Wednesday, September 5, 2012

CHALLENGES FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATORS IN THE 21ST CENTURY



by Most Rev. Mylo Hubert C. Vergara, DD, MA, SThD
Homily during the Eucharistic Celebration of CEAP Superintendents’ Commission Annual Assembly
 Diamond Hotel, Roxas Blvd., Manila, August 26, 2012

What, to my mind, are the critical challenges that catholic educators in the 21st century face in the administration of our Catholic schools?  Allow me to use some insights in our readings for this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time to draw out four challenges.

The first is credible leadership.  In our first reading, the Israelites found themselves in the land of the Amorites who worshipped their own gods. Joshua summoned the tribes of Israel and addressed all the elders, leaders, judges and scribes, making them choose whom to worship—either the gods of the Amorites or the one and only true God of their Israelite ancestors. It must have been difficult for Joshua to speak to the Israelites and make a stand but he stood his ground and declared: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)  Perhaps this declaration of Joshua, their leader, boosted the moral of the Israelites who were in alien territory, for them to make a firm, communal declaration: “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods..... Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:16)  But I believe that it was not only Joshua’s words that convinced them to make their assent of faith in the God of Israel but also his integrity and credibility as their leader.

Any institution or organization will rely so much on a leader’s vision.  However, aside from a leader’s vision, much is demanded from his person, particularly his behavior and lifestyle.  Today, the Catholic Church, especially her ordained ministers is put on the stand because of clergy sexual misconduct and, among others, even the misuse of ecclesiastical funds.  There is a lot of talk about the lack of credibility of some bishops, priests and religious because they have not lived up to their christian and priestly identity.

In a conversation with a priest of a certain diocese, this priest had the impression that some of his fellow priests aspire to be assigned in parishes with parochial schools because they would make more money for themselves and experience a lot of perks given by textbook companies and food and beverage consigners.  In connection to this, a number of us know that some clergy and even religious sisters and brothers administering our catholic schools have misused and mismanaged the school funds for their own personal benefit.  Though some were held accountable for their offenses, others were able to get away with the wrong they have done.  It is sad that, even in the realm of the administration of our catholic schools, some of us fail in living up to credible stewardship.

I think, we, catholic educators have to seriously work on credible leadership as we live up to our mission towards renewed evangelization in the 21st century.  We may excel in mapping as well as creating systems and structures to make our schools competent educational institutions but we may lose sight of the fact that anything we do and achieve rests on our credibility and integrity as catholic educators.  This means that christian witness is an indispensable foundation in leading and managing our catholic schools, and takes priority over any effective educational management.  In this light, we are reminded of the profound words of Pope Paul VI: “… for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of Christian life…. ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’” (EN # 41) 

The second is communio.  A little while ago, we echoed the words of the psalmist and said: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”  What particularly is the goodness of the Lord?  In our responsorial palm, it is God’s deep communion with the just who are oppressed and brokenhearted.  The Lord’s compassionate communion comforts them in their troubles, delivers them from evildoers and saves them from all their distress. (cf. Psalm 33:16-19) 

God’s nature is communion.  His act of communion invites us to live out a spirituality of communion in the catholic school as an educational community and in the relationship of catholic schools with each other in the local church.  On the one hand, this means that diocesan priests, consecrated persons and lay people, working in a catholic school must live out what is called “an attitude of evangelical fraternity”, enabling and empowering each other through their diverse charisms or “gifts of the Spirit” in their task to educate each other and to be instruments of education for the young.  On the other hand, this also means that catholic schools must tap on the wealth of creative networks and partnerships among themselves and realize the abundant resources that they can synergize for the development of educational communities. (cf. Educating Together in Catholic Schools # 17)

It is sad when a sub-culture of unhealthy competition creeps into how catholic schools relate with each other.  In fact, we should be the first ones convinced that gone are the days when a diocese or a religious congregation managing a catholic school thinks only of itself, particularly of its own autonomy and survival; or feels a certain sense of superiority, as if its own educational management is the best there is.  The spirituality of communion teaches us that catholic schools should humbly educate each other, and be happy for each other when one catholic school achieves excellence and distinction for the local church and for God’s greater glory.

The third is creative evangelization.  In our second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, he gives advice on how husbands and wives should relate to each other.  In a nutshell, he exhorts them to love each other as Christ loves his Church.  However, this loving must be marked by creativity, a creative way of loving in which spouses feel that they are cared for and nurtured by each other.  For instance, St. Paul adds that a husband can love his wife in such a way that he himself shows love for his own body by feeding it and looking after it. (cf. Ephesians 21-32)

The 21st century can be characterized by a seemingly limitless explosion of knowledge.  We are in an information age powered by web- and mobile-based technologies. Some management experts claim that in today’s knowledge economy, creativity is a great need for businesses to survive and to be at pace with the times.  Even in the area of education, creativity is urgently needed to have new pedagogical tools for students of the electronic generation.  Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, MSC, a noted social psychologist expresses it in these words: “For the information era, we need a new educational policy and fresh skills to cope with the masses of information that impinge daily upon our consciousness.  The exciting challenge is that we don’t have to procure those skills from without:  increasingly, we are realizing that they are all within.  Can we create an educational system that will activate them appropriately?” (Our World in Transition, p. 93)  We can apply this insight in the specific area of evangelization.   I think the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines was prophetic in characterizing the new evangelization in the Philippines to be done with “new methods”, “new fervor” and “new expressions”. (PCP-II ## 192-201).  This means that our catholic schools must seriously consider more creative methods and expressions in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the youth of today.

In this light, we ask and are challenged to seriously respond to the following questions: How can we creatively evangelize the students in our Catholics schools immersed in an electronic, digital milieu? How can we creatively highlight the distinct catholicity of our schools in today’s information age?  Are we even willing to channel a great chunk of our resources for creative evangelization so that our students, who almost always look at their mobile phones, Ipads, laptops and desktop computers, and who, a number of times, feel that Sunday mass is irrelevant, will be able to know, understand, and perhaps long for Christ in their lives?

One time, the chaplain of one of our parochial schools presided over a first Friday mass for elementary and high school students.  During his homily, he did an exercise to check how many attended the past Sunday mass. He asked those who did not attend to raise their hands with the instruction that all of students and even the teachers close their eyes so that no one will feel embarrassed in case he or she raised his or her hand.  To his great surprise, there were many students and even some teachers who raised their hands, admitting that they did not go to mass.

Creativity in evangelization is the call of the times.  Last month, during a gathering of seminary formators held in Cebu, Bo Sanchez, one of their invited speakers, shared that his experience as a lay preacher has challenged him to think “out of the box” in his task to proclaim the gospel.  He is very much aware that, in as much as he is in touch with the 15% of catholics who go to mass and listen to his preaching on TV, he must target the 85% who are nominal catholics and find going to mass on Sunday no longer relevant in their lives.  Because of this, he thought of organizing what he calls “The Feast” that happens sort of simultaneously in different parts of the country on Sunday outside the parish church walls.   Mass is still celebrated for those who gather and assigned lay preachers called “builders” give a teaching on God’s word in their respective “feasts” held in designated places.  The biggest gathering is held in the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) where Bo Sanchez is their “builder”.  There are 103 “feasts” that take place every Sunday.  Bo Sanchez told me how he is amazed by the increase of new attendees each Sunday.  I was fortunate to see this for myself when I was invited recently to celebrate mass in a “feast” held in Valle Verde Country Club (in the Diocese of Pasig).  I was struck by the flux of people who filled the session hall, most of them young people.  In fact, they have a creative corner where new comers are recognized during the celebration.

The fourth is conscience formation.  In the past weeks, we have listened to the “bread of life” discourse in the Gospel according to St. John.  This Sunday, we conclude our reflections on this discourse with a seemingly sad note.  This time, a number of the disciples of Jesus expressed their dissension to his teaching.  Many of them left him and decided to go back to their former way of life.  One can observe that Jesus did not force his disciples to believe his teaching and stay with him.  What mattered for Jesus was to boldly speak the truth about himself and present this to their consciences for consideration and discernment.  His words posed more questions to form their consciences so that they could make a decision for or against him: “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”  And to his twelve apostles, he even asked: “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:61,67) 

We are currently immersed in a postmodern era in which our young people’s consciousness is shaped by a moral relativistic mindset that teaches: the individual person becomes the sole judge of what is good or evil, and of what is right or wrong.  Quite alarmingly, the Philippine Bishops noted: “In the secular and postmodern culture that seems to disregard the need for faith, we are confronted with a society that offers varied and conflicting ephemeral values.” (CBCP Pastoral Letter, January 29, 2012)  It is at this at time, more than ever, that our catholic schools are given the tremendous opportunity to educate and form young consciences in faith and morals.

In a recent talk given by Professor Randy David to us, bishops, on “Postmodernism and Faith”, he told us that this crisis of faith and morals should not lead Church leaders to pessimism but, rather, optimism.  He finds this time as a blessed opportunity for the Church to proclaim fundamental truths that will challenge pluralistic views.  In fact, from his research and readings, he considers Pope Benedict XVI the best expert in understanding postmodernism and how it affects our faith as well as other aspects of life.  He even said that he is the right pope at this right time in our history.

Pope Benedict XVI asserts that: “It is by forming consciences that the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society.” (Meeting with Representatives of Civil Society, Croatia, June 4, 2012)  In fact, he considers the catholic educational institution as a potent source of what he calls the “diakonia of truth” for the conscience formation of the young. In a meeting with Catholic educators, he said: “With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness.  In this way you will also help to form their consciences which, enriched by faith, opens a sure path to peace and to respect for others.” (Meeting with Catholic Educators, Catholic University of America, April 17, 2008)  These words tell us that this is an opportune time for any catholic school to capitalize on the wealth of her moral and spiritual resources to teach the centrality of God in the life of any human being, to be heralds of truth of Jesus, our only Truth, and to live up to our vocation and mission of becoming instruments of peace and love for others.

In my own little way, I humbly share these four challenges for catholic educators in our time: credible leadership, communio, creative evangelization and conscience formation.  As we celebrate 400 years of Catholic Education in the Philippines this year and approach 500 years of the coming of Christianity in our beloved land in 2021, we continue to pray that catholic schools in the our country live up to their identity and mission “to become the locus of the encounter with Christ” that will be a transforming and life-changing experience, especially for the young, whom we hope will live saintly lives and be vessels of grace for others (cf. CBCP Pastoral Letter, January 29, 2012).  Amen. 

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