The liturgy of early Advent sounds a "wake up and stay awake" call to every Christian which is capable of many applications. In extending a welcome to our new principals and some words of appreciation and gratitude to those of you who have for varying periods borne the burden of this responsibility in this diocese, many of us are aware I think that the Church and her schools are facing a wake-up call.
The moment is upon us when we cannot take things for granted or just hope for the best. We face the sobering reality of some basic questions, some critical challenges.
What is, for instance, the real reason for the Catholic Church's engagement in school education? What distinctively makes our schools Catholic, marks them with a mark found nowhere else? Are our schools stand- alone entities forming their own educational community, or do they have their being only as an aspect of the mission of the fundamental community which is the parish?
This is a diocese in which, I thank God, the parochial schools, including our secondary colleges, still remain in a commonality of life with the parish which they serve. The Catholic school continues to be a work of the parish. It looks, or should look, to no other centre of its existence than that on which all parish life is focussed: the altar of the parish church where the Eucharistic Christ gathers his people and leads them in the worship of the eternal Father.
In this context, the most alarming reality which we face, and must do so with eyes wide open, is the fact that by far the greater part of the students in our schools and their parents no longer have that level of Catholic faith that compels them to be present at Mass each Sunday. In practice they do not see themselves as seriously belonging to this stable community of the parish, and weekly participation in its fundamental activity as the most serious duty and greatest joy of the Christian life.
In facing this fact, whatever the attitude of the home, the dedication of the principal and Catholic members of the school staff to the exemplary living and practice of the Faith is vital to making any impression on the students. It is vital if the whole work of the New Evangelisation is to make any headway through school and parish.
Your robust and convinced attachment to the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, your faithfulness to His teaching, and your own Catholic practice will always make its impression on your students, and be the spark which the grace of God can fan into a flame in their lives.
The experience of the World Youth Days and the growing impact of the new movements in engaging with young Catholics is ample proof our young people respond to a strong and honest and complete presentation of Christ and the Church. If presented to them with conviction, they will rise to the full vigour of the Gospel demands and begin exploring the fascinating tradition and culture of Cath- olicism lived over twenty centuries.
But they have to encounter this in people who believe it, love it, live it and practise it as the basis of their teaching it. We can have the best available religion syllabus, the best catechetical texts and resources, but in the end it comes down to my example, the priests' example, the parents example, and your example.
Our schools are religious schools. They exist as part of the educational apostolate of the Catholic Church. They promote love and loyalty to Jesus Christ and His Church. If we have a true sense of the Church, we will see Christ and His Mystical Body the Church as a single reality. One does not exist without the other.
Our Lord did not only give us words: He acted on them and the result was the foundation of His Church as His working body, gathered around the apostles who would carry his words to the farthest reaches of time and space. In the image of the house solidly founded on rock we have His image of His Church, which again appears nine chapters later in St Matthew's Gospel when by the Lord's own commission that Church is built upon Peter the rock.
She is Christ's beloved spouse. She passes through the ebbs and flows of human history; she adapts and changes in response to the needs of an age or a culture, but remains always recognisably the same in her doctrine, her discipline and her worship. She is glorious in the holiness of her saints, yet stained and defiled by the sins of her members. She suffers persecution or apostasy in one place, but in another is baptising the thousands and ordaining new priests by the hundreds.
Let us never forget or even underestimate this objective reality and strength and supernatural resourcefulness of the Church. Let us never reduce her faith and teaching to a mere 'ethos', or think of her living voice and tradition as if these were merely the sum-total of "what Catholics believe."
The Church, the Faith, the Mass, the Sacraments are pure gift. Could we honestly think of them as ours to cut and paste, delete or add, criticise or change to fit in with the fashions and fads of what's in or what's cool, or what's easy on the ears or the lifestyle. The Faith is a challenge for those who are alert and awake, not a soporific for those content to waft away on their own custom-crafted spirituality.
After the priests and the Christian parents, there is no one in the diocese that the bishop looks to more than to those who lead the work of Christian education. You are the men and women who participate in a stable way in his apostolic responsibility to hand on the faith once delivered to the saints, and to call forth from among the young a new generation of saints and apostles to continue the Church's mission.
This is the edited text of a homily given by the Most Rev Geoffrey Jarrett, Bishop of Lismore, in St Carthage's Cathedral on 1 December 2005 at the commissioning of new school Principals appointed for 2006.