As the Church reminds us: "The Catholic school has an ecclesial identity, because it is part of the evangelising mission of the Church" (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1997).
In Catholic primary schools, teachers are called on to develop children's capacity for faith and understanding, which one hopes will blossom fully in later years.
Secondary schools then provide a privileged means by which "the Catholic community gives the student an academic, vocational and religious education" (Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Oceania). The document elaborates further: "The Synod Fathers wish to acknowledge the work of the religious men and women who have laboured generously in the field of Catholic education.
"For the lay people involved, teaching is more than a profession: it is a vocation to form students, a widespread and indispensable lay service in the Church. Teaching is always a challenge; but with the co-operation and encouragement of parents, clergy and religious, the laity's involvement in Catholic education is a precious service of the Gospel, and a way of Christian sanctification for teacher and students.
"The identity and success of Catholic education is linked inseparably to the witness of life given by teaching staff. Such is the role expectation of the school teacher in Catholic schools today."
In the light of this, the teaching profession in the Catholic school system can profit from the following: (1) a profound conviction on the part of each teacher of the nobility of his or her vocation; and (2) a day-to-day implementation of this conviction.
Catholic school teaching entails far more than simply the inculcation of Church teachings, essential though this is. It also involves helping the students to grow towards a realisation of their reason for existence. In the words of the old catechism: "to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next".
In the Catholic context, therefore, the vocation of teaching is inseparable from participating in the formation of Christlike future adults.
There are several virtues, which an individual should be encouraged to live when is called to do God's work in the Catholic school teaching ministry.
Virtues of a teacher
* Charity is important above all else. All involved in the school community, without exception, must be viewed as sisters and brothers in Christ. In the ministry of Jesus, he was noted for his acceptance of all. Following his example, it matters not what is the colour of students' skin, their racial or national lineage, or their so-called intelligence or aptitude.
* Justice, that essential virtue described by students as "fairness", necessitates the rejection of any deliberate prejudice or lack of objectivity in grading.
* Unselfishness means the impression should never be conveyed that in the teaching ministry one does not have time for a student reasonably asking for assistance merely because, for instance, aiding that student is unlikely to enhance one's professional prestige. Such an attitude compromises the vocational calling of the teaching ministry.
* Humility indicates that we are ever ready to learn from others in the course of our teaching ministry. Of course, one must be always vigilant about any suggestion of arrogance, which should be discarded.
Finally, and most importantly, those involved in the teaching ministry need to demonstrate an intense love for truth. This means not only striving to master each subject to be taught, but to never hesitate in accepting a fact over a hypothesis when that fact contradicts one's hypothesis.
In short, teaching in a Catholic school is far more than a profession: it is truly a ministry - "a way of Christian sanctification for teacher and student".
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is the parish priest in Kempsey, NSW.