Southwark Headteachers' Conference

Ashford, Kent
7th - 8th October 2010

Gabriel, God’s messenger, addresses Mary as one who has won God’s favour. She is to be the mother of Jesus who will be great and called ‘Son of the Most High’ and who will rule over the House of Jacob forever. His reign will have no end.

Mary is clearly taken aback and very disturbed by this message. How can this be, she asks. This is impossible. She is a virgin. She’s then told that it will come about through the power of the Holy Spirit “for nothing is impossible for God.” Mary, still disturbed and puzzling over the implications of Gabriel’s message, nonetheless gives her ‘fiat’, her unqualified ‘yes’. “Let what you have said be done to me.”

She is the one who hears the word of God and allows that word to form her whole being and life. She is presented in the Gospel as the perfect disciple who is both a hearer and a doer of God’s word. And it is through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit she is enabled to so much more than she could by herself, from her own human resources. In fact she would be empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit to do the unthinkable.

Pope Benedict, in addressing the children when he spoke at the “Big Assembly” at St. Mary’s, Twickenham, took a very similar theme. “Not only does God love us with a depth and intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he invites us to respond to that love.” That is what Mary did, and did without any reservation or condition. The Holy Father invited children to be saints, and by implication, he invited us too because as adults we have the task of forming and educating our children so that they can develop their full potential as human beings and children of God. One of our vital tasks is to be witnesses to the Gospel, to the person of Jesus Christ, not only by what we say but by the way that we live. In that sense we are all called to be saints; people who live lives of heroic virtue, of evident goodness. People who live day by day the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance; who witness in their lives to the unconditional love of God for everyone, to his compassion, mercy and his readiness to forgive.

Most of us quail at the very thought! Oh, I couldn’t do that, I’m not good enough, I have too much to do, I haven’t got the strength and courage to do it. Our instincts are quite correct in one sense - that for us it is impossible, we cannot achieve holiness, we cannot become saints from our own frail human resources. We so easily forget what the angel said to Mary: “nothing is impossible for God.”

Pope Benedict spelt out in very accessible language what he meant by that, and the implications for Catholic education. This is what he said:

“It is not often that a Pope, or indeed anyone else, has the opportunity to speak to the students of all the Catholic schools of England, Wales and Scotland at the same time. And since I have the chance now, there is something I very much want to say to you. I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.”

“When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.”

“In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people. As you move higher up the school, you have to make choices regarding the subjects you study, you begin to specialize with a view to what you are going to do later on in life. That is right and proper. But always remember that every subject you study is part of a bigger picture. Never allow yourselves to become narrow. The world needs good scientists, but a scientific outlook becomes dangerously narrow if it ignores the religious or ethical dimension of life, just as religion becomes narrow if it rejects the legitimate contribution of science to our understanding of the world. We need good historians and philosophers and economists, but if the account they give of human life within their particular field is too narrowly focused, they can lead us seriously astray.

A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints. I know that there are many non-Catholics studying in the Catholic schools in Great Britain, and I wish to include all of you in my words today. I pray that you too will feel encouraged to practice virtue and to grow in knowledge and friendship with God alongside your Catholic classmates. You are a reminder to them of the bigger picture that exists outside the school, and indeed, it is only right that respect and friendship for members of other religious traditions should be among the virtues learned in a Catholic school. I hope too that you will want to share with everyone you meet the values and insights you have learned through the Christian education you have received.”

There is a profound message for all of us in what the Holy Father said and the implications for all our schools and colleges, not only for the pupils but for you and your staffs. But for heaven’s sake, don’t despair. You are already doing it - it is built into the whole ethos of our Catholic schools. But it is also something I ask you and your staff’s to reflect on, to see how it might be done even better.