On Thursday 17 August, speaking at the second Melbourne Catholic Professionals (MCP) luncheon for 2023, Dr Edward Simons, Executive Director of Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS), outlined an inspiring vision for the largest non-government schooling system in Australia and the single largest not-for-profit organisation in the country.

The hum of lively conversation rang through Melbourne’s RACV City Club as 250 people gathered for the lunch—the largest MCP gathering so far. As well as allowing Catholic professionals from a host of different industries to meet and connect over a delicious meal, the lunch was an opportunity to hear from guest speaker Dr Simons about the values, challenges and opportunities that are shaping MACS’ mission and the life-changing difference that Catholic schools make every day to the lives of children, young people and their families.

After recounting some of his recent experiences ‘on the road with the Archbishop for World Youth Day’, including the excitement of participating in a private audience with Pope Francis—a moment he said he would cherish for the rest of his life—Dr Simons reflected on his ‘own life’s pilgrimage’.

Faith, hope and love

Raised in rural England, the child of two school teachers, Dr Simons received ‘a wonderful social, emotional and spiritual formation’ both at home and at school—including at his junior school, a boarding school founded in 1614. Sunday evenings spent in the school’s oak-panelled chapel nurtured in him ‘an awareness and understanding of the virtues of faith, hope and love’—virtues that inform every aspect MACS’ mission and to which he returned throughout his speech.

    These childhood experiences also helped Dr Simons to value and understand tradition as something that ‘is dynamic and aims to grow, taking the very best elements of the past and weaving them into richly relatable experiences of the day’. And he developed a strong appreciation for the way parents and teachers work side by side in the formation of children and young people. These insights, he said, ‘will guide me in the pressing need for enhanced formation in our Catholic schools in the years ahead.’

    Dr Simons was appointed to the role of Executive Director of MACS in March this year but has had a long and rich career in Australian education, having migrated here almost 15 years ago with his Australian-born wife, Jessica. (Now an Australian citizen, he lamented that as a supporter of the English cricket team in this year’s Ashes series, but of the Matildas in the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, he had managed to end up on the losing side on both occasions.)

    He has taught in classrooms and led a school, worked in school funding and regulation, advised a minister for education and served on an executive team leading governance and strategic reform across Catholic schools in Western Australia.

    Throughout his career, he said, ‘I have been reminded that working within school education is a calling in which Jesus Christ acts as our model teacher.’

    He spoke movingly of the experience, while working in the Western Australia school system, of assisting to set up a learning centre on Christmas Island for school-aged ‘illegal arrivals’.

    This experience, he said, showed him ‘the true force for good that education can provide for all young people, but especially those most vulnerable and in need—in this case, young people who until this point during their detention on the island (in some instances for well over 12 months) had formally been identified by a number and not by their name.

    This will always be a reminder to me of what we do as Catholic educators every day: in simple, powerful and tangible ways, we can make visible the invisible reality of Christ’s presence in the lives of those that we encounter.

    ‘Forming lives to enrich the world’

    Leading MACS, he said, is both an ‘enormous privilege’ and a ‘huge responsibility’. To educate, form and care for more than 120,000 students across the Archdiocese of Melbourne, in almost 300 schools, MACS employs more than 17,000 staff, and its annual budget runs to billions of dollars.

      To get a sense of the ‘bold and ambitious goal’ that has been set for the organisation, Dr Simons pointed his audience to MACS’ recently released strategic plan, MACS 2030: Forming Lives to Enrich the World, a document organised around the four pillars of faith, learning, leadership and community.

      A number of opportunities inform this strategy and will shape the work of MACS in the years ahead, he said. One is the creation of ‘new and imaginative ways for our recently formed system of schools to be empowered centrally’, ensuring they perform more strongly than when they previously operated as stand-alone school entities. Another is the need to be ‘increasingly clear about what it means to be Catholic educators, and to embrace this as the core tenet of our work’. And recognising that MACS’ work is just one part of the broader work of the Church, Catholic schools must also ‘find news ways to work more effectively with parishes’ and other Catholic agencies.

      I have no doubt, where there is good will and a shared mission between parish and school, we will do great things and achieve much.

      Real challenges

      In addition to these opportunities, Dr Simons spoke of considerable and mounting challenges ‘as our broader society continues to lose connection to faith’. As well as growing ‘cost of living pressures, acute political division, and vexed issues including religious freedom and gender ideology’, he spoke of how, following the COVID lockdowns, ‘students across Melbourne have never before reported such low levels of hope, confidence in the future, levels of friendship or sense of belonging in our world’.

      He worried that we risk producing ‘a whole generation in Australia who are religiously illiterate, whose numeracy and literacy skills do not prepare them for success in life, and who are deeply troubled by lacking any sense of hope about their future’—challenges, he said, that ‘keep many of us in leadership awake at night’.

      But daunting though many of these issues might seem, he was keen to keep them in perspective, pointing out that they pale in comparison with the ‘life-and-death challenges faced by some Christians around the world’, such as in Nigeria, where in the first 100 days of 2023, more than 1,000 Christians have been killed for standing true to their faith.

      He also spoke of his own forebear, Sir Everard Digby, a participant in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, who secretly converted to Catholicism at a time in England when it could cost you your life. Found guilty of high treason and taken to the Tower of London, Sir Everard was brutally hanged, drawn and quartered in 1606.

        ‘We should be proud of our faith,’ Dr Simons said, ‘and not shy away from it, knowing that many have died to keep this faith alive.’

        Shining a light

        Despite the challenges, Dr Simons was hopeful about the future of Catholic education in Melbourne, pointing out that for the first time in five years, enrolments in MACS primary schools had grown, matching the growth trend that has long been evident in Catholic secondary schools.

        Even in the face of religious decline, the word Catholic remains attractive for families looking for a place where their children can learn, grow and flourish in a safe environment, and in turn contribute to society.

        The imagery of light, he said, is an obvious way convey the power of MACS’ work. ‘We illuminate the mind, and through that, the life of the person, and through them, the world’.

        Giving examples, he spoke of Jake, a Year 12 student, regular Mass go-er and former rough sleeper who continues to face considerable hardship himself but is passionate about raising funds for people who he feels are doing it tougher than himself. Dr Simons also paid tribute to MACS school staff for the ‘countless personal sacrifices’ they have made, especially during the COVID lockdowns, to support vulnerable students and their families.

        MACS’ goal, he said, is ‘to raise a generation of young people who feel confident in their faith, and who are able to celebrate it, in a safe and nurturing environment’, and he warmly invited those gathered at the lunch to ‘commit fully and faithfully’ to supporting this endeavour.

        Having started his speech by quoting the comforting words of Julian of Norwich—‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’he returned to them in conclusion, expressing his confidence that as we resolve and work together to hand down the virtues of faith, hope and love to future generations, all shall indeed be well.

        The next Melbourne Catholic Professionals luncheon will be held on Thursday 5 October, 12–2pm, at the Park Hyatt. The guest speaker will be the Hon Justice Susan Crennan AC KC, former Justice of the High Court of Australia.

        Book here, or find out more about the benefits of becoming an MCP member.

        All photos by Casamento Photography.