In the letter titled "Renewing the Promise", bishops call on those in the Catholic school system to go deeper in understanding their faith story and how it is interwoven with their own lived experiences. Photo by Michael Swan

Ontario bishops strike chord in pastoral letter on Catholic education

By  JOHN B. KOSTOFF, Catholic Register Speacial
  • August 21, 2018

In 1989 Ontario’s Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter, “This Moment of Promise,” in the wake of legislation to fully fund the province’s Catholic school system. The document set the groundwork for Catholic education in a new era and was followed in 1993 by a pastoral letter titled “Fulfilling the Promise.” Now, 31 years after the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the constitutional legitimacy of full funding of Catholic education, the bishops have issued a third pastoral letter.

Titled “Renewing the Promise,” this new document recognizes the profound societal changes that have occurred since full funding was implemented. These include a marked increase in consumerism, the pervasiveness of social media, a pessimism emanating daily in much of our media and fear that society lacks leaders to deliver us from this morass. It is a culture that relegates religion to some primitive superstition and creates a false division between the person of science and the person of faith. 

Speaking of the pressures and distractions young people face today, the bishops remind us of the prophetic words of St. John Paul: “From around the world, they hear daily messages of conflict and hostility, of greed and injustice, of poverty and despair. Young people are eager to find solid and enduring values which can give meaning and purpose to their lives.” To help students in these difficult times, the bishops propose “accompaniment,” of walking with students as they cope with a confusing world and finding their place in it, and helping them discern the role of faith and what faith calls forth in terms of engagement in society. 

The theme of accompaniment is drawn from the Easter experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The story strikingly sets forward a pedagogical insight. Jesus begins by asking why they are sad, what is bothering them. What tumbles forth are fear and concern about the recent events in Jerusalem. Jesus listens. He doesn’t perform a drive-by teaching, but rather continues on the road with the disciples listening to them and finally breaking bread with them when He is recognized. 

In the same way, the bishops are asking the Catholic school community to accompany students on their individual faith journey — by listening, teaching and ultimately encountering Jesus in the sharing of the Eucharist.

The document draws on the insights of Pope St. John Paul II regarding the New Evangelism, which is centred on a recommitment and deepening of faith, “of strengthening those who have lost a sense of faith or no longer consider themselves to be members of the Church.” The bishops call on those in the Catholic school system to go deeper in understanding their faith story and how it is interwoven with their own lived experiences.

A false dichotomy is often present in Catholic schools. Some believe schools must teach more faith content, while others claim justice activism is the source of true conversion. The bishops rightly declare that this is nonsense.

“The truth is that we cannot say one is more important than the other because we need both in order to be faithful to Christ and His teaching. To know the faith means living the faith,” the document proclaims. 

Faith should propel students into a life of Christian engagement by instilling a missionary zeal to go into the world. As the document explains, in a world mesmerized by materialism and with a declining respect for life, we should hear the words of Pope Francis, who said, “Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for evangelization of culture.” 

Catholic education has many supporters but it is most profoundly led by the bishops. The bishops remind us that our words must match our actions. The relationships among all the parties in the Catholic community should be one of respect and right conduct. In short, the bishops remind us we are held to a higher standard. We are called not only to profess our uniqueness but to live that uniqueness in tangible ways.

Every member of the Catholic school community should read the challenges laid before them in “Renewing the Promise.” 

It is a strong letter of support for Catholic education in the same strong tradition as previous documents. It establishes a renewed direction for all parties by making calls for a new evangelization and for communities that accompany students by listening and teaching and by sharing the Eucharist. 

By affirming the value of Catholic education and the good work being done in our schools, the bishops have laid out a clear direction for the Catholic school community as it moves into the next 20 years.

(Kostoff, is Executive Director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association and a frequent contributor on Catholic education.)

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