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CATHOLIC EDUCATION CONFERENCE – 16 Mar 2015


SCRIPTURE READINGS: ISA 65:17-21; JN 4:43-54


“Thus says the Lord: Now I create a new heaven and a new earth, and the past will not be remembered, and will come no more to men’s minds.” Indeed, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. The world is going through a difficult and contentious period in history. Traditional values are changing and eternal and universal values are being questioned.  Institutions that are immemorial, such as family and marriage, are changing. So is culture.  Society is changing rapidly. Foundational values are lost, especially in the face of relativism.

How could a new heaven and new earth come about? “Be glad and rejoice for ever and ever for what I am creating, because I now create Jerusalem ‘Joy’ and her people ‘Gladness’. I shall rejoice over Jerusalem and exult in my people.” Clearly, the scripture readings of today tell us that salvation is ultimately from without, not from within. The new heaven and new heart can only come from God. New life can only come from the power of God at work in us.  Only He can create the new heavens. Only Christ can give us new life. This is the message of Christ in the gospel.

Science and technology can make the world a more convenient place to live in, but they cannot change the human heart. Only faith can advance the character of the person and bring about true human advancement. Education is not just academic and knowledge but human advancement in terms of values and culture as well. It is tragic that the progress of science and technology don’t go hand in hand with the development of morality and ethics. Science and technology have advanced so fast that morality fails to catch up. Science and technology without moral guidance can destroy humanity because of the wrong use of knowledge and power. Most of all, the hope we offer humanity must go beyond this life, otherwise progress and development become meaningless if the hope we offer is not everlasting and fulfilling.

Of course, the new heaven and earth requires our cooperation. This is how we understand the meaning of Christian hope. In turning our gaze towards the “new heavens and a new earth” in which righteousness dwells (cf. 2 Pt 3: 13), “far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come.” (Gaudium et spes, n. 39)

How, then, do we cooperate with the grace of God?  We need to transform society, a society that is imbued with the universal values of the gospel.  The world seeks for justice based on reason alone. But often reason alone without moral foundation will cause more injustice. It is our task as Church to help build a humanity that is based on truth and justice, on compassion and charity.  As Church, we are called to enlighten all men in the truth so that true justice can prevail. Therefore, while we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world and lose himself, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age.”  (GS 39)

Furthermore, “while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God. For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.” On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower.” (GS 39)

Hence, the urgent need of formation of our future leaders and our current ones as well.  What kind of leaders that will shape society and humanity depend on the leaders we produce for Singapore and for the world.  The formation of future leaders on every aspect of life, whether civic, political, economic, education and arts is the work of educators.  Consequently, “the message of hope offered by the Christian community in particular, should be kneaded into the cultural, social, economic and political involvement of the lay faithful as leaven of the Resurrection.  If it is true that earthly progress must be distinguished from the growth of God’s kingdom (cf. ibid.), it is also true that in God’s kingdom, brought to completion at the end of time, “charity and its works will remain (cf. 1 Cor 13: 8; Col 3: 14)” (ibid.). This means that everything accomplished in the love of Christ anticipates the final resurrection and the coming of the kingdom of God.”

Hence, as the gospel tells us, we need to be concerned with giving the fullness of life of Christ to all, beginning with young people. Not only are we called to help our students to achieve academic excellence in terms of science and technology, but they also need to acquire a greater understanding of humanity and the values that could hold society together.  We must help them not just to live physically but to live fully. We cannot allow our children to die a spiritual death without values, morals, integrity and compassion for society.  We must seek to offer them lasting and real happiness in life, and that goes beyond studying well and getting a good job. We need to form them on the values of the gospel, the universal values based on justice and compassion.  We need to give them hope for a real future and beyond this life on earth.

So the real challenge for educators today is, how do we form values and give a definitive hope to our young people?  

To answer this question, we must first acknowledge the reality of the situation in our Catholic Schools today. Our Catholic schools have been transformed quite radically, for better or for worse.  Firstly, the majority of students in our Catholic Schools are no longer Catholic.  They don’t share our faith, more so our teachers as well, and sometimes principals.  Secondly, the Ministry of Education has a great say in our curriculum and how the schools are managed, after all, they are the paymaster.  The truth remains, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”   Thirdly, we no longer have the presence of religious brothers and sisters except for a few.  Most of our Catholic schools are managed by Management Committees where members are not necessarily Catholics.  Fourthly, our Catholic Schools are largely autonomous, taking direction from the MOE and the SMC and their sponsoring authority.  ACCS, which is supposedly a coordinating body, lacks the capacity to bring all Catholic schools to work closer together as one Church in the mission of education.  The role of the bishop has been largely ceremonial with some moral influence over the schools but lacking real authority to determine the direction of how our Catholic schools should function.

In the light of this reality, how then do we promote and foster a Catholic character in our schools with Catholic ethos?  How do we as Church in the work of the New Evangelization bring Christ to our teachers and students?  What should the pedagogy of faith be? 

To answer the first question where the majority of students and teachers are non-Catholic, I would like to take a page from Pope Emeritus Benedict when he spoke about the Courtyard of the Gentiles.  What is this courtyard of the Gentiles?  In the Jerusalem Temple, there is a place, called the outer court where non-Jews could worship God.  This would include those who were searching for God and those who were dissatisfied with their own gods and rites.  It was a place of prayer for them to connect with God.  The Church should also have a sort of “Court of the Gentiles” in which others could come to experience the God we worship and love; and to come to know Him, regardless whether they are believers or agnostics.

The Catholic Schools for me today is that “Courtyard of the Gentiles.”  The reason why parents send their children to Catholic Schools and Kindergarten is because they want their children to inculcate the right values and morals for their children.  Academic excellence, whilst important, is not the only factor.  For this reason, Catholic schools must not shy away from this challenge of providing our young people with the values of the gospel.  Implied in choosing a Catholic school for their children is their acceptance of our values and our way of formation.

So drawing from our reflection so far, we need to ensure that our schools have the right Catholic ethos and a Catholic character.  This is the first challenge. Are we conscious that a Catholic School must have a Catholic character, a Catholic spirituality, gospel values and Catholic ambience? This must be the basis for all Catholic schools.  Otherwise, there is no reason why we should call a school ‘Catholic’.  Even government schools have ethics.  We need to be clear of what a Catholic school truly is, and how it is distinguished from other secular schools.  What is our brand, our unique culture that stands out from the rest?

The next question is, what is the foundation of our Catholic values and ethos?  Can we impart the values of the gospel without at the end of the day not mentioning Christ?  What is the basis for moral values? Shouldn’t it be Christ-centered and be based on Catholic moral doctrines and values?  Are our values simply adopted from secular values or are they rooted in the gospel and the teachings of the Church? The truth is that Christ and the message are one.  The failure to explicitly mention Christ is to give them the fish without telling them how to fish.  It is not sufficient to share our values with them, either by teaching or by examples but to share Christ with them, of course, without coercion and pressure.   The lack of courage to speak about Christ to our students is to short-change their desire to find the fullness of life, love and truth.

The next question is, how do we impart the values of the gospel?  Is academic formation of Catholic ethos sufficient?  How effective is the pedagogy we are using?  Is teaching Catholic morality a matter of academic input and indoctrination?  Can morality be taught and be imposed?  Have ethics taught in schools helped all our children to be people with morals?  We can know the laws but we might not have the power to obey them.  This is the truth of what St Paul speaks about in Chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans when he describes the inner conflict in each one of us.  Living a righteous and moral life is more than knowing the laws but it must be motivated by a higher principle, namely, the love of God and humanity.  When we are motivated by love, there is nothing we cannot do.   Love is the only power that can sustain us.

What, then, is the solution?  It is the question of order in the use of kerygma and didache.  Which is prior and should come first?  What do I mean by these two Greek words?  Kerygma is the personal encounter of the Lord Jesus in His passion, death and resurrection. Didache is ongoing formation and discipleship in the early Church.   Only after encountering the Risen Lord does a person get baptised.  Following his baptism, which is his initiation into the Church and becoming a member of the Christian community, he must now grow in faith and discipleship through study, prayer and fellowship.

Indeed, the beginning of the Church was never about doctrines, neither dogma, nor even about morality, but an encounter with the Risen Lord.  Morality and ethics flow from the personal encounter with the love of God in Christ.  This is called the kerygma, as what Pope Benedict tells us.  “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” When we fall in love with Jesus, we, too, as St Paul said, would be coerced by love to give up our lives for others.

There is no harm beginning from didache, that is, through the teaching of values.  But it will not go far.  Or should we begin from kerygma because that is the starting point for love of God and of others?  This is where a certain balance must be kept.  Pope Emeritus Benedict made it clear that the change of horizon is more than just lofty thoughts or the result of an ethical choice but an encounter with an event, a person that brings about a radical change in our lifestyle.  So, for non-Catholics, we can begin with didache, the formation of values but it must arrive at the Kerygma, which is our goal, a personal encounter with the Risen Lord, the foundation of truth, life and love.

As for our Catholic students and teachers, which is the minority, we must begin with the kerygma.  The preferred way is the way of the kerygma, the proclamation of the love of God in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.   Of course, we cannot force the kerygma on our hearers but we need to make it available.  Only in encountering the Lord Jesus, will they be truly motivated in life to live for God and for their fellowmen.   When they experience the love of Christ, they will be motivated to give their lives in service of humanity.  To be motivated by the kerygma is to be motivated by the love of God in us. They will be our catalyst to the rest of the students.  They are to be the salt and light of the world in their schools.

When motivated by love of God and humanity rather than by achievements, the spiritual formation and academic performance of students are no longer separated. Those who fear that if we give too much emphasis to the spiritual dimension of our young people, they might be distracted from their studies and have a wrong understanding of faith.  Indeed, quite often, parents would tell their children who have just been confirmed to cut off activities in Church and simply focus on their studies.  Teachers need not be afraid that the grades of their students will go down because they give priority to religious instruction.   The truth is that this is not the case.  On the contrary, the more they are spiritually motivated, the more they will be committed to their studies because of their passion to serve humanity and God.  Otherwise, they would simply be studying to get good grades, which is a wrong focus as they would not study with passion and conviction.  When they are motivated not by earthly and worldly values but by noble and transcendent values in life, they will work harder and do well in their studies.  They are now driven by a higher purpose in life, even if not for the love of God, at least for the love of humanity.

My greatest joy and hope is to see that day when all our Catholics schools could be truly called Catholic with a distinctive character and values that are looked up upon by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. That parents will send their children to Catholic Schools because of the religious and moral values that we provide beyond academic achievements.  In the final analysis, anyone who is deeply, religiously motivated, will also excel in academic achievements as both academic excellence and faith go together, not one without the other.  Only those with faith can do great things in life for the good of others in total selflessness and humility.

We want to give our children not just a good academic formation so that they can secure a good job, but to help them to be holistic and happy people who can serve humanity in the future. Happiness is found in service, love and compassion. Otherwise, they become self-centred without lasting values, pursuing only wealth, power, status and pleasure.  This will not make them happy nor will they build happy families and societies.   It is necessary that we give them the fullness of life, which is not just material and physical but spiritual life.


Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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