask very complicated questions, very deeply theological questions. If you’re not prepared to answer, you could cause difficulties,” Elphick said.

The opportunity to turn a young person on to faith brings with it the danger of turning a student off for good. But the job also constitutes the best insurance of the catholicity of Catholic education, said Pullano.

“Most of what makes a Catholic school distinctive — I don’t want to brag — but it is done by the chaplains in most schools,” he said.

The bishops want to nudge the school boards in the direction of better pastoral care for students without appearing to dictate a set of rules.

“We have no power to tell boards what to do,” Durocher said.

At the same time the bishops want to be very clear that they regard high school chaplaincy as much more than a frill.

“We believe chaplaincy services is part of the strength of our schools,” he said. “We would like to do our part, at any rate, to make sure that chaplaincy services are as strong and as good as they can possibly be.”

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