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Jesuit speaks home truths to school leaders


Catholic schools are modern missionary territories. That was the message from Jesuit author, priest, film critic and former teacher Fr Richard Leonard SJ when he addressed 260 South Australian Catholic school leaders at the Adelaide Convention Centre recently.

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In a sometimes confronting address which included latest statistics on religious practice and a snapshot of Catholic education in Australia, Fr Leonard outlined some of the challenges and opportunities for principals and APRIMs.

Fr Leonard worked for 25 years in the formation of teachers, including in South Australia, which he described as “a great joy for me”.

“I’ve been on both sides of the fence of Catholic education and priesthood and parish life,” he added.

Currently parish priest of the combined parishes of North Sydney, Lavendar Bay and Kirribilli, the entertaining Fr Leonard said he was also the parish priest of Luna Park.

He has 9326 students in four Catholic colleges in his parish.

“Schools are not a business, they are a series of relationships, relationship with God, the church community and stakeholders,” he said.

“So how do we animate our vision for a faith-filled community that’s neither pious nor fundamentalist.

“Unashamedly we are following Jesus, it’s Jesus’ way, truth and light and we’re on the same mission, sometimes the parish and the school can feel increasingly like we’re on two missions; it’s the one mission with two expressions.

“I want to own right up front there are some priests, because I’ve heard them, who want to close Catholic education down, there are at least been a couple of bishops, the way they’ve spoken at Catholic education conferences that I’ve been at, the way they spoken to principals, the way they have berated them, they’ve chastised them, that people aren’t going to Mass any more…that we’ve diluted the faith, it’s just terrible.”

Fr Leonard said nobody baptised or celebrated weddings and funerals better than Catholics “when we get it right”.

“They are our greatest evangelical moments, people who go to a cathedral for a big funeral are probably not believers, but they’re on our turf and we need to welcome them, take that group very seriously because they have an impact on who we are,” he said.

“But the first thing we tell people is that can’t go to communion.

Similarly, Catholic schools should be embraced.

“Demand for Catholic education is ever increasing, our schools are going up (in enrolments) but participation in local parishes is going down, dramatically so,” he said.

“The practice rates are plummeting – I think only 9.1 per cent of all Catholics go to Mass on Sunday. That makes schools mission territories, modern mission territories.

“I know some clergy who will not go to schools because they (families) are not coming to Mass on Sunday; they just won’t go. I can’t get over the lack of missionary intelligence here. Even if you are resentful and angry about it well why not redouble your efforts to try and build relationships, try and find out how we can help you, support you and then make it attractive to come.”

Fr Leonard encouraged school leaders to be welcoming and create hospitable liturgical communities which include people and which feature good music and good preaching.

Quoting Rev Martyn Atkins, Fr Leonard said Christians were not meant to be salespeople but “free giveaways or samples of it”.

For many children, schools would be the only Christian communities they ever belonged to. “I want them to find people who are passionate about the best of our proclamations,” he said.

“Our core business is applying the teaching of Jesus to all aspects of our schools: ‘Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself; on this hangs all the law and prophets’.”


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