A current problem for Catholic education in England, is the recruitment of teachers and leaders who are practising Catholics. The Church requires practising headteachers and is resolute in this stipulation – it exists to protect the mores of an ancient tradition – but I fear many think they are not good enough Catholics to step up. Today I am reflecting on the anniversary of our convalidation* (my husband’s and I) on the Feast of The Epiphany: is there a way to encourage and support more people in Catholic schools?
Could The Epiphany illuminate a way forward in solving the recruitment difficulties in Catholic school leadership?
Beauty and Truth can be seen in our faith through many different and seemingly disparate lenses. Sometimes with the traditional view and sometimes with the progressive. Faith and doubt; sweet and sour, soft and hard, freedom and discipline, easy and difficult. The sweet point is in the middle of the paradox. It isn’t a case of either/or.
Though straight and tall, trees do bend…
Our schools, when effective, connect us with the sacred – the sacred both in ourselves and in our world – engendering a love and care of both. We are not born fully formed but for God, perfect in our imperfection. Speaking personally, my faith has blossomed since my experience of Catholic education, not before. For many, and especially those not born into religious families, God is not first encountered in church. I have worked with colleagues from no faith background who have become believers through the transformative power of Catholic schools. And Catholicity is as diverse as the visitors at the first Epiphany – with one Truth uniting us all.
This week, the Sunday Gospel recounts The Epiphany, the journey of the Magi from far away lands. They join the family, animals and shepherds to complete the Nativity scene and show that
God is revealed to the world: all of it.
Who gets to say how Catholic you are?
I was baptised a Catholic as a baby, but like many others, left the church in my teens; taking God with me. (Cue sharp looks and criticism from parish members. I know this only came from a good place, but it was not kind). Never did I consider myself un-Catholic or that my being a Catholic rested on my attendance at church. I prayed, I tried my best to do good, I looked for God’s guidance. I attended Mass seldomly. At the time, I thought this was enough. After working in state education for around fifteen years, I found myself applying to a Catholic school as part of their leadership team. I noted the job specified a practising Catholic; queried this on my initial visit. I was invited to interview. However, during the first day, I felt ‘out-holied’ by the other candidates. After an honest and lengthy interview where I discussed if the school was right for me, or I right for it, I was appointed. Catholics are few and far between in the far South West of England, I guess the fact I was a poor Catholic was better than not at all.
My early days gave me some empathy with non-Catholics who work in Catholic schools. There was much about our tradition that I didn’t know. I experienced two reactions from colleagues and parishioners: one which felt like critical judgement and superiority (probably, again, unintentional and which I kind of understood – I didn’t even know what liturgy* meant) and another, very different one, where I saw the love, beauty and Truth of our faith reflected in the understanding, acceptance and gentle guidance of some very special people that I owe my life to. (I’m not being dramatic). It was these Epiphany ‘stars’ (both lay and clergy) and not the tuts and stony stares, who lit my way home.
The point I’m making is that it was love and tenderness that brought me more fully back to God and not Church dogma. I think structure and rules are important and I’m learning their power – but they were not what guided me back onto the path. No good comes from feeling shameful or unworthy.
I often think how lost we would be without stars.
The Rules can hurt.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was blessed with the chance to lead a Catholic school. Coincidentally, I was chatting with a priest when he suddenly became agitated and declared me ‘out of communion’ with the Catholic faith. I had just disclosed that my marriage took place at Gretna Green. We were not wed in a church, but I dispute that we were not married in the sight of God: God was absolutely there with us. I had had no idea about this rule and after making further enquiries, I learned that my headship was indeed under threat, but it could be remedied by having our marriage convalidated.
I was told canon law existed for the salvation of souls. I didn’t feel saved. I felt shock, shame and despair.
Being told you are ‘outside of the Church’ feels like having the door to God closed to you. Kind words tried to ease the pain, but the only thing I heard was that I was not welcome at the crib.
As a leader of a faith community and school, I had felt myself and those around me flourish, so I knew, in my heart, God was with me. You can understand my confusion as well as others who do not understand Canon Law. Why was I suddenly unworthy? God is Love and this was not love.
I know this was not the intention. But it was how I felt. I sometimes wonder how our non-Catholic colleagues feel? At first, this made me angry. I planned to resign and tell them (whoever ‘they’ were) to find another headteacher. Except for the light of God that shone through those stars I mentioned earlier. Those who empathised and reasoned.
My other problem was my husband. He is not a Catholic and I predicted he would also tell me to tell ‘them’ to stick it. However, the face of Jesus shone out of my husband, too. He calmly listened through my sobs (I was truly devastated), reflected back how much my job, school and faith meant to me and how much he loved me. And just like that, said,”Let’s go do this convalley thing.” And the pain left.
My husband has no faith, yet Jesus shines though him, and others like him. Christ is always present in our world and exists for all, remember?
The Rules can heal
People say that you can’t enjoy freedom without rules. Initially, we organised a convalidation in order to appease ‘da rules’ and I was a bit huffy about it. I would ‘do as I was told’ and I would say my vows through gritted teeth. Then God gave us the next available date for the occasion as 6th January – The Epiphany – and revealed Himself all over again. I reflected on the journey of the Magi from a land far away, guided by the light of the stars; the universality of the characters at the crib, the importance of our family and community and how blessed we were to have experienced all these gifts. How could I not be in awe of His generosity and be filled with praise?
Our first wedding was meaningful, if a bit lonely. It was right at the time. Everyone we held dear was at ‘our second wedding’ and it could not have been more perfect. I felt love and peace. God was at both, but the second also had ‘God revealed through others’. I learned a bit more about God’s love revealed through the shared love of a community. Church is important, we can’t love alone and it’s hard to see the benefits of rules – until you do them.
I didn’t even grit my teeth.
What to do if you are in a Catholic school and have your doubts.
Everyone’s journey is different. Whether you know it or not, the universe is with you and in you. If you are considering stepping up or walking away from Catholic education or faith, I urge you to look for those stars who shine with the love and the face of Jesus. Some of them are even priests. There is God’s Law and there is Church Law.
Whether Catholic, or not, magi or shepherd: everything belongs, and all are welcome before God.
If you are unable to see any stars, give me a call, I can show you plenty. They are all different but shine with the same Truth, if not the same faith. If it’s too cloudy for stars, there are written directions and maps. Never forget your own light and know many will walk beside you. ❤
What could The Catholic Church and Catholic Education do to support people into leadership of our schools?
Our schools deserve to be led by excellent pedagogy AND an understanding of the love of Christ – do these necessarily have to come from the same person?
Should a clearer pathway be in place to support those taking their first tentative steps into, or back into, Catholicism? In addition to the RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)?
Questioning and doubting can be scary and those who are seeking need to be assured their questions are welcomed unequivocally. Could ‘viceroys’ of the faith be identified in our networks of schools and on hand to support, without judgment, agenda or criticism, those who have questions about faith? Whether Catholic or not?
Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities have the expectation that staff commit to reflection and personal development. Not to achieve a certain outcome, but because inner transformation enables those in the caring professions to do their job better. Catholic schools say that too – but where do we encourage this, other than participation in prayer, and can we even insist that staff remain open to inner reflection? Should we?
Do all parishes and schools fully work together for the good of the community?
What do you think?
Is it time for change?
“All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. But all these stars are silent. You alone will have stars as no one else has them… “
From ‘The Little Prince’ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
(Thank you, Bod).
“We are stars wrapped in skin.
The light you are seeking has always been within.”
- convalidation – A ceremony in which a marriage, such as a civil marriage, is made recognised by the church.
- liturgy – Worship and prayer that follows a similar format to the Mass, but without celebrating communion. I think.