My dear Catholic educators, brothers and sisters in Christ, Br Rogers, Fr Danker, Mr Koh, thank you for inviting me this morning to address you all at this conference on Catholic education.
Recently I met someone who is high in the government service and we had a long chat. He was from a Christian school before, and so we were talking about common values – how we can truly help Singapore to progress, how we can ensure that we have good leaders for the country in the future, and how to make decisions that are truly good for the country. He himself is not a Christian, not a Catholic, but he attended a Christian school and so he agrees with the kind of values that we should promote for the good of the country.
And so I asked him this question: “So as a non-believer, how do you decide what is good?” Because he told me that whatever decisions he makes is always for the common good, for the ultimate good, for the overall good. And so I asked him, “Then what is good?” And he said to me “I never thought about it. I just do what I think is the right thing to do for the country.” And I said to him “Isn’t it true even though you do not consciously use moral principles, in making your decisions, policies for the country, you are somehow influenced by the Christian education you received all these years in a Christian school.”
Whether we like it or not, the truth is, there is no real separation between a so-called secular man in the world, and a practising Christian in a secular country. Because whatever decisions we make, they are underpinned by a philosophy of life. The kind of upbringing you have will determine your approach to life, to humanity and to problems. So all of us, whether we are believers or non-believers, certainly have some moral foundations, consciously or unconsciously. Or else, how do we make decisions? Even though you might not be a believer – there are many people who are not believers – but you are certainly making what you consider good, or even moral positions. The reason why I began this address by saying this is that when we talk about Catholic education, it is important to understand what Catholic education is all about.
I think the danger for us in Singapore, especially for Catholic schools, is to think that we can compartmentalise Catholic education in terms of the physical ambience, or having some religious classes, or having some retreats, and we call it Catholic education. This is not the case. When we talk about Catholic education, what do we really mean? Because that is the theme of this conference – to live out that Catholic spirit. So what does that mean?
When a parent sends his son to a Catholic school, what do you think he is expecting? He could have sent his son to other schools, not necessarily a Catholic school. If he is afraid that the Catholic school would be fostering values that would not be helpful for his son, do you think he would send him to a Catholic school? What do you think a student would be expecting when he goes to a Catholic school? He would want to see that the school is Catholic. So how is the school Catholic? That is my question, this morning. How do you define a Catholic school?
A Catholic school is called Catholic because it has a religious dimension. So what makes a Catholic school different from a secular school is precisely the religious dimension, which is lacking in non-mission, non-Christian schools. This religious dimension, therefore, must permeate every aspect of life in the school. That is what I mean. This religious dimension therefore, must affect not just the way we build the community, the way we form our students, the kind of lessons that we give to them, the kind of values that we impart. So in everything we do, we must be Catholic. That, for me, is what a Catholic education is all about.
It does not mean that we have to be explicitly Catholic all the time. I am not saying that. But implicitly, the Catholic education system in a Catholic school is propelled, inspired by the Gospel in the way we think, in the way we view education, in the way we view the human person. Therefore, when we talk about restoring the spirit of Catholic education, the first thing we need to look at would be the climate of the school. What kind of climate do we provide to those who come to a Catholic school? In other words, the moment I enter a Catholic school, do I know it is Catholic? Do I know it is different from other non-Catholic schools? When you enter a Catholic institution, or you enter a Catholic hospital, can you tell it is different from government hospitals? When you enter a Catholic nursing home, can you immediately say “This home has a character that is different?”
And so, the climate first refers to the physical climate. The physical climate will therefore refer to how we project our faith – icons, statues, scripture verses, montages, and posters – the kind of ambience we create. I think this is important. The moment you enter the place, you know this is a Catholic school.
And that’s the reason why we encourage schools to display religious symbols – a grotto, ideally even a chapel, would be great; they are really beautiful, they inspire – so that people would be reminded that this is also where the presence of God and the sacred is felt. But these are on the physical dimension of a Catholic school. It is not yet Catholic. If you have religious Brothers and Sisters in the school – those days, the brothers and sisters were the icons – you know it is a Catholic school. But now of course, they are a dying breed. That is the situation. When I was in Montfort School, we had the religious Brothers. And the Brothers were supportive and we saw them in their cassocks. They were always seen around, showing us the way to be good students. That was the religious dimension of the school. Unfortunately, we don’t have many of these icons today.
Beyond the physical climate, we also have to speak about what I call, the community. The community is very important, because the school cannot be merely an institution. In fact, the school can be considered an ecclesial community. We are here to set up a community of disciples, of people who are God-fearing; people who can live the fullness of the Gospel life. And so, a Catholic community would therefore involve everyone. Today we know education is not just the work of teachers alone. Principals, teachers, parents, alumni, students – all these people, including the students themselves, play a part in forming the Catholic community. And it must be a community where every child is loved, is given attention, where every child is considered important, so that any student who comes to a Catholic school will never feel that they are left out, and that they are loved. In fact, one of the reasons why very often students can’t study is because many of them come from dysfunctional families. Many of them have no real friends, no real love at home. That is why the foundation for study is often lacking. This is where as a Catholic school, where we talk about compassion, we talk about love, inclusivity, tolerance, acceptance, encouragement, forgiveness – all these Gospel values must somehow be lived out in a Catholic community.
And so, everyone has a part to play. This is why I think it is important that the school must become a family. This Family must include the teachers as well. Do they feel that they are part of this family? And the students as well. If we are family, then we will support each other, and we help each other. Because, as I have said, the work of formation of students cannot be just the work of teachers alone. It involves all those who are concerned about the education of the young. But the climate we are called to create is not just the community. It is also a religious climate, which means to say, it is grounded in faith, in the values of the gospel. So we are talking about providing a Catholic ambience in Catholic education.
The other dimension that we need to look at is this: it is not just the climate alone. It is a question of the development of the human person. And this is where I think the problem lies. A Catholic education cannot be fragmented, so clearly divided between secular Sciences and a religious motivation. Let me explain. When you are a Catholic, you are a Catholic day and night, 24 hours. If you are a Chinese, you are a Chinese 24 hours a day. You don’t say, when I go to work, I am not a Chinese. I am a Singaporean. Whether you are a Chinese Singaporean, Indian Singaporean, Catholic Singaporean, Buddhist Singaporean, your faith will form your values. Your faith will determine how you act, what you do. Your faith will determine how you will conduct your life,n how you enjoy this creation. There can be no separation.
So when I talk about Catholic education in terms of fostering the development of young persons, it has a Catholic dimension again. Which means to say, the way we form our young people is very much dependent on how much we understand the gospel, on the way we understand the human person for that matter. If you are not a believer, then the human person is simply made of matter. Period. You just work, eat, enjoy a bit, you die … and it is finished. Everything is over at death. If you are a believer, you believe that the human person is not like other animals. We have an intellect, we have a will, we have a soul. We have a life beyond death. That is our vision. And everyone is called to participate in the plan of God. Every human person is not just a creature, but rather a child, a son or daughter of God. And that he or she has a role in the plan of salvation. And that we want to help every human person, young person, to flourish, to become the person that God has meant for him or her; to be, to great leader, someone who can contribute, make a difference in society, in the world, in the church.
So when we talk about this integral human development of the human person, it presupposes your views about life; your views about the human person. If you don’t have a Catholic understanding, then of course, your direction, your motive, the way you form the child, would be quite different. The way you see life would be very different. And so when we talk about developing this young person, it presupposes all these values and the vision that you have. In other words, the Catholic vision, the Gospel vision, will colour the way you look at life, look at people, look at studies, look at money, look at progress, look at politics. Your vision will colour everything that you see.
So when we talk about Catholic education we must not fall into compartmentalisation. In other words, we cannot separate Catholic education from the way we live our lives, how we teach, what we learn and how we look at the world. Catholic education cannot be restricted to merely “Catholic or religious activities.” Some people think Catholic education is limited to prayers, for example. When we are praying, we are called Catholics. But when we go to school and we begin our lessons, this has nothing to do with the Catholic faith. It cannot be. Catholic education permeates every aspect of life. Because if you are a historian, if you are a Literature teacher, the way you interpret History, the way you interpret Literature to your students, will also be somehow influenced by your faith horizon. You cannot be teaching History without some kind of presupposition. That’s why all History is “interpreted” History. The person who teaches History has an interpretation in his mind. But what sort of interpretation is also determined by your experience. Take for example, the tragic terrorist act in New Zealand. How you are going to look at that terrorist activity is going to very much depend on the way you look at life, the way you look at faith.
So this is where I think the real challenge is. When you talk about integral development from the perspective of faith, we are also referring to another dimension. It is the social, ethical implications of Catholic education as well. Because when we talk about Catholic education, it is more than just forming the person in the secular Sciences. Education is to form a young person, so that the person can be a true leader in society. He can benefit society, and in the process, benefit himself. The ethical and moral consideration is part of this Catholic education. What I am trying to say is, all these values are communicated in a very subtle manner. It is not about quoting the bible now and then, but it is about the school’s philosophy, and that of the educators.
You know, if you want to work for any organisation today, what is the first thing they ask you to do? You have to attend an orientation course. So, too, for the Principal. When your teachers come in, you need to explain what is the philosophy of the school, your vision. They have to imbibe the mission and values of your school. If they don’t imbibe, how can you be a collaborator? You cannot! You will be teaching your own philosophy. You will be teaching your own agenda. Unless we are all convinced that this Catholic vision is really for the good of every human person, then we cannot truly build up, so to speak, a true Catholic education. So it presupposes therefore, that educators themselves are conscious of what they are teaching. And the values and the philosophy that they have – is it a Catholic philosophy? Is it a gospel-oriented philosophy?
When we talk about Catholic education, it is very important that we need to make the link between faith and life. Many young people today, and again that’s the whole problem, they are not interested in the faith. Because they think the faith has nothing to do with their life. And this, again, is where our challenge lies. How do we transmit Catholic doctrine, Gospel values in a way that helps our young persons to connect it with their lives, with their struggles, with their aspirations, with their needs?
And so, a good Catholic education, will always have these in mind, trying to form a person into one who is going to be a Christian leader, a leader for others. It is important that we need to consider how this person is connecting faith with life, and this would include the social dimension. And this is what many Catholic schools do – send your children for mission trips, expose your children to life situations, to the poor. Because ultimately, a student who goes through a Catholic education must be someone who is committed to the poor, to the marginalised, to society.
And that’s the reason why wherever I go, I always encourage our young people to join the civil service. The civil service is very important because civil servants are the ones who are going to formulate the policies of the country. If we don’t have enough people in the government service, in the civil service, the country will suffer. And what is important, as I have always said, and I always tell even the government publicly, I am not just concerned with the Church. I am concerned with the next generation of leaders for our country. If the next generation of leaders don’t have the right values, if they are not selfless, if they don’t put the people before themselves, if they are just individualistic, if they just want to do things that are popular but not for the common good, the country will go down the drain. We don’t have natural resources. We only have human resources. And my fear is, unless we produce credible leaders with integrity, who are altruistic and really selfless, the country cannot progress. And so this is where faith and life become important. To help our people to see where and how they can be involved in the lives of other people.
And finally, a Catholic education – I was told Br Rogers spoke about it – concerns the importance of connecting faith with culture. Again, what is culture? Culture is the way we are going to bring a person up, according to a certain vision and values. That’s why we call it culture – it can be cultivated. Faith and culture must be linked. Many of our young people cannot connect faith with culture. Can they connect faith with modern Sciences?
How do we see Science and Technology in the context of faith? Is faith against Science? That is what young people think. It is not the case. And so, it is important that we make this connection for them, to see how faith actually empowers the Sciences and how faith can really build a culture that promotes harmony, peace and mutual respect.
And this culture also includes a vision of mutual respect for other religions. Learning to appreciate the religions of others, teaching them all these values are important, to appreciate people of other cultures, not just religious cultures. All these things are important so that these young people can become more holistic in the way they live their lives.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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