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Catholic school leaders share their hopes and frustration at Townsville conference

Major challenges: Delegates listen at the Catholic Secondary Principals Association of Queensland conference in Townsville. Photos: Mark Bowling

A QUEENSLAND bishop removed from office in 2011 by Pope Benedict has said Catholic school principals were emerging as the voice and the heartbeat of the Church in local communities and needed to be listened to.

Bishop Bill Morris, the former Bishop of Toowoomba, has called for greater dialogue within the Church as a way of moving forward and past painful recent events, including the clerical sexual abuse scandal.

“I think principals should be involved in policymaking of the Church, direction making of the Church, because you are the ground on which the children, the young people of our community speak, and somehow those voices, their voices have to be heard,” Bishop Morris told members of the Catholic Secondary Principals Association of Queensland during a conference in Townsville.

“Our leaders in schools are the ones that students are looking to for their religion and formation.”

Bishop Morris, dumped from office in 2011, told principals “humanity is bigger than our identity” during a speech aimed at boosting teacher morale and addressing the conference theme of the “Ebb and Flow of leadership – Navigating the Channels of Change”.

“(Pope) Francis continually calls for dialogue and openness of heart that leads to mercy and brings our hearts closer to the journey of others and wants to break the monologue of an imperial, patriarchal and dualistic church by creating a synodal, dialogical church defining itself as the people of God,” he said.

“I think that is one of the poverties of our society today, we do not have dialogue, we have monologue.”

Bishop Morris’ speech stimulated lively discussion when he joined a panel of principals discussing the challenges of Church leadership.

“Gone are the days when we can be dictated to by men in dresses performing magic, which is how people outside the Catholic Church look at our clergy,” principal at Brisbane’s Mount Alvernia College, Kedron since 2008, Dr Kerrie Tuite, said.

“I am the mother of four grown-up children of whom none will venture near the Church, two are avowed atheists – their perception of the Catholic Church is very much like the perception of the world, and I don’t think we realise that.

“I think we are still very blinkered by our traditions … and our wish to believe in the good in our clergy.

“A very good friend of mine said to me the other day, ‘Kerrie, I think we’ve been hoodwinked by the Church’. 

“The things that you and I grew up to believe in, particularly from our clergy … complicit in the sexual abuse scandal… and I find it very difficult to say I am a Catholic (and I will be ‘till the day I die),  but the tribe I belong to is gone.”

Bishop Bill Morris: “I think that is one of the poverties of our society today, we do not have dialogue, we have monologue.”

Shalom College, Bundaberg principal Dan McMahon said Catholic schools should continue to focus on “social justice”.

He cited the good work of former Gregory Terrace graduates who started the charity Orange Sky Laundry – a free mobile service that offers laundry, showers and conversation, and is particularly aimed at helping the homeless.

“What they got at school was a sense of justice,” he said. 

 “Our biggest challenge as educators is to find opportunities, because (students) they rush to it, if you give it to them.”

“It’s not the time to circle the wagons. We’ve got a great Gospel to preach.

“Let’s do it. But we’ve got to do it differently, the structures have got to be different.”

Dr Tuite agreed a sense of social justice needed to be built in schools.

“One of the things that frightens me about some Catholic schools is how exclusive we can become,” she said.

“I think our formation programs are really great, our retreats … I think our kids are a lot deeper than we give them credit for.”

During a conference Mass held at Townsville’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, Townsville’s Bishop Tim Harris, reinforced the responsibilities and challenges faced by Catholic principals.

“Like you, I am involved in all things Catholic. Catholic schools are not independent organisations and so we have to navigate together in the spirit of collaboration,” Bishop Harris said during his homily.

“You know what? It isn’t easy.

“As bishop for example I find myself responding to the sexual abuse crisis, questions about … governments who want to force priests to break the seal of confession, governments who believe voluntary assisted suicide should become law, a loss of moral authority, an increasing number of students dealing with gender dysphoria, same-sex marriage legislation, increasing numbers of non-Catholics attending our schools, more and more Catholics not practicing the faith, increase governance and demands, child safety protocols, tensions between the universal church and the local church, anti-Pope Francis sentiments, and regularly some anti-Catholic sentiments.

“And yet as teachers and leaders our mantra must be to quote your president of the Catholic Secondary principals Association of Queensland ‘to remain a moral compass that equips students to live a fulfilling life of hope positively contributing to society embracing our values of justice, solidarity and Gospel spirituality’.

“A true disciple engages with the world and does not shut himself out from the world. Now is not the time to put our heads in the sand and believe we can teach the same way we did 40 or 50 years ago.

“Yes we have to remain true to our belief system and teachings, but that system and the teachings that come from it must speak to today and lead us to adapt to that changing environment.

“Truth is people don’t like change. 

“They think things can just roll along.

“Those who remain in our pews on a Sunday many of those don’t like change either. 

“Some of the cardinals, bishops and priests don’t like change. 

“Hence many are swimming backwards, not forwards.” 

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