What an honour and privilege to be able to share these ideas with you today. I am in awe of the way your school community strives to be faithful to the priorities of our Gospel and the vision of Edmund Rice. I hope that something of what I will share today will resonate with you and lead you to deeper reflection on the Edmund Rice path in education that inspires and motivates all we do in the formation of our young people.
When I use the term ‘educator’, I am speaking of all who work in our schools, not only the teachers and those who formally ‘educate’. All have a vital role.
Can there be any greater privilege than the vocation of an educator? We fulfill the most important of society’s duties. Through our belief in, and formation of the young, we touch and co-create the future.
The ultimate exam we face is to live in a future created by our own children. The kind of world they commit themselves to will arise in no small part, from the quality of our example. What we model, what we value, what we question and where we lead the young through our own personal commitments in life, will determine the values, the visions and the answers we get in the next generation.
Think back to the teachers that you remember most fondly from your time at school. I would hazard to guess that the teacher that you remember with most affection is someone who, in some way, went out of their way to engage with you at a deeply human level. Someone who believed in you, and, through that belief, touched your humanity. Carl Jung put it this way:
An understanding heart is everything in a teacher and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our humanity. Warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
There is no greater legacy that can be left than a life well-lived. Gandhi once famously said that ‘My life is my message’. Should anyone settle for less? Should any educator expect that who they are, what they stand for and how they live their lives, would not be the most important messages that young people receive?
How can we seriously expect to interest our students in the spiritual life, if we do not model to them adult lives that are searching and spirit-centered?
The greatest danger for education is that it becomes solely focused on helping young people fit into an economy. We must prepare our students for life; not merely skill them to make a living.
A problem with much of contemporary religious education is that it focuses on providing answers to questions that most students may ever ask.
The education we provide should present our young with deep life questions and encourage a lifelong quest for answers, which will change and evolve with the journey of their lives. These questions address our universal yearning for connection with something bigger:
- Who am I?
- What is my life’s purpose?
- How do I come to know peace and happiness?
- Is there meaning in suffering?
- How do I approach death?
Not all educators in Catholic schools need to believe the same things, worship in the same communities or see spirituality in the same way. We don’t all need to be Catholic or each the subject called ‘Religious Education’. However, regardless of where we are in our own journeys, we all have one common responsibility.
In our own way and according to our own giftedness and varying roles, all staff in our schools should give witness to a central truth: that a spiritual life and a relationship with God, the divine, interiority, the spiritual, fullness of life or however we choose to name it, are worthy of our utmost effort as human beings. If young people leave our schools without witnessing the power of this search as a priority in the lives of significant adults, we will have sold them short.
Some will have the privilege of being able to explore this journey in class, through words and conversations. Others will have to rely on the witness and example that they give to these priorities in their own lives as the primary way that they make their contribution to the spiritual future of our youth. This is no less powerful and is of utmost importance.
All creation has its source in God. We are told by St Paul that we are temples of God and a dwelling place for the Spirit.
There exists a spark of divinity in every one of us and we are not separate from God.
This is our true identity.
As the leaf comes out of the tree and is an expression of the tree, so do we emerge from God and are an expression of God.
We are sons and daughters of God. We share the same Divine essence, which is love and compassion.
To begin to reflect on our role in mission, we must remember who we really are: sons and daughters, of one being with God.
For me, this is an insight into PRESENCE. The awareness and consciousness we bring to life and mission: who we are and what we do.
This message is at the heart of the parable of the Prodigal Son. After leaving home, the young man forgot who he was and experienced desperation and alienation. He was living a life inappropriate to his real heritage. It was only when he returned home and was embraced by his father, that he remembered who he really was. He was the son of the father, of the same being as his father.
Remembering who he was made all the difference.
Since we all share this common nature in God, we are all one. This sense of presence leads us to COMPASSSION.
If we live in awareness of our common Divine nature, we cannot but be compassionate and loving towards others, because love and compassion are the essence of the Divine. When we realize our interconnectedness, we move from charity to compassion in our relationships and service.
Since the essence and nature of the Divine is love and compassion, mission is the outpouring of Divine love and compassion to the world.
We do not have a mission. The mission has us! Our role is to be instruments of mission; to be the embodiment of divine goodness, love and compassion. The spiritual task is to become the conduit for the generosity of God.
This was expressed beautifully by St Teresa of Avila when she said that we are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out on the world; the feet with which he is to go about doing good; and, the hands with which he is to bless the world.
Our task in forming ourselves to participate in mission, is to resolutely chip away whatever clouds our essential Divine nature. By removing what is false, petty and self-seeking, we can bring forth all that is glorious, loving and compassionate. Our true Self.
For Christians, Jesus is our guide.
By realizing his human potential so fully, Jesus embodied the Divine so completely. In the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong:
Jesus was fully alive with the life of God, totally loving with the love of God, who possessed the capacity to be all that he could be and through these things, he revealed the very ground of being that we call God.
In Jesus we have an undistorted picture as to who God is. The entire ministry of Jesus was rendering visibility, tangibility and concreteness to divine love. All those who came in contact with Jesus had a new experience of God.
Jesus had a vision for a world which arose from his heightened insight into the loving essence of God. He called his vision the ‘Reign of God’; the divine dream of salvation for all of humankind; God’s royal will, or value system being lived out.
To be collaborators in Jesus’ mission, we must align our priorities with His and stand in solidarity with those who are blessed in the eyes of God: the peacemakers, the merciful, those who thirst for justice, as well as the poor, the powerless, the excluded, the marginalized, and the suffering.
Followers of Jesus should be known by the way they live, by the way they reveal to the world the God of love and compassion enshrined in their hearts.
Could I share a little story:
A grandmother was out shopping for some gifts for her grandchildren. While she was at the toy store going through her list and selecting gifts, she noticed a small homeless girl outside, looking through the store window. The grandmother’s heart went out to this little girl. She invited her into the store and asked her to pick out a gift for herself. As they walked out of the store, the little girl held the grandmother’s hand and looked into her kind eyes and asked: ‘Are you God?’ The grandmother, somewhat embarrassed and somewhat touched, replied: ‘No dear, I’m not God.’ ‘Then who are you?’ continued the little girl. Grandma thought for a moment and said, ‘I am a child of God.’ The little girl, fully satisfied and smiling, said, ‘Yes, I could tell that there is a connection.’
When people come into our lives, do they see a divine connection in us?
We were created from love by love to love.
When all is said and done, our life’s mission and purpose is simply to be the loving, compassionate and inclusive face of the Divine to all we meet.
- Be love in the flesh and blood.
- Be the face of compassion.
- Be the hands and feet of inclusion and justice.
I finish this part of our reflection with a prayer by Cardinal Newman:
Shine through us, and be so in us, that every soul we come in contact with may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us but only the Divine!
Let us thus praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around us.
Let us preach you without preaching, not by words but by our example…
What defines our authenticity in mission?
Jesus did not mandate that we go forward and make Catholics, or Protestants or any other religious group. He said go and make disciples; witnesses to Gospel living.
Mission is not about getting people to believe the right things in order to get to some special place. It is about inspiring people to embrace the model of Jesus lifestyle and the Kingdom of God. Transformation must happen so that we see with the eyes of God and live lives inspired by that vision.
We can waste so much time arguing which tradition is right and holds the truth. The enemies of religions are not other religions. The enemies of true religion are poverty, injustice, discrimination, marginalisation:all that subverts the possibility of fullness of life for all people.
In a speech to new Cardinals in 2016, Pope Francis warned that the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed.
The marginalized of whom he is speaking are those for whom life itself is a heavy burden; many have no name, no recognized existence.
They are people who lack adequate educational and healthcare opportunities and are excluded from decisions that affect them and their children.
The poor are those who cannot take life for granted, those for whom staying alive each day is their primary task and many of them die before their time.
Scholar John Dominic Crossan refers to these people as the ‘expendables’ in the eyes of the world. Gustavo Gutierrez calls them the ‘non-persons.’
To be authentic, our voice in mission must amplify the voice of the disenfranchised, those who have little control over their lives and those who need to be heard. Our authenticity must surely be defined by the love and compassion we show, and by whom we dare to include.
Joan Chittister put it so well:
To say that we believe that God loves the poor, judges on their behalf, wills their deliverance but to do nothing ourselves to free the poor, to hear their pleas, to lift their burdens, to act on their behalf, is an empty faith indeed.
We must consistently ask ourselves the difficult questions related to inclusion and exclusion.
We are both guided and chastised by the ideals of our Gospel. We only truly fail when we deny the questions and what they require of us and accept a tame and domesticated mission, divorced from the plight of the marginalized.
We worship a God who sides with the poor and those at the margins of life. We authentically worship this God by serving and doing all we can for others. Service is worship! It doesn’t matter how eloquent and how wonderful our planned prayers and liturgies might be – without a commitment to serve and stand with the poor, our worship will always be empty.
The Edmund Rice vision clearly leads us to the poor and those who must be included: the heart of our Gospel priorities.
The ‘scandal’ of Jesus’ ministry was that he didn’t go around handing out food to the poor; he sat down to eat with them. He invited them to the table!
He touched the untouchables. He showed that God was not pleased with the blind following of laws and rituals. He entered the lives of the victims of these laws: those with disabilities, the lepers, the elderly, the widows.
Jesus declared suffering, in his society seen as a sign of God’s disapproval, to be a sign of God’s presence.
To declare these people ‘children of God’s kingdom’ was a direct challenge to the religious establishment of the day. One could well argue that it was Jesus’ commitment to inclusion that ultimately cost him his life.
Undertaken in the tradition of Jesus, ‘mission’ invokes what martyred El Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande called an ‘impossible neutrality’. It takes sides, becomes political and asks disturbing questions about the way things are and why this is so.
Fr Rutilio warned his people not to be content with a God in the clouds, a muzzled, mute and tame Christ. He proposed that if Jesus were to appear again in our world with his subversive message of inclusion and justice, many of us might call for his arrest and silencing. Why?
Because ‘mission’ is about the ‘God of the poor’, while most of us are not poor. It’s about ‘the view from the poor’, while we may know little of what that looks like. It’s about challenging social structures that can produce inequality, while those same structures may be very beneficial to us and our security.
Inclusion is at the heart of the Gospel and exclusion is the Gospel’s greatest betrayal. Richard Rohr was right when he argued that the only thing that Jesus excluded was exclusion itself.
Mission asks difficult questions that accept no easy answers:
- How do we speak of a God of love and compassion in the midst of poverty, marginalization and exclusion?
- How do we tell the poor and voiceless that God loves them, and that the Gospel is ‘good news’ for them as well?
As Gustavo Gutierrez repeatedly says:
Unless we place ourselves alongside the poor, unless we look at reality through their eyes, we are unable to see, recognize, or worship the God who walks with the poor.
I was walking in New Delhi early in the morning, just as the city was waking up. I came across a family, mother, father and four children who sleep on the footpath in an area of the city just beside an ATM machine. I watched the family prepare for the day, cooking their breakfast and rolling up their bedding; all in the shadow of this modern machine.
I wonder what goes through the minds of people such as these when they see others coming to the ATM machine, pushing in a few numbers and all of a sudden, as if a miracle happens, great gifts of money flow from the machine to the lucky person who knows the code.
So many questions arise:
- What must it be like to be a ‘two dollar a day family’ and not know the code?
- What must it feel like for that father to see other people so favored by the ‘gods’ that great quantities of money flow to them when he, after preparing his family for the day, will have to go off to beg or work as a day laborer for a pittance, just to keep his family alive?
- How do you explain to these young children that it’s not their father or mother’s fault that they can’t access this flow of wealth from the machine that adorns their living space, in the way that a painting sits on the walls of our living rooms?
- How do these parents eventually explain to their children that they may never have a code for access to security and a dignified life?
- How could we ever convince this family on the streets of Delhi that they are sons and daughters of the same loving God who offers the fullness of life to everyone?
The term ‘preferential option for the poor’, commonly used to describe mission, implies much more than a simple choice between alternatives. It implies that God makes a decision to stand with and for the poor because of God’s very nature.
God prioritizes the poor because God is love and compassion and wishes full humanity for all. Poverty and marginalization are an affront to God. Living in an inhuman situation is contrary to God’s will.
The decision to embrace a ‘preferential option for the poor’, implies a deliberate orientation in our lives and our structures towards the plight of the poor; towards their needs and concern.
It demands that we accept that we see the face of God most clearly in the poor. It requires us to accept that ignoring the poor means that we ignore God.
Since becoming Pope, Francis has consistently prayed for a church of and for the poor:
- A Church which proclaims that service and compassionate engagement with the world are indispensable to the way we worship the God of love who stands with and for the poor.
- A Church that strives to usher in the Reign of God: the promise of fullness of life and true freedom for all in our troubled world;
- A Church focused on getting the Kingdom of God and its message of justice and truth into the world, rather than people into its ranks;
- A Church not so worried about how the world might change it but rather, how it might strive to change the world; and,
- A Church which strives ceaselessly to tell the poor and the excluded ones that God loves them and that the Gospel is good news for them as well.
We are told in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel that the only question we will have to answer at the end of time is how we have treated the poor.
We will be judged by God on one basis: did we care for the poor? Did we give bread to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked?
There are no orthodoxy tests referred to here; no creedal formula to recite; no catechetical requirements to measure up to; not even questions about private morality. Only the question of how we have treated the poor.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah:
…the worship of the people is meaningless without justice… learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
In the words of Dom Pedro Casadaliga from Brazil:
…we must keep repeating it: without the poor there is no salvation, without the poor there is no Church, without the poor there is no Gospel.
Some might say that it is easier to embrace a mission of radical inclusion or an option for the poor, in India, Africa and places where material poverty and exclusion are so visible. When tempted to think this way, let’s remember the words of Mother Teresa: ‘Calcutta can be found all over the world if only we have eyes to see.’
Your task is to find Calcutta in…………
We believe in Education for LIBERATION.
At the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela warned his people that they were not yet free; that, through their struggle, they had achieved the possibility to claim their freedom.
True freedom is something that must be actively claimed by each person. The freedom to react, choose and engage with the world on their own terms. When one is a slave to societal demands, the mandates of media and our consumer society, inherited attitudes and the good opinion of other people, one is not free.
For many people, meaning in key areas of their lives is packaged and imposed on them by their dominant cultures. They lack the willingness or the skills to question these versions of the world and what is ultimately lasting and important. They are passive consumers of other people’s priorities and other people’s definitions of what constitutes a successful, well-lived and meaningful life.
The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire argued that education must help every individual to win back the right to name the world they live in. It must equip young people to critique their reality and develop skills to make meaning for themselves. It should help our young people to look deeply into the world’s recipes for success, happiness and wholeness, and to be selective and critical as to what they accept.
We offer the Gospel’s counter-cultural vision for what constitutes the good, the meaningful and the well-lived life.
We encourage young people to live independently of the approval or good opinion of others, intentionally and selectively, amid the wins and losses, the successes and disappointments, to which no one is immune. We want them to unshackle themselves from unexamined opinions and inherited prejudices, and live lives consistent with their own inner moral compasses.
We want our young to choose wisely and engage with the world on their own terms. To claim their freedom to love, to choose truth, to do good, to create the beautiful. But also, reject the ugly, the false and the mean spirited.
We want them to resist shallow definitions of what constitutes a worthwhile and valuable life and overcome insular thinking, fear, narrowness and intolerance. To reject versions of the world that define success solely in terms of money, accumulation of things and over emphasis on status and security. To understand that not everything of value can be measured.
Our world is so connected electronically but can be so lacking in human relationships. Instagram, Facebook and mobile phones enable us to stay connected, yet in all probability, we live in a time in which human beings have never been less connected. It can be a bleak world if one is subjected to incessant, unfiltered media and is focused on keeping up with others.
Education should help young people to identify what is of lasting importance and usefulness in their lives. It must distill life wisdom from the incessant, unfiltered cascade of information which bombards us and seeks to keep us restless.
Our young people should learn that the freedom and opportunities that they might enjoy, through the good fortune of their births, are not a license for them to do whatever they want. Rather, it should be freedom to do what they ought to do for the making of a fairer and more just society. We must show them that freedom and service are inextricably linked and assert that with privilege, comes social responsibility.
We want the young to be happy but know that lasting happiness abides in an open, loving and compassionate heart.
They should learn that happiness cannot be purchased, travelled to, arrived at, owned, accumulated, earned, worn or consumed. It lies not through the continual promotion of our own self-interest, but through living a life of service for others.
How do we prepare them to make their contribution to the future, not just as cogs in a cycle of production and consumption, but as citizens, lovers and nurturers?
The education that we offer the young should consistently remind them that, although we cannot control all the good and bad, positive and negative that life will throw at us, we do have the freedom to control the way we respond to these circumstances. The inner peace and happiness we will experience during our lives, depends on us claiming this freedom.
Viktor Frankl found in the concentration camps that the greatest of human freedoms was the capacity to choose one’s spirit in any circumstance. Equanimity, the capacity to remain calm, regardless of changing life circumstances, is a hallmark of true freedom.
The following true story illustrates this gift of equanimity magnificently.
Roberto de Vincenzo was an Argentine golfer who became quite famous in the 1960s; he was the first golfer from South America to make it on the big stage. There is a famous story of one day when Roberto won a golf tournament and received his pay cheque; in those days, professional golfers drove from tournament to tournament and he was in the car park about to put his golf clubs in the boot of his car, when he was approached by a woman who had a baby in her arms. She said, “Mr de Vincenzo, my baby is very sick and will die if he does not receive the right medicine. Can you please help me?” Without hesitation, Roberto de Vincenzo signed over his winning cheque to this woman, saying to her, “There you go lady. I hope your child enjoys many happy days.”
A week later, he was arriving at another PGA tournament, when an official came up to him and said, “Roberto, I hear that you handed over your winner’s cheque last week to a lady who had a sick baby.” He said, “Yes, that’s right”; the official said, “Look I’m sorry my friend, but she fleeced you. The lady was a fraud and the baby was not sick.” Roberto responded, “You mean there was no sick baby who was going to die?” The official said, “Yes”. Roberto responded, “Well that’s the best news I’ve heard all year!”
Through his response, Roberto de Vincenzo demonstrated wonderful equanimity and freedom of heart. His reaction was that of a truly free person.
In some classic stories, the hero is the person who went out to slay a dragon who was threatening the hero’s village. How do we become heroes and what do we have to slay to make our contribution to the world?
The Greek roots of the word suggest that the hero is one who can choose. The hero interprets life through her/his own experience. The journey leads to questioning and interrogation of the culture in which one lives. Who am I? What is valuable? How do I find peace and happiness? What does it mean to live justly? The hero is suspicious of easy answers that are readily on offer in the dominant culture. Education must focus on creating heroes!
The heroic life does not require you to become something greater than you are. But it does require you to be faithful to your own authentic path. The hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than him or herself. To do this we must slay the dragon of envy; the dragon of fear to be different; the dragon that tells us that near enough is good enough; the dragon that tells us that it’s OK to live a copied, inauthentic life.
Our human condition gives us one huge concession: we don’t have to be perfect, just the best we can! Not perfect, but yes, authentic!
A final word on education for fullness of life.
The Dalai Lama once said:
Many people sacrifice their health in order to make money. Then they sacrifice money to recuperate their health. And then they are so anxious about the future that they do not enjoy the present. As a result, they do not live in the present or the future; they live as if they are never going to die and then die having never really lived.
Our greatest fear as human beings, is that we reach the point of death only to find that we have never really lived fully. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore expressed this fear when he lamented, “I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.”
We pray that we will be spared the great tragedy of only living half-lives, wasting the one opportunity that we have. Don’t not wait until faced with a dangerous health prognosis or the loss of family members and friends before reflecting on our limited time on earth and the need to make the best of it.
How beautiful to be able to say at the point of death not ‘please give me more time’ but ‘thank you’; just as a guest thanks her host when she is at the door about to leave after a wonderful celebration.
In the end, when we look at our life, perhaps the questions will be simple:
Did I live fully?
Did I love well?
Ancient Egyptians believed that upon their death they would be asked by the gods two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?” These goals then become a sacred charge in life and the only way to obtain eternal happiness.
Once again, our example is so important. As a parent and an educator, I am challenged and terrified by the words of Carl Jung when he said that: ‘Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children, than the unlived life of their parents.’ (And for today, let’s include educators)
Friends, I thank you once again for this opportunity. I hope these thoughts have been helpful.
May God bless you and your community as you faithfully strive for inspiration and authenticity in the vision for education that we share beyond borders.