Exploring Catholic Education through research with staff and students of Catholic schools

5 Mar 2024

The Catholic school as a “school of virtues” … 1

Participating in Jesus’ way of seeing 

What are virtues and how important are they to Catholic education? The Church offers the following definition of virtue: 

“A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC, 1803). 

Thus, virtues are good habits, which are manifested “in concrete actions”. When the authors of The Catholic School write about “those particular virtues which will enable him to live a new life in Christ (CS, 36), to which virtues do they refer? 

Traditionally, seven virtues have been presented as “core” virtues: the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. All human virtues – the cardinal virtues play a pivotal role in the development of human virtues (CCC, 1805) – are rooted in the theological virtues (CCC, 1812). 

Referred to as “fundamental” and “permanent” (CS, 47), the theological virtues are “infused” by God in the souls of the baptised “to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life” (CCC, 1813). The first of these virtues, the virtue of faith, writes Pope Francis, enables the baptised to “see with a light that illumines their entire journey” (LF, 1). Further into his encyclical, which he named The Light of Faith (Lumen Fidei), Pope Francis explains: “Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing” (LF, 18). When the disciple participates often enough, then the habit of seeing things as Jesus sees them becomes the habit that is called “faith.” 

The identity of a Catholic school can be found in its emphasis on “the Christian concept of life centred on Jesus Christ” (CS, 33). When the baptised members of the school community strive to give witness to their faith in Jesus, then they stir in those who are not baptised “irresistible questions” (EN, 21) about the mystery of Christ (CS, 47). 

The danger for those involved in Catholic education lies in the mistaken notion that only those who teach Religious Education need to be committed to their faith in Jesus. The task of educating in faith belongs to everyone involved in the life of a school. In the ideal school, every person is striving to turn their practice of seeing things with the eyes of Jesus into the virtue of faith. 

In choosing to follow Jesus, they will strive to become people of prayer because Jesus was a prayerful person. They will seek moments of quiet to recall his presence in their daily duties and in their “down” times. They will recall encounters with Jesus in the sacramental experiences with which he gifts them. They will recognise the truth of his invitation to them: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The Catholic school participates in the mission of the Church. It’s effectiveness depends on the practice of the virtue of faith by those whose example and instruction are Christ-centred. Whether baptised or not, every person who is involved in the daily life of a Catholic school needs to bear in mind the words of Jesus: “Anyone who is not for me is really against me; anyone who does not help me gather is really scattering” (Luke 11:23). The gift of faith, given in Baptism, is meant for the world, not just the person who is baptised. 

When Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967) developed the See, Judge, Act method early in the twentieth century, he was intent of helping young workers engage with the truth of faith. 


  • What are the habitual signs of the gift of faith given to you when you were baptised? If you are not baptised, choose someone you know who is baptised and whom you admire. What does that person do and what do they value that point to their faith in Jesus? When and where are you aware of that person drawing on their faith in Jesus?
  • Why do people seek to be baptised? If you haven’t sought to be baptised, it is important that you can acknowledge to yourself why you haven’t done so. Why do many try to be faithful to their baptismal promises? If you don’t know what is promised in baptism, then take some time to find out. 
  • What difference does being baptised make to how people live? What is “habitual” about Christian faith that you admire? How has the world changed because of baptism?  


  • What do you think about this way of reflecting on your life? Do you find it affirming? Challenging? Daunting? Confusing? Boring? Why?
  • Do you think that people should reflect on the good that happens because of the presence of the virtue of faith in the world? Why? Why not? 
  • What does your faith tell you about the part baptism has in living by one’s beliefs and values? Jesus said: “Anyone who is not for me is really against me; anyone who does not help me gather is really scattering” (Luke 11:23). What challenges does this offer to you as you reflect on the work that you do in your school? 


  • What would you like to see happening in the school you are associated with so that the purpose of the gift of faith given in baptism and its effects are recognised and celebrated joyfully? 
  • What small action can you undertake to help to bring about this change? Or to enhance it if the process of change has already begun? When and where can you carry out your action? 
  • Who can you involve in your action? How will you invite them to be a part of your effort to transform your school so that everyone there can be “a saving leaven in the human community”?

Author: Pat Branson 

Image source: Lawrence OP, Creator, Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

CS = The Catholic School (1977)

CCC = The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1996) 

LF = Lumen Fidei (2013)

EN = Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975)

18 Feb 2024

Three moments in Catholic Education … 3

Heading off to Galilee

Pope Francis said that Jesus invites us to be missionaries, knowing that if we accept his invitation, we will have to let go of all that will prevent us from embracing our mission wholeheartedly. The previous posts focused on two moments of evangelization (promise and request) outlined by Pope Francis in a homily he gave in 2013. This third reflection will present some thoughts about the third moment, which is “mission.” 


And what is the mission Jesus gives to each person? Nothing less than, or more than, following Jesus. It cannot be any simpler, or more complex. In an earlier homily delivered in the chapel in St Martha House, Pope Francis said, “When God touches a person’s heart, he gives a grace that lasts a lifetime; he doesn’t do a “magic trick” that’s over in a moment.” This is borne out in the lives of the saints and is true for those who embrace the mission given them by Jesus. 

To begin to understand the mission we have been given, we would be wise to heed the words of Jesus to the women he appeared to after his resurrection: “… go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10). So, let us head off to Galilee. But what does this mean? It is interesting to note that Jesus called his first disciples in Galilee. This is the encounter from which Pope Francis drew his three moments in evangelisation. The encounter that will now happen comes after his resurrection. This encounter is sometimes referred to as “The Great Commissioning” (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus sends his apostles out into the world to preach the Good News and to baptise people. 

So Galilee becomes a metaphor for our encounters with Christ, who has conquered sin and death and invites us to announce this Good News to everyone we meet. The Galilee experience described by John in his Gospel is quite different in tone to that which is in Matthew’s Gospel. In John, Jesus says to Peter: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). The early Church understood this in its broadest possible context, that is, feed the whole person … and that is what Catholic schools recognise as their mission. 

An essential part of the mission given to those who work in Catholic schools is to know about, understand and appreciate the culture of young people in their care. Those on mission will then be able to recognise the presence of God in the world of their students and accompany them in the moments in evangelisation that are there for all who encounter God in Christ. 


  • Whatever your role in education, what is there about it that you have identified as missionary in character? List the elements: what you do, when, where and with whom you engage in educational activities. How much of your life has been devoted to this mission? 
  • What/who led you into this work? What/who keeps you involved?  What do you do to deepen your understanding of your mission? Who helps you with this task? If you have experienced difficult times, how have you weathered the storms? 
  • What has happened in your life because of your involvement, for which you are grateful? What has happened that has clouded your view of mission, or even threatened to destroy your sense of mission?


  • Are you comfortable with thinking of yourself as a missionary? If not, why not? How would you prefer to think of your work in education? 
  • What does your faith tell you about being a missionary? How is your faith supported and challenged  by the words and actions of Jesus referred to in the reflection above? 
  • What is the ideal situation in education towards which you and others might work so that following Christ becomes the mission that people want to embrace?


  • What has to change in education, as you experience it, so that the  mission to follow Christ becomes the centre of people’s lives? 
  • What simple action can you take that will contribute to bringing about that change? When can you carry out that action and how often can you act in this way over the coming week? 
  • Who can you involve in your action and how will you communicate what you have been thinking and hoping to do with them?

Author: Pat Branson

Image source:

NB: I discovered the Catholic Weekly article about the playgroup after I had written my reflection. It was like finding the treasure hidden in a field! It does not take much imagination to find in it the structure of See-Judge-Act at work in people’s lives. 

11 Feb 2024

Three “moments” in Catholic education … 2

Is teaching just a job? Is it a career? Is it a vocation? Which? There are many in Catholic education who use the word “vocation” to refer to their work as a “calling” from God. If teaching is a calling it is so because all are called to follow Christ. 

In my previous reflection, I focused on the first of three moments in evangelisation (promise, request and mission), which Pope Francis spoke about in a homily he gave in 2013. In this reflection, I will consider the second moment and present a review based on Cardijn’s See, Judge, Act method. 


For those who accept the gift of faith, the request to follow Jesus – “Come follow me, and I will make you fish for people” Mark 1:17 - New Century Version – will lead them to examine their lives to identify those things that stand in the way of them embracing the mission to which they are called. For those involved in Catholic education, that mission 

is seen as promoting a faith-relationship with Christ in Whom all values find fulfilment. But faith is principally assimilated through contact with people whose daily life bears witness to it. Christian faith, in fact, is born and grows inside a community. (The Catholic School, 53)

The gift of faith, from which such a calling proceeds, requires a complete surrender of self to God, so that the faithful are enabled to be instruments of salvation. What does this mean in the reality of life in a Catholic school? Here is a simple illustration of the beauty of faith lived in vocation, that is, as a response to God’s love. 

She worked in a Catholic school and had contact with students out of class. One senior student, who visited her often in her office, was in trouble. It was suggested that he leave the school. She takes up the story: 

And I said, “I don't think you should leave. I think this is a one-off.” I had a bit of a relationship with this student, with him coming into my office at different times and I said to his Mum, “I am more than happy to keep an eye and take him on board.” So the Principal allowed that. 

We had lots of talks. He got through and then I think it was probably well over a year later, I was walking home from a restaurant with my husband and this car pulled up. Down went the window and this young boy or man then said, “Hi, Mrs Z. How are you going?” I said, “I’m good. How are you?”

A woman of faith, who had turned to God when she had run out of options in her life, she prayed without ceasing and her prayers were answered. She became Christ’s helper in accompanying that student through a hard time in his life. 

Pope Francis has placed emphasis on missionary discipleship during his pontificate and one key aspect of missionary endeavour is the art of accompaniment. There is an investment of creative energy in the work of accompanying others and also of patience and generosity – and love. The challenge for us who are involved in any way in Catholic education is to look beyond the constraints of time and tasks and to focus on the relationships that are formed and the good that is done through being present to others.  


  • Think about the work you do in Catholic education. List the tasks you perform, when you carry them out and how often each day, week, month, year. To what extent is the work that you do an expression of your faith in Christ? 
  • When and where in your work do you find yourself accompanying others? What do you find encouraging about those moments? When and where have you been challenged to put aside all that stands in the way of you developing a closer relationship with Christ?  
  • How does your relationship with Christ, as you perceive it to be, impact your relationships with students and with your colleagues? 


  • What do you make of this way of thinking about working in Catholic education? If it is foreign to you, that is, you do not experience your work in this way, what is it then that gives you satisfaction and reassures you that you are in a good space? 
  • What does your faith (in whatever way you perceive it to be) tell you about how to relate with Christ and how to serve him through the work that you do? What challenges are posed for you through the reflection on “request” offered above?
  • What do you hope for in your work that you see as the fulfillment of your efforts to make the world a better place for others, particularly those with whom you work and those you assist through your work? 


  • What would you like to change in Catholic education, as you experience it, so that its mission to place Christ at the centre of people’s lives can be achieved? 
  • What simple action can you take that will contribute to bringing about that change? When can you carry out that action and how often can you act in this way over the coming week? 
  • Who can you involve in your action and how will you communicate what you have been thinking and hoping to do with them?

Author: Pat Branson

Image source:

Worth reading 

The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (1977). The Catholic School

If you are bothered about the time it takes to be a part of Catholic education, you might find this reflection useful: Eternity Now: Aboriginal concepts of time 

4 Feb 2024

Three “moments” in Catholic education … 1

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the chapel of the House of St Martha on September 5, 2013. He gave his homily on St Luke’s account of the calling of the first apostles (Luke 5:1-11). His catechesis presents us with three “moments” in evangelisation: “promise,” “request” and “mission.” These three moments provide an interesting and useful framework for describing the presence and power of Jesus in the Catholic school. For the next three weeks, one of these “moments” will be the subject of a short reflection on Catholic education. Each reflection will be followed by a simple meditation guide based on the Review of Life method (See, Judge, Act) developed by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967), who founded the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement. 


Pope Francis teaches that Jesus making himself present in the life of a  Christian is “a promise that comforts.” I think immediately of the Blind Bart story in the Gospel of Mark (10:46-52). Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, ““Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 47) Despite the objections from those following Jesus, Bart persists with his request and Jesus heals him: “Go; your faith has made you well.” Most of my life has been spent in Catholic schools and I have been blessed to work alongside people who gave humble witness to the presence of Christ in their lives and their work. 

The Christian vocation is received in and through a personal encounter with Jesus, who says to each follower as he did to Peter “From now on you will fish for people” (Luke 5:10). Catholic educators witness to Jesus’ promise through their efforts to be faithful to him in carrying out the mission entrusted to them. We find many descriptions of the mission of the Catholic school in Church documents. For instance, in The Catholic School (1977), the mission is described in this way:

… the Catholic school aims at forming in the Christian those particular virtues which will enable him to live a new life in Christ and help him to play faithfully his part in building up the Kingdom of God (CS, 36)

What can we take from this statement that relates to the “promise that comforts”? First, each person has a particular, God-given part to play in building up the Kingdom of God, not just in the school, but everywhere they go and throughout their life. This applies to each and every person in the school community, whether they are baptized or not. 

Those who are the educators (teaching and non-teaching staff alike) are the “formators” (those who intentionally engage in forming the students through the different forms of curriculum that make up the life of the school). By word and more importantly, by example, they give witness to those virtues that will help the students (and one another) be Christ to others wherever they go.   


  • Name for yourself one experience of the “promise” moment in your life. Perhaps it has something to do with the hope of fulfillment through involvement in Catholic education. How did you respond to that promise? What has happened because you experienced this “promise”? 
  • What led up to the experience of the “promise”? How often have you experienced such moments in your life? 
  • How has your life changed because of your experience of being involved in Catholic education as a “promise that comforts”? Are there virtues that have become more important to you because of your involvement in Catholic education? 


  • What do you make of this way of thinking about your involvement in the school that you are in? Are you comfortable with thinking about your work as being something “promised” by Jesus to be worthwhile and “godly”?
  • What does your faith tell you about the work that you do in your school? How has your faith grown and deepened through your involvement in the school? 
  • What do you hope for in your work that you see as the fulfillment of this “promise”? 


  • What would you like to change in your school so that the work done is seen as the “promise that comforts” by an increasing number of people (staff and students and families)? 
  • What simple action can you take that will contribute to bringing about that change? When can you carry out that action and how often can you act in this way over the coming week? 
  • Who can you involve in your action and how will you communicate what you have been thinking and hoping to do with them?


Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (1977). The Catholic School

Pope Francis (2015). Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday. New York: Penguin Random House Company

25 Dec 2023

Catholic education and the pursuit of true freedom

I don’t know what was happening in other Catholic schools in 1977, but I do know that in the school in which I worked, we studied The Catholic School, a document released by the Vatican on the Feast of St Joseph (March 19) in that year, twelve years after the release of the Declaration on Christian Education released towards the end of Vatican II. 

I recall being taken captive by the definition of education that related to the freedom of the human person:

the development of man from within, freeing him from that conditioning which would prevent him from becoming a fully integrated human being.  (CS, 29)

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) addressed the issue of the nature of “true education” in their Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis), published towards the end of the Council in 1965. With their eyes on the future of humanity and the ultimate destiny of all people, they stated that the task of education is . 

to develop harmoniously their physical, moral and intellectual endowments so that they may gradually acquire a mature sense of responsibility in striving endlessly to form their own lives properly and in pursuing true freedom as they surmount the vicissitudes of life with courage and constancy (GE, 1). 

This view of education is as true today as it was almost sixty years ago. The statement applies to all forms of education, whether they be faith-based or not. The harmonious development of “physical, moral and intellectual endowments” is common to all people. It is an aspect of the common good that can be found in most understandings of the purpose of education. Here are some reflections on the importance of achieving “the harmonious development” addressed by the Council and by others in its wake. 

There is a strong emphasis on community service in Australian schools. In the Catholic schools in Western Australia, community service happens under the name of “Christian Service Learning” (CSL). When conducted thoughtfully, students are given the opportunity to debrief their experiences of rendering service to others. 

I recall an occasion when I sat and listened to a group of Year 11 students speak about spending a few hours visiting residents in nursing homes near their school. They spent the first two periods of the school day engaged in community service and returned with complaints of the smell of urine. In the interests of “harmony,” conversations with key personnel in the nursing homes led to a change in the time when students visited the nursing homes, so that they could experience the elderly . This produced a much better response from the students, who were better able to recognise the “courage and constancy” of the staff in the nursing homes. 

“it must develop into an authentically formational school, reducing such risks to a minimum. It must develop persons who are responsible and inner-directed, capable of choosing freely in conformity with their conscience.” (CS, 31)

Pivotal to the implementation of service-learning are four interdependent stages: preparation, action, reflection and demonstration. 

The transformation achieved by each person comes through their efforts to transform the world through the use of what they learn wherever they are schooled. 

“children and young people must be helped, with the aid of the latest advances in psychology and the arts and science of teaching”

In keeping with their emphasis on engaging with the world, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council direct educators to use “the latest advances in psychology and the arts and science of teaching” (GE, 1) in .

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was an ambitious project, and one that has had its critics.  

Moma highlighted the critical role played by faith-based groups at the Summit.

The publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato sì, now his Laudate Deum exhortation, she said, gives faith-based organizations more power to bring a moral consciousness to the climate crisis.

Both documents provide precious moral indications for responsible decisions backed by science, she added, while emphasizing the significance and importance of having voices present at the Summit representing the marginalized and the poor.

"Our voice touches on the policy issue, but it also touches the heart. It brings a moral consciousness to the climate crisis," she explained.

1 Dec 2023

“Gravissimum Educationis” and Catholic Education

No heaven, only sky? 

Catholic education in the twenty-first century has drawn on the deliberations of the bishops who gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Pope St Paul VI promulgated The Declaration on Christian Education on 28 October, 1965. The Latin title of the document is ‘Gravissimum Educationis’, which has been taken from the opening description of education as being “extremely important” in peoples’ lives and in society.

The passage of the document through the Council in 1964 and 1965 was not without argument and debate. The importance of education to the Church and the world was expressed by Bishop Luis Henriquez Jiminez from Caracas, Venezuela. He described Catholic schools as ‘lovely and enclosed gardens cultivated with much love, but whose fruits for the evangelisation of the world seem to diminish with each passing day.’ Other bishops called for a complete revision of the document so that it would give direction to the missionary character of education. Yet others called for a statement that gave support to Catholic teachers working in public schools. The document was re-drafted seven times before it was approved by the vast majority of bishops present at the Council. 

The document was intended to provide a set of principles upon which to base the development of Catholic education. The first principle relates to the universal right to education. The purpose of this right is explained as follows: 

For a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share. (GE, 1)

The Church today uses the word ‘integral’ to describe the type of formation of the human person that is the goal of education. Such formation is intended not just for the individual, but also and necessarily for ‘the good of society,’ that is, for the common good. The universal right and obligation to education is just that: it is for every human person. Moreover, a true education places every person in the role of servant to the common good. It is through this life of service, no matter how long or short, that each person will reach their ultimate end, which is union with God in heaven. 

I recall learning as a child about my ultimate destiny. The small catechism that we were given had the question, ‘Why did God make you?’ And the response was: ‘God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him here on earth and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.’ I had heaven on my mind when I was a child … and I still do today. I think I was trained to think in that way. But is that still the case in Catholic schools today? 

In a research project I conducted in 2021 into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of their school’s mission, I asked the participants to describe  the mission of their school. One participant said that it was to ‘churn out better kids.’ Another said it was to ‘turn out well-rounded people.’ A third participant chose to speak about the school’s mission being ‘teaching our students about faith and how it applies to life.’ A fourth staff member spoke about the mission of her school being for children ‘to grow up and have faith.’ However, one staff member expressed concern about the Christian dimension of her school’s mission ‘becoming less important’ and that some paid ‘lip service’ to it. She also said that ‘there are many days where I don't hear the word “Jesus,” the name “Jesus.”’ 

Even though the participants chose to speak about the importance of their faith to their participation in the mission of their school, they did not make any reference to their ‘ultimate end’ or of those they taught. Their focus was on building strong relationships among and with students so that the students can spend their time together, preparing for a successful life in society beyond the school. If they did live their lives with their eyes on their ultimate destiny, they did not describe their school’s mission in those terms. 

Might it not be reasonable to conclude that the emphasis that the participants placed on faith and the Christian dimension of the curriculum in their school, suggests that their “ultimate end” is taken as a given? I would accept that (and it is my hope that it is so), but the evidence tells me a different story. The participants told many beautiful stories about the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour, stories that were part of their own lives, both prior to coming to work in the school, and during their time as members of the school community. The word “heaven” was not used by any of the participants in their interviews. 

Jesus, being central to Catholic education, spoke about our “ultimate end,” that is, our loving union with God in heaven. Yet the school to which the participants claimed allegiance, does not acknowledge this “end” in its vision and mission statements. The focus of the statements is the centrality of Jesus and of the mission to transform the world through service as well-rounded, responsible citizens who take care of those in need. My one hope is that at some point in their time in their school community, each will say to others (as a Principal once said to me), “Surely, there must be an easier way to get into heaven.”

12 Nov 2023

Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education

Dialogue and Jesus’ Code of Dignity

I had a dream. Whatever happened in my dream, I awoke with the  grim realisation that Ishmael from Daniel Quinn’s novel of the same name, was not a gorilla, but a robot. Moreover, his owner, a Jewish merchant named Walter Sokolow, who communicated with his gorilla, ultimately became Ishmael’s research assistant. It was only a dream and the protagonist in Quinn’s novel was his creation. Yet, I am still left with my questions about the role Catholic education can play in a world increasingly complicated by the use of AI. In a recent post to Cardijn Reflections, Richard Pütz wrote: 

The future of work and skills is from efficiency and optimization to agility, resilience, and creativity. Our ultimate job is to be human on this planet. What will it take to make that understood?

He was intent on alerting his readers to the use of Catholic Social Teaching principles to critique the use of AI and the Autonomous Revolution.  

The agility, resilience and creativity of the worker need to be at the service of human dignity and the common good. And even though there is evidence of a robotic workforce, which uses artificial intelligence to learn how to operate as if it possesses these same characteristics, the awareness of self as a fellow human being is not possible for a machine. And the achievement of the common good is not a matter of checks and balances, so to speak. The common good will be achieved through the judicious exercise of other virtues related to moral and intellectual virtues. So, what can Catholic education bring to this argument and to the future of humanity? 

David Albert Jones and Stephen Barrie in their book on Catholic education, have defined education as 

the integral formation of the human person, through the cultivation of the moral and intellectual virtues, for the good of the person and for the common good of society (p.53).

While agility, resilience and creativity are part of what people require to operate efficiently in society, the formation of the whole person, which is the aim of education, involves much more than these characteristics. As Jones and Barrie state, people are formed through the cultivation or development of moral and intellectual virtues. 

These virtues are developed through “the critical and value-oriented communication of culture”. It is the task of teachers to “initiate the appropriate dialogue between culture and faith”, which are “intimately related”, for the purpose of the integral formation of each student (Lay Catholics in Schools, 29). Richard Pütz wrote recently about the dignity code of Jesus. He used the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15) to convey Jesus’ “understanding of the worthiness of the workers and the human dignity of people.” The dignity of the human person is ensured through the development of moral and intellectual virtues. 

What does this look like in a Catholic school? One teacher said when asked about the mission of his school that “it’s because of the values that we teach them, their Catholic identity, the story of Jesus, their understanding of God in their lives and how we view human beings” that the school is valued as a place of dialogue between culture and faith. Teachers will agree that part of the culture of a school encompasses those times of disagreement and conflict between teachers and students. One teacher, reflecting on this aspect of school life, made the following comment: 

In the big scheme of things, these messages, reflections, experiences that keep coming to me are all part of a plan too, I guess, to mellow me out, to broaden my understanding. That's the mission of the school: it’s not just about the students. It’s about the whole community ….

The experience of being mellowed and of broadening one’s understanding of what it means to belong in a school is part of that dialogue between culture and faith. The mellowing and broadening is common to all who are involved in Catholic education and who engage in dialogue. And that dialogue, for it to be effective, must begin from the premise that each person is a child of God and this is the source of each person’s dignity. 

The purpose of the dialogue that takes place in a Catholic school is encapsulated in the school’s mission statement. Another teacher, when asked about the school’s mission replied: 

our mission is to get a child at the start of Year Seven and to put out a better person at the end of Year Twelve, academic and spiritual and sporting and any other aspect.

The teacher reflected at length on the primacy of relationship in education: a relationship built on mutual respect will promote the dialogue that is required for a school to complete its mission. He explained his role as a vocation, a life-calling to create a safe and happy place for students so that “they can challenge themselves, that they can grow in my class.”

In a Catholic school, everyone is encouraged to live by Jesus’ code of dignity. In reality, this is not achieved without suffering, as those who were interviewed in my research revealed. And any sense of satisfaction experienced by staff in the school was often retrospective. One staff member spoke of the sacredness of the time spent with graduating students in the moments before their graduation ceremony. Others spoke of encounters with students post-school and of the gratitude expressed by ex-students for the commitment of the staff to their well-being. 

To conclude, let us return to Richard Pütz’s statement: “Our ultimate job is to be human on this planet. What will it take to make that understood?” The web of relationships that characterise the Catholic school is based on the belief that all are created in God’s image and therefore have dignity. The dialogue that is created in this environment will lead to the cultivation and development of moral and intellectual virtues that promote the integral formation of each person in the school community and the common good of all. This is the essence of the dignity code of Jesus and the mission of the Catholic school.  

Author: Pat Branson

Some reading:

Jones, D.A., Barrie, S. (2015). Thinking Christian Ethos: The Meaning of Catholic Education. London: Incorporated Catholic Truth Society. 

Richard Pütz: Is Catholic Social Teachings (CST) the correct answer if everyone in our politics is different? A look at CST and the Dominant Economic Paradigm. Cardijn Reflections, 7 October, 2023.

Richard Pütz: The Dignity Code of Jesus. Cardijn Reflections, 29 October, 


Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books.

Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (1982). Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith 

23 Oct 2023

Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education

Teaching and learning: bidirectional streams of attention

Art imitates life. Science fiction writers often point their readers and society in the direction of scientific breakthroughs and developments. Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) wrote The Fun They Had, a short story, which was published in 1951. Set in 2155, the protagonist, a girl named Margie, who is 11 years old, longs for school experiences recounted by her grandfather of a time when ‘all stories were printed on paper’ and learning was a social experience.  At school, Margie’s focus was on the screen that was part of her robot teacher, but her heart was elsewhere: “Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.” 

Margie was drawn to the interaction that was conveyed through the book she read. Human interaction in the classroom was what she lacked. Stanislas Dehaene, one of Europe’s leading neuroscientists, made the observation: “Any healthy pedagogical relationship must be based on bidirectional streams of attention, listening, respect, and mutual trust” (2020, p.173). Margie’s teacher was a robot and her experience of being in class could not be described as “bidirectional streams of attention.” The robot did not interact with her. Instead, as Asimov writes, “Her mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse ….” 

The irony of this writing action, that is, this text you are reading, is not lost on the writer, who sits with his eyes glued to a screen as he types the words that you read at another time and in another place. His computer is his robot, which, for the most part, does his bidding. Learning is reflexive, that is, the writer and the writing are both outcomes of the process of learning; the writer’s identity is revealed to the writer and others through the text that the writer constructs; and this writer gains insights into what it means to learn as he crafts the text to share ideas and insights with like-minded people. That intention to share is human and it lies at the heart of the search for truth and is an indispensable part of dialogue. 

One of the participants in my research into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of the mission of their school, recalled an incident in one of his classes. A student was studying drones and became excited about the development of aircraft between World War 1 and World War 2 and shared his discovery with his teacher. The participant commented: 

Anyway, this kid was passionate and then ... If you’re not interested, if there’s no excitement for you, how’s that gonna be passed on to kids, …? If you’re not excited about your lessons, then why should they be?

Dehaene reflects on the importance of social signals in the pedagogical relationship between student and teacher and identifies “social attention sharing” as being essential to learning. This is relevant to Catholic education as it is in every other form of education that values dialogue. 

Fr Seán McDonagh, a Columban missionary priest, views education from a Catholic perspective. In chapter four of his book Robots, ethics and the future of jobs (2021), he rejects the use of robots as the solution to the problem of teacher shortage. Robots might have a place in training people and in skill development, but they cannot empower students “to build a just, caring and sustainable society where everyone is welcomed.” Dehaene’s “bidirectional streams of attention” carry values that are conveyed through dialogue. 

Another participant shared a good news story about a student who struggled with the regimen of school life, but who was treated fairly and in a caring way by the participant. When a family emergency occurred, the student asked the participant about it and was given a simple, but truthful explanation. A few weeks later, the student asked after the participant’s family member. The participant shared the following observation: 

… this kid can't do anything but, oh my goodness, even our kids that we struggle with they really care. He’d been thinking about this. He’s been worried and he’s been thinking and he really cares. That's what blows me away about this school and that's what I love.

The relationship between teacher and student in this instance is generalised: there are students who struggle and their teachers struggle with them. What the teachers identity is what Dehaene argues as being central to learning: social sharing characterised by “attention, listening, respect, and mutual trust.” 

Author: Pat Branson

Worth reading: 

Asimov, Isaac (1951). The fun they had.

Dehaene, S. (2020). How we learn: the new science of education and the brain. London: Penguin Books.

McDonagh, S. (2021). Robots, ethics and the future of jobs. Dublin: Messenger Publications.

16 Oct 2023

Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education

Humility is essential 

Being so caught up in the detail of my research into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of their school’s mission, I failed to see the many signs of the humility of each participant. It was only as I reflected on their stories about their school that I came to appreciate the power of humility to create a good school. 

Humility is integral to Catholic education. The task of proposing a worldview, which has Christ at the centre will fail if those who take responsibility for the integral formation of the young are arrogant people. Without humility, dialogue is impossible and the education of the whole person fails. 

Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator and theorist of critical pedagogy, sees humility as an essential ingredient of dialogue in education. He states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) that “... dialogue cannot exist without humility. The naming of the world, through which people constantly re-create the world, cannot be an act of arrogance.” 

Freire places humility (a virtue to be possessed by all involved in education) in opposition to arrogance (the state of mind of the oppressor, the one who claims control of knowledge and truth). He argues that humility (in partnership with love and faith) makes possible the “horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between dialoguers is the logical consequence.” It is only in mutual trust that dialogue can lead to truth. 

Humility is that habit of mind, which is grounded in the recognition and acceptance that each person is created in God’s image and has dignity. Humble people are down-to-earth in their orientation to life. Their focus is relational in character and intent. They are motivated by familial love. For instance, the participants in the research project spoke about the importance of creating a learning environment that is familial in character. One participant said: “… if you look at that servant leadership that Jesus lived and you look at the example he made of his two commandments, especially the second of them, we embed that into our culture as a school.”

Another participant described the school as “a strong community” that is “a very large family.” All the participants, in one way or another, spoke about placing themselves at the service of the students. One participant focused on the students in the school who experience learning difficulties and praised the staff of the Learning Support Centre, who provide such amazing support to these students, teaching them the educational basics as well as life skills, and you can really see that they are going to be okay when they leave school.

While it might be argued that the examples given above are really about compassion, nevertheless, compassion cannot exist where there is arrogance. Humble people respond compassionately to the needs of others, whether they believe in God or not. Hopefully, those who have been blessed with the divine gifts of faith, hope and charity, will recognise in the signs of humility in the life of a school, the presence of the One who loves unconditionally and whose Spirit guides all of creation on the path to union with God. 

If I was to be blessed with the opportunity to converse with Paulo Freire, I would offer a Christian view of his explanation of the place of humility in education: that it is the Holy Spirit who stirs in people the desire to join others in learning how to be God’s co-creators; and this community of learners, with Christ in its midst, helps to free itself and others from the oppression of those who usurp God’s power for personal gain. 

9 Oct 2023

Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education 

Christ at the centre 

As part of my research into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of their school’s mission, I conducted interviews with seven teaching and administration staff members in a Catholic secondary school in the Archdiocese of Perth, Western Australia. When asked about the school’s mission, one participant explained, 

I was led to believe that Christ is at the centre of every Catholic school and this is what differentiates us from non-Catholic schools, that Christ is present here and is present in everything we do. 

I wonder what this means. Is Christ not present in all schools? I am certain that Christ being present is a meaningless statement for many, but for me? What does it mean for me to say that Christ is present here in this school, the school where I conducted the interview? 

What does the word ‘presence’ mean? I recall an experience in the distant past, with the roll being taken by a teacher, who called out the names of the students. Sometimes a student would answer, ‘Present.’ Other students would answer, ‘Here.’ Occasionally, there would be the response, ‘Absent.’ Someone was trying to be helpful; the person whose name was announced was not present. So the opposite of ‘presence’ is ‘absence.’ The word ‘presence’ has a certain physicality attached to it. But how can someone who died almost two thousand years ago be present today? 

The Church teaches that Jesus is present, not only in the Eucharist, but also  in the priest, in the Word that is proclaimed, and in the people gathered in prayer and worship. These four manifestations of the presence of Christ point to the spiritual nature of his presence, which is no less real than his physical presence almost two thousand years ago. Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical about the light of faith: 

Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets (Lumen Fidei, 2013, #1). 

The risen Christ accompanies each and every believer. Catholic schools display signs of his presence, however, not all people associated with Catholic schools interpret those signs as reminders that Jesus is present in the school community. For instance, the participant spoke of the college crest as an indicator of the values promoted by the school, ‘the values that they wear on their chest every day, the crucifix and the crest that’s there every day.’ The participant did not refer to the relationship with Jesus that every Christian has through Baptism. In fact, the word ‘Jesus’ was not used in the interview, the participant preferring, instead, to speak about ‘Christ’ in the context of the values of the school. 

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described how the perception of self has changed over time from 1500 to 2000. Over that period of 500 years, people have moved from not choosing to imagine the world without God to choosing to live without awareness of the presence of God. The ‘enchantment’ that characterised the perception of life in the 1500s has been replaced by ‘disenchantment.’ In that period of time, we have come through the Agrarian Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and are now entering the Automation Revolution via the rapid expansion of artificial intelligence (AI). The certainties of the past have been supplanted by the uncertainties of the present. We now live in an ambivalent world in which the symbolic value of religious images and artifacts has been challenged and discarded by many. 

And so we find ourselves on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35), confused and questioning the significance of our lives. I continue to ponder the meaning of the statement of the participant, which signals the hope that the values promoted by the school are the values that lead people along the road to Emmaus, where those who want to believe, who want to be enchanted will realise that they have been accompanied by Jesus.

Recommended reading: 

Pope Francis (2013). Lumen Fidei

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age

Richard Patrick Branson