The Blessing of our Catholic Schools

This year Catholic education in Australia celebrates its two hundredth anniversary. Shortly we will celebrate Catholic Education week across the State. It is indeed fitting to commemorate the remarkable achievement of Catholic education in Australia. The growth in Catholic schools across the nation over this 200-hundred-year period is nothing short of amazing.

From humble beginnings Catholic schools now educate approximately 777,000 students each year in Australia.  Catholic schools enjoy a very good reputation throughout the Australian community, with parents of all denominations choosing Catholic education for their children. One of the founding reasons for Catholic schools was of course to provide education for those children who would not otherwise receive it. This great tradition of caring continues today. Catholic schools seek to offer affordable education for all families, including those experiencing disadvantage who want to send their children to a Catholic school.

The Church since its earliest days has been involved in providing education. A Catechetical School was established in the first century in Alexandria, Egypt, with its founding being attributed to the evangelist, St Mark. In the early centuries the Church developed various centres of learning across the ancient world which produced scholars able to articulate the Christian faith alongside the philosophical movements of the day. They were able to show that the Christian faith and the search for human knowledge were complementary and not opposed to each other.

In the medieval period monastic and cathedral schools offered programs of formal education which provided not only for the formation of clerics but future rulers. In Ireland in the sixth century monastic schools educated many of the sons of chieftains, some of whom embraced monastic life.

It was the Church’s commitment to learning that led to the establishment of a number of universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. 

Ordinary Catholics, while often only having the rudiments of the faith, benefited from the expressions of Christian culture in the great cathedrals and works of art they displayed.

However, with the growth of cities, there was an increased recognition of a need for mass education. St John Baptist de la Salle founder of the Institutes of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, (also known as the De La Salle Brothers) was deeply concerned about the lack of educational opportunities for the poor in Rheims, France, were he lived. After trying different initiatives, he founded what is considered to be the first school for the education of boys in 1685.

During the eighteenth century the cause of mass education was more fully taken up by the Church, and many apostolic religious orders were formed to provide education for the poor, including, of course, our own Sisters of St Joseph founded later in the nineteenth century.

The Church led the way in providing education not only in Europe but in the new mission lands, long before governments assumed a role in providing mass education. In many places Catholic educational institutes are seen as providing the best in education, and are schools of choice even for non-Christians.

It is not surprising that the first two official priests to arrive in Australia in 1820 both set up Catholic schools; Fr John Joseph Therry in Parramatta and Fr Philip Conolly in Hobart. The Australian bishops were committed to providing an alternative education system to the government system and so Catholic schools were established in every diocese across the nation.

The principal motivation to providing Catholic schools was to offer an education informed by the Catholic faith. No student attending a Catholic school can miss the school’s central focus on Jesus Christ and living in a fully Christian way towards others. As the number of those in our society who do not identify with any particular belief system continues to increase, Catholic schools provide a beacon of hope. They promote the belief that all human life is created by a God who loves them and wants them to flourish.

While acknowledging that our schools have a need to continuously deepen and strengthen their Catholic identity, we can give thanks to God for the blessing that they have been and continue to be in the Church’s mission here in Australia.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

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