By Brother James Hayes (Chaplain & Teacher), St. Francis Xavier’s College, Liverpool
Despite, or perhaps even because of the current environment in which teachers are having to work, the presence of religious orders in the education system in England seems to be potentially more important now than when I first joined our congregation 28 years ago.
The Catholic hierarchy in this country has overseen a return to a more formal, catechetical approach to R.E., especially in the public exam syllabuses for G.C.S.E. and A-Level, and rightly so, in my opinion. Long gone are the wishy-washy platitudes of the "Weaving The Web" Key Stage 3 syllabus and its like that were all the rage in the 1990s. However, a new G.C.S.E. syllabus that involves delivering content relating to the topics of Creation, Incarnation, Trinity, Redemption, Kingdom of God and Eschatology to pupils of all ability (we still teach R.E. as a compulsory G.C.S.E. subject in most Catholic schools), as well as a detailed study of beliefs and practices in Judaism, could be daunting to some R.E. teachers who might not be specialists in the subject and who are helping out due to budget-related timetabling restrictions.
Religious order members - whether or not they work in the school full-time - can provide invaluable support and encouragement to their lay colleagues through teaching R.E. themselves, through Chaplaincy work or simply in a supporting, advisory role. This is not to say that today's lay R.E. teachers and Chaplains aren't doing a good job. Quite the opposite in fact, and we can learn a great deal from them. But through our training as religious and the mission opportunities that we have been blessed with, we have a range of life experiences to draw upon that are different from - but complementary to - those of lay people.
Religious can help a school to maintain a Gospel-fuelled focus on responding to the needs of the most vulnerable members of the school community, those “on the peripheries” as Pope Francis puts it, in a compassionate and caring way. This is in the context of a constant striving for improved public exam performance, for sufficient "rates of progress" and high "value added" scores that I believe has perverted the vision of what education is actually about: encouraging the holistic development and growth of each individual (intellectual, spiritual, emotional, artistic, physical...), creating an environment wherein each individual is respected and valued and has the opportunity to develop their gifts and talents for their own self-fulfilment and the fulfilment of others.
A term that comes up frequently in educational discussions nowadays is that of "pupil resilience" and the lack of it. There does seem to be a growing number of pupils coming into our secondary school in Liverpool with complex sets of educational, psychological and emotional needs. Older religious who maybe think that they have nothing more to offer the younger generations today can, on the contrary, provide invaluable support to these youngsters who may look upon them the way they might look upon a kindly grand-parent.
Some might read this and think, "Oh, he's only after vocations." This would be unfair. My own community is already fully involved in the school in whose grounds we live and as a congregation we still consider education and working with young people to be our apostolic priority. What concerns me more is how so many other congregations who used to be heavily involved in schools - and who, in many cases are more numerous as religious than we are - have withdrawn from that field of work, mainly due to dwindling numbers and the age profile of those who are left. Congregations have beaten a retreat at a time when Catholic education is more vulnerable than it has been in a very long time.
I'm not expecting hoards of retired religious to suddenly start applying for teaching posts, nor am I suggesting that they should. What I am suggesting is that they seek to develop a kind of involvement in schools in their local area (both primary and secondary) that is appropriate to their situation in life. This may be one of accompaniment rather than authority. Religious should realise that their simple presence in a school corridor, on a playground, in one to one support of those with specific needs, in a staffroom, etc., gives opportunities for encounter, for dialogue and for them to joyfully bear witness to their faith and their vocation as religious.
To teachers and Head Teachers in Catholic schools: invite members of religious orders into your schools. Let them share their vast life experiences with your pupils and colleagues. We are very fortunate in the north-west to be in a region that is still heavily populated by religious orders, both female and male. I know that in other regions, for example, much of the east coast, religious are much more scattered. But look them up in your diocesan directory. You might be surprised how many of us there are in your area.
To religious: you still have so much to offer the young people of today! Reach out to them, but be true to yourselves. Go to them as you are. Don't think that you have to be up to speed with the latest online games or trends in social media. A little bit of preparation may help, but it's not crucial. The most important things are your smiles, your love, your compassion, your time... Be Christ for them. Help to make him "better known and better loved" by young people, as our founder Jean-Marie De La Mennais put it.
They are waiting for you.