‘May the choirs of angels come to greet you. May they speed you to paradise.’ A small group of pupils from years 5 and 6 of St Laurence’s Primary School, Cambridge, sang the gentle response, beautifully led by their headteacher cantor. They were helping the congregation of relatives and friends in St John the Baptist Cathedral, Norwich, bid a loving farewell to Fr Ben Grist, whom they had known during his student placement. Fr Ben had recently received the gift of ordination at the end of the fourth year of his studies, as he moved through the final stages of cancer.
Two weeks earlier, the same Cathedral, full to overflowing, had been the venue for a great celebration by the Diocese of East Anglia of the opening of the Year of Faith. At the end of Mass, people from across the Diocese watched as representatives from all the Catholic schools came forward to accept gifts of the Catechism and learning resources.
The presence of pupils at these celebrations demonstrated some of the ways in which our schools proclaim the gospel. It showed the determination, on the part of the staff of our schools, to remain true to their mission of educating children and young people in faith and helping them to understand the way in which that faith is celebrated. Long liturgies in cathedrals may not be the most accessible experience even for adults who are familiar with the ‘language’ of faith, but the children’s conduct showed that their teachers had prepared them carefully.
It also made evident the support which is often given to schools by the clergy. The children and young people were provided with all the facilities they needed, and it was clear that much thought had been given to what would be helpful to them. At the celebration for the opening of the Year of Faith, the Diocesan Administrator, Fr David Bagstaff, preached a homily which engaged their interest while still giving the adults plenty of food for thought. At the end of the celebration, the children processed out before the rest of the congregation, ensuring they were able to get to a different kind of food without delay!
The presence of the children at Fr Ben’s funeral highlighted the way in which Catholic schools and colleges develop, from the earliest years, the recognition of death as not only a time of loss and sadness, but also of joy for the person who is experiencing transformation into risen life. Making a commitment to this perspective on death is not easy in a society where belief in eternal life is uncertain. The comment of a monk of Ampleforth, that where all schools prepare their pupils for life, ‘we prepare them for death’, brings us up sharply against a truth which to many in our culture appears to be a paradox.
Our schools and colleges stand at the interface of deeply committed faith and a society and culture which finds it increasingly difficult to acknowledge the reality of God. They have to play the game according to the rules of government, Department for Education, Ofsted and Local Authorities, and, as we would expect, achieve the highest standards of professionalism in teaching and learning and standards of achievement. But through all of this, they do not forget the fundamental reason for their existence – through the education of children and young people, to proclaim the gospel, in all its challenge and joy.
There are no other countries where the system of education offers the Catholic community comparable opportunities for evangelisation. Our schools form an integral part of our national education system, and we can use that position to engage with, challenge, influence and support society itself. As a Church, we can sometimes overlook this and assume our business is the parish. But as Pope Benedict explained with such clarity in his address in Westminster Hall, ‘the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation.’ The existence of our schools and colleges, and their commitment to proclaiming the gospel, provide a superb foundation and catalyst for this dialogue.
Dr Dilys Wadman DSG is the former Director of Education for Archdiocese of Southwark