THE Australian Catholic Bishops’ have issued a pastoral letter urging Church schools to increase the numbers of Catholic students and be “truly Catholic in their identity and life”.
As Australian Catholic educators mark the 200th anniversary of the nation’s Catholic schooling, the letter titled “200 years young”, says the school system must “re-examine” how to maximise enrolment of Catholic students and staff.
“Catholic schools continue to grow but not necessarily in enrolments of Catholic children,” Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said in the pastoral letter.
His challenge to Catholic educators is “that as far as possible, we retain a ‘critical mass’ of Catholic students and staff in our schools, even as we welcome those from other religious backgrounds”.
Archbishop Fisher, who is chair of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education, pointed out that “our Catholic students now often have little connection with the Church outside of school”.
“Secularisation continues apace in our culture and there was considerable disillusionment with Church institutions resulting from the sexual abuse crisis,” he said.
“Thus, while our schools continue to embrace their traditional responsibility for religious and other education, they now have a different mix of students and less support for their specifically religious mission from outside the school than they had in the past.”
In the pastoral letter Archbishop Fisher acknowledges the proud history and breadth of Catholic schools, but does not shy away from current difficulties.
Across Australia today, there are 1,751 Catholic schools educating 768,000 students and employing 98,000 staff.
Nearly 40 per cent of Catholic schools are located outside of metropolitan cities in regional, rural and remote communities.
“We are fortunate to have Catholic schools in most towns and suburbs, and university campuses in most capital cities, serving students from diverse backgrounds and beliefs,” Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said.
“Alongside families and parishes, Catholic schools are the Church’s principal meeting point with young people, and are integral to the Church’s mission of transmitting the faith to the next generation and forming young people as future contributors to Australian society.
“… in some parts of the country many better-off Catholic students have been lost to other-than-Catholic independent schools,” he said.
“Government schools and other Christian schools have become rivals for our students in the education ecosystem.”
Archbishop Fisher detailed other challenges for school leaders and teachers including “the burdens of reporting and other bureaucratic accountability, particular difficulties experienced by rural and remote schools, over-crowding or shortage of schools in the new (or renewing) suburbs, the impact of new technologies, and dissatisfaction with education results in Australia compared to other countries”.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented many difficulties for staff and students, even as they showed great resilience, flexibility and generosity in responding,” the pastoral letter said.
Australian Catholic educators launched celebrations today marking 200 years of Catholic schooling in this country and recognising the enormous contribution that Catholic schools have made.
The bicentenary commemorates the anniversary of the first official Catholic school in Australia, founded in October 1820 by Irish Catholic priest Fr John Therry.
The school, which Catholic historians believe was located on Hunter Street in Parramatta, taught 31 students. An Irish Catholic convict George Marley (also identified as George Morley), who was sent to the colony, opened the school for Fr Therry and ran it for three years.
This school was transferred to the site of the present St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1837 and was entrusted to the care of the Marist Brothers in 1875.
“Over 200 years Catholic schools have educated millions of Australian students,” National Catholic education Executive Director Jacinta Collins said.
“Our graduates have made, and continue to make, a significant contribution in business, civic and public life, sport, performing and creative arts, community services, and all facets of society.”