St Philomena School is emerging as a beacon in Queensland's somewhat beleaguered state of education.
Run by the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) as an independent school with a focus on classical and Catholic education, and situated in tranquil outskirts south of Brisbane, in Park Ridge, it has consistently outperformed most schools in the state academically. The MySchool web site rates it the best school in the local area and one of Queensland's best schools overall. The recently released results of NAPLAN confirm the trend over several years, with a staggering 100% of students exceeding the national standards across reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy.
With its successful application to construct a high school, and the first offering of years eight and nine set for 2012, the formula for high academic achievement and ethos is poised for replication at the secondary level.
St Philomena's has not been an overnight success. Its origins trace back to the early 1990s when a group of Catholic parents refused to buckle into the education options available to them, including local Catholic schools, that were characterised by political correctness, new age fads, dumbed down standards and a faith education preoccupied with self-development, social justice, and world religions.
The group approached the SSPX to develop a Catholic school that returned to classical spiritual and academic foundations for their children. In 1992, through the SSPX, they committed to the task of establishing an independent Catholic school. A sustained, grass-roots development followed, over several years, sought through the intercession and guidance of St Philomena (named patroness of the Living Rosary by Pope Gregory XVI and patroness of the Children of Mary by Pope Pius IX).
St Philomena School finally opened on Tuesday, 2 February 1999, with Fr Gerard Hogan as Founding Principal. Over the last few years, Fr Brendan Arthur, now a priest in the Melbourne Archdiocese, led the development of the classical curriculum and the high school plans.
St Philomena's classical curriculum includes Latin, Ancient Greek and Roman History, Logic and French. It also provides an unapologetic, unvarnished teaching of Catholicism, including studies of the traditional catechism, Sacred Scriptures and Church history, the lives of the saints, prayer and the traditional Latin liturgy.
Children begin and end each school day with prayers, they attend a weekly school Mass and conclude each week in the school chapel with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The year ends on a high note with a full-scale production of a play on the Christmas theme, featuring students from all year levels. Last year saw a stirring performance of the French, medieval play, Our Lady's Slipper, and preparations are underway for this year's A Convict Christmas.
School Principal, Fr Karl Pepping, has no doubts about the reasons for the school's success: "Our best assets are true community supporting the school, the curriculum, and the very best of teachers who work tirelessly to bring out the best in every child.
"It's about developing the individual personalities of children so that they make full use of the various gifts God has given them, for the love of God and learning, and ultimately for bringing these talents to the betterment of society." This reflects the motto of the school : Sine Deo Nihil ("Nothing without God").
The sticking point for many Catholics who might otherwise be attracted to St Philomena's is its connection to the SSPX, a traditionalist organisation that has lost canonical status with the Catholic Church.
However, Pope Benedict XVI has made reaching out to the Society an important cause, and the Vatican views reconciliation as a high priority. In 2009, Benedict revoked the excommunication of four SSPX bishops, to the ire of liberal Catholic groups, among others, who feared a wider agenda to roll back the Vatican II reforms.
A careful reading of Pope Benedict XVI's letter addressed to Catholic bishops concerning the lifting of the SSPX excommunications offers a contrary view.
Without detracting from the gravity of a Catholic organisation separating itself from the Church, nor mistakes within the Vatican that exacerbated the situation, the Pope locates his call for reconciliation on a deeper interpretation of Vatican II's intended reforms, as opposed to subsequent interpretations and developments.
For the Pope's long-developed hermeneutics, true reforms may appear as a break with the past, however they fall within the trajectory of continuity - or "innovation in continuity" as he put it in a speech given to the Roman Curia in December 2005.
Analysing the declaration of religious freedom in that speech for instance, Benedict observes: "In the 19th century under Pius IX, the clash between the Church's faith and a radical liberalism ... had elicited from the Church a bitter and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age ... In the meantime, however, the modern age had also experienced developments. People came to realise that the American Revolution was offering a model of a modern state that differed from the theoretical model with radical tendencies that had emerged during the second phase of the French Revolution."
By correcting that problem, Benedict explains, "[The] Decree on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council, by recognising and making its own an essential principle of the modern state, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself, as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time.
"The ancient Church naturally prayed for the emperors and political leaders out of duty but while she prayed for the emperors, she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the state. The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one's own faith - a profession that no state can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God's grace in freedom of conscience."
In the meantime, in Brisbane and its surrounds, the stark reality is that Catholic parents are not faced with clear-cut, binary education choices. Improvements in Queensland Catholic Education are long-term at best, with parents of strong Catholic convictions having to resort to Protestant or evangelical-based schools or doing home-schooling.
St Philomena School's academic achievements are hard to ignore and it has taken an open, inclusive approach to welcoming non-SSPX and even non-Catholic or Christian students. In fact, a number of its teachers are not in the Society, and the school does not force the sacraments on students. By all accounts, the "nuts and bolts" of the Catholic faith are taught in a robust and inspiring way.
In light of its achievements and its approach, St Philomena School is worthy of consideration for primary and secondary school education in a city and a state no longer renowned for institutional faith and academic nurturing.
Alistair Barros is professor of Information Technology at the Queensland University of Technology and former state president of the Australian Family Association, Queensland. He and his wife are neither part of the Society of Saint Pius X nor are they traditionalists.