Mass for Headteachers

St George's Cathedral
Monday, 20th September 2010

My dear friends, this afternoon we have come together to celebrate and give thanks to God for our Catholic schools and colleges, both state aided and independent, engaged in the education of our young people. To put it succinctly, the nature and purpose of that education, indeed of all education, is to promote human flourishing and the integral development of the whole person. So I just want to reflect with you, for a few moments on the reasons why the Church considers education to be vitally important in contributing to that development and to the common good of our society. So first of all I want to go back to our roots, so to speak. According to the account of creation in the Book of Genesis, when God created the world he “saw that it was good; indeed it was very good.” The creation of man and woman was the crowning glory of God’s creation because we were made in the image and likeness of God. Human beings were called by God to be stewards of all that God had created, to develop its full potential and ultimately to share in the fullness of the very life and love of God, not just in the future, but already here on earth. Tragically, when sin entered the world, that whole process became flawed and obstructed, but the way forward opened once again in a unique way through the coming of God’s Son into the world as Saviour and Redeemer. His coming, his message, and the Paschal Mystery of his passion, death and resurrection, gave a firm hope once again that God’s original project, so to speak, could and would be brought to fruition in God’s good time.

In the Catholic world view, the aim of education is to lead us to a knowledge of the truth and to set us on the right path towards the fullness of life and love; to help and support our young people in the early years of that lifelong journey; to help draw out of them 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. That’s why the Church founded schools and universities, built hospitals and hospices, and encouraged monasteries to be places of learning and civilisation, and promoted the best in art and culture. All these endeavours in one way or another had, and continue to have as their purpose, the promotion of human flourishing - with all that that entails. Pope Benedict made the point last Friday in his address at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham: “As you know, the task of a teacher is not simply to impart information or to provide training in skills intended to deliver some economic benefit to society; education is not and must never be considered as purely utilitarian. It is about forming the human person, equipping him or her to live life to the full – in short it is about imparting wisdom. And true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of the Creator, for "both we and our words are in his hand, as are all understanding and skill in crafts" (Wis 7:16). . . You form new generations not only in knowledge of the faith, but in every aspect of what it means to live as mature and responsible citizens in today’s world.”

So for our Catholic schools, it is an authentic religious education which enriches and informs all areas of learning with the light of the Gospel, teaching pupils to seek the truth which is of God - in themselves, in others and in the whole of creation. First of all this involves developing a knowledge and understanding of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures and in the teaching of the Church. Secondly, it promotes a deeper knowledge and understanding of the response of faith to the ultimate questions about human life, its origin, meaning and purpose. And thirdly, religious education develops the knowledge and skills required to engage in a rigorous examination of, and reflection upon, religious faith and practice. Above all else it is a work of love, which contributes to the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations, and to building the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of love, justice and peace.

Our motivation for being involved in education is rooted in, and springs from, our faith in God and in the fact that we are disciples of Jesus Christ who commanded us: “You must love one another as I have loved you.” And to all those who believe in him and follow him, he also gave a mission: “Proclaim the Gospel to all the nations.” He calls us to be his witnesses; witnesses to him as the Son of God; witnesses to the truth which he proclaimed during his time on earth, recorded in the Gospels and contained in the tradition and evolving teaching of the Church down through the centuries.

To each one of us Jesus says: “You are the light of the world.” And in the gospel reading we have just listened to, he points out that: “No one lights a lamp to cover it with a bowl or to put it under a bed. No, he puts it on a lampstand so that people may see the light . . .” In other words the light of the gospel has been given to us to be shared. Or as one commentator on Luke’s Gospel put it, it isn’t a reserved document covered by the Official Secrets Act!

The Korean martyrs in the 19th Century whose feast we celebrate today were true witnesses and made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives rather than deny their faith and their relationship with Christ as Saviour of the world. Like them, we are called to witness to the gospel not only by what we say, but by the way that we live. This was well expressed by Pope Paul VI some 35 years ago in his Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelium nuntiandi”: “Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one.” (n.21) What a marvellous description of a Catholic school community!

In his homily at the Mass in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday, Pope Benedict reiterated the importance of witness. He said: “How much contemporary society needs this witness! How much we need, in the Church and in society, witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ! One of the greatest challenges facing us today is how to speak convincingly of the wisdom and liberating power of God's word to a world which all too often sees the Gospel as a constriction of human freedom, instead of the truth which liberates our minds and enlightens our efforts to live wisely and well, both as individuals and as members of society.”

As headteachers you have an awesome responsibility, but also I hope, one which is full of joy. I thank you on behalf of the Archdiocese for all that you are doing and I ask you to give my thanks too to all your staff and all those who assist you in your schools. You have a tremendously important task to do, and hope that the recently completed Vision document which you will be receiving from the Schools Commission will help you and your staffs in that task of reflecting on and reviewing how you fulfil the mission which has been given to you in educating and forming our young people.