As you all well know, Catholic Schools Week helps us and the wider community to reflect on what our Catholic Schools mean to the 20,000 students and their parents, as well as to the Church in our Diocese.
The full impact of Catholic schooling in our country is seen in the 750,000 children we educate Australia-wide in 1,600 schools, covering 1,200 primary schools, 300 secondary schools, 94 primary/secondary combined schools and 17 special schools, with over 82,000 staff Australia-wide.
This approximates to one in five of all school students in our country attending Catholic Schools where we try to impart the truth of Jesus Christ and the values and behaviours Jesus taught, so that we can help make a contribution of goodness to our country through the citizens formed and educated in our schools.
Parents have a right to expect high standards and quality teaching. Every parent wants to be sure that their child will receive a wide range of educational experiences and feel safe, nurtured and cared for, expressed in the theme, “I belong, you belong, we belong.”
You, our principals and teachers and support staff at the Catholic Education Office, in our Systemic and Congregational schools in our Diocese, create opportunities for your students to grow and thrive and you place the wellbeing of every child at the heart of what you do.
Your strategic plan is “Lighting the Way through Faith and Learning” and the call to mission is a core expression of our Catholic identity. All endeavours of Catholic schooling are to bear witness to the person and teaching of Jesus Christ as we, Bearers of Christ’s love, light the way for those we encounter.
The work of spiritual formation of teachers and staff is a high priority in our Diocese. I want to express my sincere thanks to our Director of Schools, Mr Peter Turner, for his inspired leadership; the Catholic Education Leadership Team; Fr Ron Peters and members of the Diocesan Schools Council; CEO staff who serve our principals, teachers and ancillary staff; parents and students and to my brother priests, deacons and pastors for the massive combined work we all do for our Diocese in the field of education.
At the centre of the Catholic school, I acknowledge the spiritual formation of teachers and staff through the “Lamplighters Shining Light” and the “Light of the World” programmes. We prize a commitment to develop in our young people a relationship with God who loves us more than you or I could ever imagine. Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit is the face of the Heavenly Father’s mercy towards us. If we want to know what God is like, we need to study the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer, and we need to develop that relationship with Jesus Christ ourselves because we cannot give what we haven’t got.
This year’s pilgrimage to the Holy Lands of Israel, Palestine and Jordan in January, was precisely to help participants to get to know Jesus better by visiting and seeing the context of his incarnation, his life and his saving work of dying and rising again to redeem us.
I recently saw a movie called “Risen” in which Ralph Fiennes plays a Centurion who oversaw the Crucifixion and, in Pontius Pilate’s and the Sanhedrin’s effort to find the presumed stolen body of Christ, eventually encounters the Risen Christ and leaves the employment of Pontius Pilate and becomes a disciple of Jesus. Ralph Fiennes said he wanted to approach the central truth of our faith from the perspective of an unbeliever.
Our Scripture today has us focus on physical blindness and by implication, spiritual blindness.
The prophet Micah says, “When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. God will bring me out into the light; I shall see God’s vindication.” (Micah 7:9)
The Gospel reading gives us the classic message of the man born blind. Did he sin, or did his parents, for him to suffer this travesty?
On reflection, the Gospel of the man born blind is a joyful parable. Imagine this man’s elation at having his sight restored. As the story develops, the all-seeing Pharisees move to spiritual blindness by putting on themselves the blinkers of the law. They cannot recognise Jesus or his works of mercy because of their tunnel vision. Jesus doesn’t fit their world view. Meanwhile, the blind beggar, who has sight restored, goes on to gain insight about who Jesus is and the way that God works in the world; he begins to see how shallow and pathetic the Pharisees really are.
We all know people who, like the opponents of Jesus, are not physically blind but spiritually blind. We know we can be like that ourselves!
We say that such people just won’t see or that they have tunnel vision. Their minds are set and made up, and they shut their minds and their hearts to anything else. Sometimes they shut out God, because they’ve suffered a traumatic loss, like the loss of a child, and they can’t reconcile that event with a good God. Or, with shock, sadness and disgust, they read about the paedophile scandals through the Royal Commission and, rightfully so, lose trust in God’s Church. Some people, because of their mindset, see only the bad, not the good; only the corruption, not the promise; only darkness, not light. How will they see again? The answer is that only the faith witness of compassion, love and mercy will give them sight again.
There is also a critical theological lesson here: disability and illness do not come from personal sinfulness. It’s surprising that we need to keep saying this, but too readily we hear otherwise intelligent and good Christians, for example, telling us that some illnesses have been “sent” by God as punishment for sins, or they wonder what their families have “done” to deserve children with disabilities. It’s true that God permits us to live in an imperfect world where we are prone to illness and disability, but that same world gives us the freedom to be creative in the face of adversity, to be compassionate and merciful with those who are sick or disabled, and to be free to believe that there is a purpose for each human life. God, the source of all life, does not actively send bad things to us: instead, God is our constant companion in dealing with them, giving us the courage and strength to cope with, and sometimes overcome, them.
The truth is that we all are blind to some degree – all of us. We all have honest questions and lingering doubts. We wonder, for example, where God is in our lives, or, if God is there at all. We wrestle with the problem of evil. How could God permit ISIS and all the terrorism? Why do evil people prosper? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we have to die? The only thing we have to cling to is God’s Word that, as St Paul has written, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)
Let me finish with a story to re-inforce the message.
A ten year old boy named William was blinded in an accident. Despite his disability, William graduated from a university in England with high honours. While he was at university, he fell in love with the daughter of a high-ranking British naval officer, and they became engaged.
Shortly before the wedding, William had eye surgery in the hope that the operation would restore his sight. If it failed, he would remain blind for the rest of his life. William insisted on keeping the bandages on his face until his wedding day. If the surgery was successful, he wanted the first person he saw to be his new bride.
The wedding day arrived. The many guests – including royalty, cabinet members and distinguished men and women of society – assembled together at the church to witness the exchange of vows. William’s father and the doctor who performed the surgery stood next to the groom, whose eyes were still covered with bandages.
The organ trumpeted the wedding march and the bride slowly walked down the aisle on the arm of her father to the front of the church. As soon as she arrived at the altar, the surgeon took a pair of scissors out of his pocket and cut the bandages from William’s eyes. Tension filled the church. The congregation of witnesses held their breath as they waited to find out if William could see the woman standing before him. As he stood face-to-face with his bride-to-be, William’s words echoed throughout the church, “You are more beautiful than I ever imagined!”
I think that story is our heart’s desire and it is faith’s promise: that one day, when the bandages that cover the eyes of our mortal minds and hearts are removed, and we stand face to face with Jesus Christ and see him for the very first time, we will affirm what our faith has promised; “You are more beautiful than I ever imagined.”
Most Rev Peter W Ingham DD
10 March 2016
St John Vianney's Co-Cathedral, Fairy Meadow