On the agenda for the Plenary Council is the topic of Catholic education in Australia. The question posed for discussion is this: How might we better see the future of Catholic education (primary, secondary and tertiary) through a missionary lens?

Conversation seems to have gotten off to a passionate, complex, and hopeful start. Honest analysis and a genuine search for clarity in understanding the Church’s situation is a key feature of these discussions.

On Tuesday 5 October at the morning plenary, Sr Cecelia Joseph OP reported on behalf of the group discussing the topic that day, and she said:

'Questions emerged as to the effectiveness of our delivery of the Gospel, as it was noted that our schools are full but our churches are empty, and that the practice of the faith post-graduation is on decline. We further discussed the importance of Christ being at the centre of our institutions of learning, and how this is reflected in our culture, staffing, curriculum, resources, and programs.’

On Wednesday 6 October, Rev Dr Cameron Forbes STD reported this: 'We discerned that Catholic education is a place of welcome, hospitality and mission, formed in the heart and mind of Jesus, and sustained by His Body and Blood in the Eucharist as our source.'

'It’s a place where people encounter Jesus the person, drawn to His story and saving message . . . Places of Catholic education are ones of prayer and contemplation . . . [It is] also a place of clear Catholic identity, with examples of identity projects and the authentic witness of teachers being highlighted.’

Concern for the renewal of the mission of Catholic education has been on clear display as people wrestle with what a Catholic education uniquely provides and how the process of education can be one grounded in the person of Jesus Christ.

The hopes of educators

Danielle Fairthorne is a wife, mother, teacher of Religious Education, and one of Melbourne's Plenary Members. Melbourne Catholic reached out for comment in regards to her hopes for the future of Catholic education and how she sees the Plenary addressing these. She said that her thoughts on Catholic education were well articulated by Pope Francis in his speech to the Plenary of the Congregation for Catholic Education when he said:

'Education is a dynamic reality; it is a movement that brings people to light.’

Danielle is deeply grateful to the countless lay, religious and ordained people throughout the history of Australia’s Catholic education system whose dedication has turned it into something strong and sought-after. The challenge that lies ahead is in schools becoming more Christ-centred in their approach to learning, modelling after the teacher Himself. She said:

'I hope that the council can strategically examine how all agencies of the Church work together to develop rich formation experiences that invite our staff into experiences of prayer, contemplation and discernment so that we can become more Christ centred, and respond to our missionary call. How can we in our words, our actions, our decision making be concrete examples of Christ love in this world? If we can achieve this, the hearts of our young people, and their families will be ignited by the Spirit, and what a moment in time that would be.’

She feels that the process and agenda of the Plenary is well situated to address these issues in concrete ways.

Melbourne Catholic also reached out to Dr Paul Morrissey for comment from the perspective of someone invested in tertiary education. Morrissey is currently the President of Campion College, a Catholic liberal arts institution located in Western Sydney. He has previously worked at Notre Dame University and was nominated as one of the periti to be present at the Council, experts who are available to be called upon by discussion groups for guidance in a topic of their specialty.

Naturally, the future of Catholic tertiary education is one of great importance to Morrissey, who said that he wants Catholic Higher Education in Australia to stand out and provide ‘a true point of difference’:

'Catholic education has such a rich intellectual history, especially around integration and the pursuit of truth (the relationship of faith and reason) . . . There is a temptation for Catholic Higher Education to imitate the bigger public universities, including some of their problems. One of these problems is to be too specialised, too utilitarian. Our universities try to counter this with undergraduate core curriculums, but the education of the whole person is sometimes lost.’

Morrissey would also like to see greater emphasis placed on the Catholic artistic and literary tradition. In terms of the Plenary Council, Morrissey hopes to see it address the issue of integration in education:

'Our world is fragmented; the human person is fragmented. Catholic education has as its goal the reintegration of the human person in truth and this should be manifest in the curriculum. The pursuit of truth is symphonic (literature, language, science, history, math, theology, and philosophy all seek the truth) and this can be more explicitly taught in our schools and universities.’

The future of Catholic education

The nature of a Plenary Council is that the resolutions voted on at its conclusion – and once Rome has approved of them – will be binding for the Church in Australia. The Plenary Council is not simply an opportunity to talk about the problems facing the Church but actually develop concrete strategies and proposals that will benefit the mission of the Church going into the future. It is about bringing to life something real and something genuinely helpful. Even though we won’t see what these resolutions are until the Second Assembly in 2022, it will be interesting to see where the discussion and debate continue to go as the Plenary wrestles with this important question.