Catholic educators challenged to unite

By  Joseph Sinasac, CR Publisher and Editor
  • December 1, 2006
TORONTO - If Ontario's Catholic schools are struggling to stay afloat in turbulent waters, it would seem that half the time Catholics are stirring up the waves themselves. At a two-day conference dealing with the subject Nov. 24-25, leaders of the provincial separate school system struggled with how to overcome differences and face external challenges united.
"Within our own church and its institutions, at times we seem to be rowing in opposite directions," said Msgr. Dennis Murphy, a well-known expert on Catholic education, who gave the homily at the closing Mass of the conference organized by the Institute for Catholic Education (ICE).

The symposium, called Navigating in Turbulent Waters, Together in Faith, attracted about 480 people who have leadership roles in the separate school system, including bishops, priests, teachers, administrators, school trustees, parents and students. It was the first such gathering since a similar symposium organized by ICE four years ago.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, the popular Canadian author and theologian, began the symposium with a look at Catholicism today. He lamented that, too often, Catholics are falling into polarized ideological camps — "Vatican II Catholics" in favour of the reforms that flowed from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and "John Paul II Catholics" who saw the late Pope's mission as one that tried to stem ill-considered reforms and restore theological clarity and obedience.

Two Americans symbolize both camps: Michael Moore, director of the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 that lambasted the regime of U.S. President George Bush, and Mel Gibson, director and producer of The Passion of the Christ, who is known for his traditionalist stance in the church.

Both camps attack each other, blaming their opponents for all the ills of the church and the modern world. "Unconsciously, we replicate all the violence of language and all the things we're trying to stop."

Rolheiser observed that Catholicism means a universal embrace that takes in both Moore and Gibson, and everything in between. However, it does not mean seeking out the lowest common denominator to avoid conflict.

"Was Jesus a liberal or a conservative? Sometimes He was a liberal and sometimes He was a conservative. He went where his compassion took him," Rolheiser said.

Rolheiser urged all Catholics, regardless of their ideology, to adopt the compassion of Jesus toward all humanity, especially toward those with whom we disagree. "We need to form Catholic hearts. . . . Don't be a liberal, don't be a conservative, be a woman or man of faith."

By being open to the guidance of Jesus, Catholics can work together to face the challenges confronting their schools, Rolheiser said. While some of these are general - the challenge of fundamentalism, particularly in its Islamic extremist form, aggressive secularism and increasing consumerism, which look on decisions regarding schools as consumer choices, rapid technological innovation, the struggle with affluence in the West - others are specific to Ontario's publicly funded separate school system. These are:

  • The increasing number of non-Catholic students in Catholic schools raises concerns about preserving the system's Catholicity. When coupled with a declining population of school-aged children, the issue will put pressure on Catholic school boards to either water down their religious aspects or simply close schools.
  • Renewed demands by secular culture to eliminate faith-based education entirely and replace it with one public system. "We have managed to protect our own system over many years," said Donna Marie Kennedy, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association. "However, past success should not lead to complacency."
  • Demands by other religions to have similar publicly funded school systems.
  • There remains ongoing friction in the triangular relationship between schools, parishes and parents. "We have to stop complaining, we have to start being concerned about each other," said Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Alexandria-Cornwall. "Let's focus on building healthy communities for the sake of the children."
  • Ontario's funding formula for Catholic schools still fails to adequately cover all the expenses schools face, said Paul Whitehead, past president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association.
  • However, there was still hope amid the gloom. In two sessions, numerous students, teachers, trustees, priests, bishops and school administrators stood up to tell stories about how schools in their areas were working together with parents and parishes to build Catholic community and instil a strong sense of faith in their students.

In his homily during the closing Mass, Murphy, who founded the Institute for Catholic Education 20 years ago, reminded those gathered that what draws all Catholics together is the Eucharist, given to humanity by Jesus Christ.

"It's here we come finally to say who we are. We come because it is here, leaning on one another, that we find the peace and support that gives meaning to our lives."

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