One hundred and five years ago when the Christian Brothers opened St Virgil's College on a commanding site overlooking the city of Hobart it was a very different world than we find ourselves in today.
The Catholic Church in Australia had made the bold decision to provide education to all children of Catholic parents. The schools relied upon dedicated religious to provide the teaching and Catholic parents to be generous in financial assistance. Our schools were blessed with hundreds of men and women who dedicated their lives to this great and noble enterprise and despite great financial struggle our schools survived. And a remarkable legacy of a system of schools across our nation has resulted. In the society of the time Catholics were often seen as second class citizens and were often among the poorer members of society. Sometimes opportunity was denied them. Yet there was a strong belief that our schools offered two things: a grounding in the Catholic faith and a chance in life.
Today the situation for our schools is very different. Thanks to government funding our schools are now financially secure - and I take this opportunity to express the gratitude of the Catholic community to the federal government in the person of Senator Abetz for assistance to our schools in general and in this project in particular.
However our schools now operate in a vastly changed cultural context. We face new challenges which are sometimes difficult to articulate. Paul Kelly, in a lecture in October this year expressed the reality of the contemporary cultural context well when he said,
The near universal set of cultural values that united Western democracies for much of the twentieth century - in war and peace - is disintegrating. The axioms of life once unchallenged are falling apart. We don't agree any more on the meaning of marriage, on how we should die, on how children should be raised, on the structure of family life, on freedom of speech, on whether religion should be retained in the public square, on the meaning of multiculturalism and, ultimately, on what is virtue. Pivotal to this fragmentation is the decline of a shared religion and broad form of Christian faith - it once rated at more than 90 per cent. If there is a replacement credo it could be called authentic individualism. This is a new faith of sorts, inspired by the idea the moral course is to be true to oneself and stand up for the values that define your identity. 1
Paul Kelly has captured the new situation of our culture well. What were once solid and uncontested understandings of the nature of human life are now all being called into question. These cultural factors are influencing the generation of young men that we seek to educate today. They are shaping the society in which they engage.
The question facing Catholic educators is - how do we prepare young Catholics for this new cultural environment? It is certainly a question that occupies my mind.
The reading from St Paul this afternoon offers a line of thought. St Paul spoke of the "grace given me". He was conscious that he had been blessed by a gift from God, a grace that had brought him to faith. He understood that faith was a gift given, as he knowledge of Christ was the result of a direct action of God. He urged his readers to identify this gift and to effectively utilise it. In other words, faith cannot just be seen as a personal possession for my benefit alone. Having a faith carries with it a responsibility - that of fostering it in others. In the Gospel reading the well-known parable today highlights the fact that God has high expectations on the use of talents given to us.
It is often said that faith is caught not taught. Faith, a precious gift in the contemporary social context, is something to be passed on. Only a living faith will so shape the mind and heart of young people today so that they face the challenges posed by our society. Our duty is to transmit a living faith, and this essentially means that we need to introduce young people to God. We can no longer presume that young people know God in a personal way. Here, I add, not so much some good values but rather a personal, living relationship with God. It is tempting to say that we are a Catholic school if we manage to instill some Gospel values. Such values are good, but it is the deeper and more radical conversion of the heart to Jesus Christ that sets up a lifetime of the pursuit of Christian truth and virtue. Values are good but the call of the Lord to discipleship is far, far deeper. It is no less than a total reorientation of our life.
This and this alone is the antidote to the self-focused individualism of our day. The Christian orients life around Christ, and not around the imperial self. The challenge facing Catholic education today is to find effective ways in which young people can come into a contact with the living God. We do not just need to talk about God but enable young people to come into communion with Him.
Our schools exist because earlier generations believed that it was of vital importance that the next generation were formed in the Catholic faith. This must remain central to our efforts in our Catholic schools. This faith is to be a living reality in the heart of the young people so that it shapes their whole vision of life.
Today as we bless these refurbished facilities we pray that the Catholic faith will live in the heart of the school community at St Virgil's and that this school will produce a generation of men of faith, true disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
Thursday, December 2, 2016
1. Paul Kelly, 2016 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, 26 Oct 2016