There is no doubt that our country, culture and values are becoming less Catholic. Are our Catholic schools becoming less Catholic too?
For some, it is still a big shock to even ask the question. But before we helplessly drop our arms or angrily turn against the collapse of our traditions, let’s first try to understand what being Catholic is all about.
In early Christianity, St Vincent of Lerin (AD434) gave us the first known definition of the word ‘catholic’ as to hold “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This alone is truly and properly ‘catholic’… which means universality”.
Much later, St Bonaventure (1217-1274) defines God as: “an intelligible space whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. [God] is supremely one and all-inclusive, [God] is therefore ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15: 28)”. [My emphasis].
These early and wise saints seem to have got it. Are we losing it or have we lost it?
We are living in a culture that is inclusive in words but not in deeds. We speak of globalisation, yet we reject immigrants. The internet has turned the world into one global village but isolates us from family and neighbours alike. We preach equality and suppress differences at the same time.
Let me get back to Catholic schools in Malta. There was a time when, due to financial and other constraints, these were rather selective and exclusive – practically only the gifted in mind and pocket could make it into these schools.
Little did we realise that we had started a process that could slowly erode the courageous commitment to the Catholicity (universality) of Church schools
Mercifully, things started changing when circumstances forced fees and intelligence out as selection criteria. The ballot became the irritating but liberating criterion – blind luck, immune to favour, money or talent. Catholic schools, even if in an imperfect way, were becoming effectively inclusive and non-discriminating. They started becoming more Catholic.
This universality and inclusiveness was further strengthened when children with special needs were rightfully given preferential consideration. Negative discrimination in favour of the strong became a positive discrimination in favour of the weak. This made the now more ‘Catholic’ schools more ‘Gospel-like’ schools.
But life goes on. Catholic schools remained the coveted prize for the few. The selection criteria needed to evolve.
As a well-intentioned family-friendly measure, preferential treatment was given to children whose parents teach or work in Catholic schools. Little did we realise that we had started a process that could slowly erode the courageous commitment to the Catholicity (universality) of Church schools.
Why not make Catholic baptism a mandatory criterion? Why not extend this positive discrimination to all Church employees? Why not nephews and nieces of so many religious who dedicate their lives and resources to their schools?
The list becomes endless – there are a million justifiable reasons to go back to the old closed-shop, discriminating, elitist schools in the name of preserving some form of exclusive Catholic, identity.
It takes courage to be a real Catholic. Church schools are first and foremost a crucial way in which the Church gives witness to the universality of God’s loving presence among men and women. Catholic education is not just about bringing up good and successful citizens. It is about helping children and their families, of whatever background, to discover and nurture the Spirit of God that is theirs by birthright as children of God.
The Catholic Church’s mission is not to promote itself but to promote the all-embracing love Jesus has for all humanity, not just for Catholics.
Let’s go back to more rather than less Catholic schools.
Fr Paul Chetcuti is a member of the Society of Jesus.
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