Opening of the Academic Year
Mass at DCU St Patrick’s Campus
September 22, 2022
I welcome all who have joined us for this Mass for the opening of the academic year.
The world around us always faces many challenges, but it is a long time since we have lived in times as unsettled as these. There is much uncertainty, anxiety, and hardship. We read about mobilisations and invasions, the ongoing brutal war in Ukraine; there are also major wars in Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and many other places. More than one quarter of world’s population feels the effects of war. That is a stunning statistic. Right now we have millions of people facing the possibility of starvation because of the unfolding famine in the Horn of Africa. We continue to feel the effects of environmental issues. The economic outlook seems uncertain with the sudden and crippling rise in energy costs, inflation, and perhaps a looming recession. It’s a sobering list of challenges.
It is in this difficult context that the young people in our schools, colleges, and universities live their lives, and undertake their studies. To see them in classrooms, lecture halls, or corridors, to glimpse them in the street or when they are out and about, one might think the global situation does not impinge on them, but what happens in the world at large is like the air we breathe: its presence may be almost imperceptible, but its effects, both long-term and short-term, can be very real.
And it is in this difficult context that you teach and lead in the schools and colleges of this Diocese. Consequently, it is in this context also, that the importance of various dimensions of the work and role of teachers can be perceived to make a difference, and contribute to the overall wellbeing of all. I would therefore like to underline three dimensions that point towards the activity of the Holy Spirit and the closeness of the living God to us in our lives, and particularly in our service. Sometimes we run the risk of living out of what some call a ‘received view’ of the life of faith: “one which involves long periods of quiet, focused reflection, dark churches, and dignified liturgies. [At times], involving times spent in contemplative prayer, and on retreat. Above all, [such a view of the spiritual life] involves solitude and collectedness. It does not involve looking after small children.” [Janet Soskice, The Kindness of God (Oxford: OUP, 2013), 12–13] Neither does this common view, involve creating and maintaining environments where young people are motived to engage with their education, to develop, and to grow.
The first dimension is what one might call the Vocational Dimension of Teaching. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read, “some are called to be apostles, … some prophets, some teachers… (4:11). In the Gospel we have just heard, Jesus teaches; he teaches with conviction and authority. Rowan Williams, the last Archbishop of Canterbury, someone deeply rooted in the experience and worth of teaching, reframed the Epistle’s word for the challenges of the 21st century. He says,
the process of education needs people who, themselves, have some sense of being called and ‘invited’. It has long been recognized that the best teachers tend to be those who don’t separate person and function, who find that encouraging others to respond to their fullest potential is what makes them themselves.
(Address at the National Church Schools Congress, March 2006)
When we pray for vocations, does it not also make sense to include the vocation of teaching? And further: since the Catholic school is rooted in the wider community — comprised both of believers, and of people who do not designate themselves in this way — parents, families, and extended families, can we expect the teacher fully to live out their vocation on their own, or the school adequately to fulfil its educational role, apart from the community? Must we not continue to foster networks of community involvement, and develop ways that encourage those called to be teachers to enter deeply into the life and mystery of this vital service of all God’s people? Is this not what Pope Francis means by Synodality?
The second dimension might be termed the challenges for teachers of working within the cultural matrix of a digital world. The digital world risks being a self-made world, one which lacks historical perspective, has little, if any, sense of the past, or of community. Existential, cultural, and community perspectives are essential, not only for the understanding of the faith, but are also foundational for an engagement with history and earth sciences. Not every young person is passionate about our Common Home: how can one be when so much happens for them in the virtual world?
The third dimension is the importance of Leadership. The big challenge is to find good educational leaders who create an educational milieu in which children, young people and parents can enter more deeply into the mysteries of life and faith. In the Book of Proverbs, we read,
Like flowing water is the heart of the king in the hand of the Lord,
who turns it where he pleases. (21:6)
A good leader, a person of vision, one whose vision is born of experience, someone who can establish a good direction and steer a good course, makes all the difference in the flourishing of a school, or indeed any institution where people lie at the core, and that includes our parishes! The good leader, brings their colleagues with them; this happens because people are given a sense of being valued, of being listened to, of being heard. This is at the heart of what we mean when we speak of Synodality: we are on a road together.
Like flowing water is the heart of the king in the hand of the Lord,
who turns it where he pleases.
In the end, it is not a question of methodology or technique, it is a question of the heart. The good leader is a person of heart—with a heart for their colleagues, with a heart for their students, with a heart open to the promptings of the Spirit, even when these are not recognized as such. Let us never forget that God is always at work among us. Let us not lose heart! Let us keep before us the need to nurture among younger teachers the gifts that permit educational and faith leadership. The Christian faith is profoundly open to the future: let us seek out those who will inspire and guide the next generations. A broad vision of leadership brings with it, the responsibility of identifying and calling the leaders of tomorrow from among the gifted teachers in our schools and colleges today.
To finish, I put before you the closing lines of a reflection from the late Bishop Ken Untener (d. March 27, 2004), of Saginaw, Michigan in the USA. Reflecting on all that can be expected of any who undertake a life of service, and that’s what a life in education truly is, he remarked,
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
May Christ the Teacher shape our hearts, and bless the work of our hands (see Psalm 89).