Opening of the new St John's Comprehensive School

Tuesday, 14th September 2010

St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is not simply an exposition of Church doctrine, but is Paul’s eloquent and heartfelt prayer for the Church to whom he was writing. It is essentially a prayer that the young Christians he was addressing might discover the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It means knowing God as the all-loving father and putting down firm roots into that love. Or to put it another way, it means having that love as the rock-solid foundation of every aspect of one’s life. As Jesus himself put it, according to John’s gospel: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” And he goes on to say: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Today Catholics throughout the world celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, which is for us the greatest sign and symbol of God’s love for the whole of humanity.

Genuine love is both self-giving and life-giving, and enables us to flourish and grow into our true selves, created in the image and likeness of God. Growing in that love is not a once and for all event - it is a lifelong journey which takes time and effort. I believe that to grow in our love for God and others is what God calls us to.

And in the Catholic world view, the aim of education is to set us on the right path, to assist us and support us in that lifelong journey; to help draw out of young people their God-given potential so that they will be able to fulfil their unique vocation in life, both in the Church, the Body of Christ, and in the wider human community of society and the world. The nature and purpose of education is precisely to promote human flourishing and at its heart is the integral development of the whole person rooted in self-giving love.

I should imagine that for all of you involved in the education of young people one of the great joys for you is to see them gradually growing into maturing adults, developing in wisdom and understanding, in their ability to relate intimately with a wide variety of people, and beginning to find a place in society in which they are comfortable, and continue to flourish as whole and wholesome individuals committed to the common good of society. In the long term that is what education is all about.

Having said that, no one could reasonably deny that education is also about learning basic skills - not primarily because future employers require them, but rather, because certain basic skills are pretty crucial to the development of the individual who we believe is made in the image and likeness of God. For example, impoverished language skills result in a limited ability to communicate with others; to build effective relationships; to reason, or to express adequately, love, joy, concern or suffering. Literacy and numeracy contribute substantially to a person’s developing independence, maturity, freedom and appropriate self- reliance and confidence.

So authentic education helps to prepare young people for their future lives as adults, which for the majority, includes paid employment. Clearly they must be properly equipped for this, but that doesn’t mean simply acquiring a set of technical skills, so to speak. The shop, the office, the factory are all human communities. That’s why employers will look for good human and personal qualities such as the ability to relate comfortably with others and build effective and fruitful relationships; they will look for qualities such as honesty and integrity, dependability and commitment, and respect for others. And this inevitably reinforces the truth that education, properly understood, not only enhances the dignity of the individual; it also contributes to, and promotes, the common good of society and ultimately the whole human community throughout the world.

You will appreciate that much, if not all of what I have already said could be applied to any good school. So, why Catholic schools? Catholic theology emphasises that faith, whilst always a personal response to God, can never be regarded simply as the response of the individual believer. It is that of course. But genuine faith is always expressed in and through participation in the life of the community of faith – the Church. The task of handing on that faith to future generations is first of all both the privilege and the responsibility of parents; it is also the responsibility of the local Church community - the parish and the Diocese, and specifically the Catholic school.

The school or college clearly does not stand alone. The whole life and ethos of a Catholic school or college should provide both a community, and the witness of faith, which enables children and young people to deepen their knowledge and understanding of their faith, and help them build a living relationship with the person of Jesus Christ – who is the teacher! So one of the key tasks of a Catholic school is to strive to create that distinctively Catholic ethos which is the result of a lived faith, and the development of truly Christian relationships and values; in which the love and respect for others, of all faiths and none, has a central and irreplaceable role.

In a Catholic school, an authentic religious education develops the knowledge and skills required to engage in a rigorous examination of, and reflection upon, religious faith and practice. It enriches and informs all areas of learning with the light of the Gospel, teaching pupils to seek the truth, and to help them to a deeper understanding of the ultimate questions - about the origins, meaning and purpose of human life. These are ultimate questions which we will all have to grapple with as we make our journey through life.

Having said that, I am reminded of the old adage “Nemo dat quod non habet”. We can’t give what we don’t have. If we are to be convincing teachers and witnesses to a lived faith for our young people, we too must engage fully in the life-long learning process through which we come to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. Each day we are challenged to live our faith more deeply, with confidence and joy. But we all know how difficult that can be. We can only do it if, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, we truly “abide with Christ”, and if we rely on God’s grace and the support and example of one another.

With the opening of this wonderful new building, you are beginning a new stage of the history of St. John’s. You are able to do that through the support and help of the government and local education authority and many others. I thank all of you for the contribution you have made in different ways to this new start. I thank you for all you will continue to do as partners in the years ahead do to provide the best possible Catholic education for the young people in your care. You know from experience what a tremendously challenging task that is, but also what a wonderful vocation it is, given you by God. I pray that God will continue to bless you in your endeavours and at the end when we shall all have to give an account of our stewardship, he will say to each one of us: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the kingdom prepared for you.”