The month of September marks the beginning of a new school year. Given the growing rhetoric in Alberta that is once again advocating for an end to Catholic public schools, I thought it is important to outline why maintaining the Catholic ethos and identity of our schools is critical in the face of such arguments. This fall we will also have the election of new Catholic trustees who must be committed to promoting the vision and mission of our publicly funded Catholic schools.
What is a Catholic school and what makes it distinct and relevant in our current society? Catholic schools are communities of faith and learning. They can be diverse in their configuration i.e. public, private or charter, yet focused on presenting the unity of truth which is acquired through reason and faith and which ultimately binds us. It might be a surprise to some, but Catholic schools are not intended to be for Catholics alone nor to exclusively advocate the Catholic faith. They are in fact school communities for all but which are rooted in a Catholic world view, ethos, and identity that serves to inform a wider view of educating our young people.
Catholic schools are not institutions of propaganda, as some would argue, nor are they to be driven by agendas, theories, and educational trends of a government ministry. The Catholic educational tradition offers experiences of learning that allow for evangelization and the catechetical support of young people in the faith. However, the task of education is much broader. It is to promote a wholistic experience of learning that forms and completes every person, preparing them for life, to appreciate the value of their life, and that of others, by offering back to society values and goods that they willingly share for the benefit of all in our society. This is the distinctly Catholic approach to education which enhances the human formation and mature development of the next generation of young people.
Pope Benedict, in his critique of our contemporary educational culture, used the term “educational emergency” to describe the increasing difficulty that we encounter in transmitting the basic values of life and good behaviour to the new generation of young people. At the core of this “emergency” is the belief that truth is relative, that what I subjectively believe to be true for myself is “truth” and must be accepted by others. Pope Francis has also identified this tension between unity and diversity of truth for educators – “Dialogue, in fact, educates when a person relates with respect, esteem, sincerity of listening and expresses themselves with authenticity, without obfuscating or mitigating one’s identity” which is nourished by an evangelical faith and inspiration. This is the role of our Catholic school teachers who must engage in this dialogue through their teaching in a society and culture which is becoming more secular.
The Catholic school curriculum needs to have this intercultural dialogue while balancing the relationship between religious education and catechesis. This initiative of intercultural dialogue is distinctly Catholic and one which we offer to society through our Catholic schools. The teaching of the Catholic religion has it own aims which are different from catechesis which promotes a personal relationship with Christ and a maturing Christian life-whereas religious teaching offers knowledge about Christianity and the Christian life in meaningful and culturally enriching ways. Catholic schools have a core curriculum of religious faith instruction that permeates all subjects. For Catholic students, this might also serve as a pathway of catechesis which must always respect a wider and more meaningful integration within the family and the life of the Church. This curriculum is primarily “knowledge-based” for those students who are not part of the Catholic tradition. It invites them to be reflective, to grow in religious literacy and knowledge while being open to a human formation that reflects the Christian understanding of the human person, their inherent dignity and destiny.
Catholic schools, both public and private, have the potential to contribute to the cultural enrichment of society. Despite the hostility towards religion, these schools will serve as a continuing recognition of the importance of religion and belief in civic society. Therefore, Catholic schools have a unique opportunity to enter these debates to teach about the value of religion and religious ways of thinking to a wider society. The key to the future mission and identity of our Catholic schools is the commitment of the parents and teachers to see Catholic education as an enrichment of our culture through such a Catholic ethos and identity. Education by its nature requires an openness to other cultures without the loss of one’s identity. We cannot lose sight of this rich tradition of Catholic education and schools.
☩ William McGrattan
Bishop of Calgary
Over the past few years, we have seen how Pope Francis demonstrates a strong Marian devotion. Anyone who has known former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio understands well that his Marian devotion, far from being a recent manifestation, is a long-established devotion and one that is much in line with his predecessors.
On his very first meeting with his brother cardinals in the Clementine Hall on March 15, Pope Francis stressed his relationship with Mary and the role he ascribes to Jesus’ mother. He said: “I entrust my ministry and your ministry to the powerful intercession of Mary, our Mother, Mother of the Church. Under her maternal gaze may each one of you walk happy and docile on your path, listening to the voice of her divine Son, strengthening your unity, persevering in your common prayer and bearing witness to the true faith in the constant presence of the Lord.”
Forty days after his election, Pope Francis went to St. Mary Major to lead the recitation of the Rosary on the first Saturday of May, the month dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and to take official possession of the Basilica as he had done for the Basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls. “Mary is the mother,” said the Pope during the recitation of the Rosary, “and a mother’s main concern is the health of her children … Our Lady guards our health … helps us grow, face life and be free.”
On the eve of his departure for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for World Youth Day 2013, Pope Francis visited once again the Basilica of St. Mary Major and entrusted World Youth Day 2013 to Mary’s care. During his unforgettable experience in Brazil he made a side-trip to the renown shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in central Brazil.
In his homily at the Aparecida Shrine on July 24, 2013 Pope Francis said: “When the Church looks for Jesus, she always knocks at his Mother’s door and asks: “Show us Jesus.” It is from Mary that the Church learns true discipleship. That is why the Church always goes out on mission in the footsteps of Mary.… Dear friends, we have come to knock at the door of Mary’s house. She has opened it for us, she has let us in and she shows us her Son. Now she asks us to “do whatever he tells you” [Jn 2:5]. Yes, dear Mother, we are committed to doing whatever Jesus tells us! And we will do it with hope, trusting in God’s surprises and full of joy.”
It is also interesting that Pope Francis has introduced the world to a little-known Marian devotion entitled Mary, Undoer of Knots. He has a very special devotion to Mary under this title that goes all the way back to the second century. In one autobiography of the Pope that I read it mentions that as a young Jesuit, Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was completing his graduate studies in Germany, he was captivated by a Bavarian painting of Holy Mary, Our Lady Undoer of Knots that he saw in a Church in Augsburg. Bergoglio obtained a copy of the painting and brought it back with him to Argentina where he helped spread the devotion among his people. While this devotion is relatively unknown in our part of the world, it is known and loved in Argentina.
Later as auxiliary bishop and then archbishop of Buenos Aires, he encouraged the veneration of Our Lady Undoer of Knots whose devotion originated from a painting executed by the German artist Johann Georg Schidtner around 1700 and located in St. Peter am Perlach Church in Augsburg, Germany. In the painting the Virgin is shown in the act of untying a knot on a long white ribbon while crushing the serpent, which stands for evil.
The theology of Mary untying knots goes back to the second century – less than one hundred years after the death of the Apostles. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wrote “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” The understanding of Mary’s universal mediation and her subordinate role to Christ in human salvation is beautifully summed up in this quote from St. Irenaeus.
During his pontificate, Pope Francis has invited the faithful to entrust to Mary “the journey of faith, the desires of our heart, our needs and the needs of the whole world, especially of those who hunger and thirst for justice and peace.” He goes on to state that her “example of humility and openness to God’s will helps us to transmit our faith in a joyful proclamation of the Gospel to all, without reservation.”
In this same spirit as we mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Canada, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have invited the faithful to consecrate their lives and of the entire country of Canada to Mary. We will celebrate this event in a Liturgy and with devotions at St. Mary’s Cathedral on July 1. I invite all within our Diocese to invoke Mary, the “Holy Mother of God,” to guide our country in the ways of faith in order to promote, peace, truth, justice and reconciliation.
Prayer to Mary, Undoer of Knots
Virgin Mary, Mother of fair love, Mother who never refuses to come to the aid of a child in need, Mother whose hands never cease to serve your beloved children because they are moved by the divine love and immense mercy that exists in your heart, cast your compassionate eyes upon me and see the snarl of knots that exist in my life. You know very well how desperate I am, my pain, and how I am bound by these knots. Mary, Mother to whom God entrusted the undoing of the knots in the lives of his children, I entrust into your hands the ribbon of my life. No one, not even the Evil One himself, can take it away from your precious care. In your hands there is no knot that cannot be undone. Powerful Mother, by your grace and intercessory power with Your Son and My Liberator, Jesus, take into your hands today this knot.
☩ William McGrattan
Bishop of Calgary
A month after becoming Bishop of Calgary, I travelled to Rome with the Western Bishops on our Ad Limina Apostolorum visit to the Vatican. It was my first such experience as a bishop. It is the historical practice of the local church in the person of the bishop coming from the limits of the universal Church, crossing the threshold of Rome to encounter the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
What is involved in preparing for such a visit? First, the local bishop prepares a report which summarizes the status of the diocese. It is called a Quinquennial Report and it contains statistics, commentary and analysis that describe 20 key areas of diocesan life. For example: the general status of the diocese, liturgy and sacraments, clergy, religious life, vocations, catechesis, Catholic education, finances, social justice, immigrants and refugees, etc. Bishop Henry oversaw the assembling of this 70-page report that was sent to the Vatican in the fall. It contains valuable information which has helped me to appreciate the size and scope of the Diocese in addition to seeing the challenges we face in planning for the future. Some of this statistical information is found on the next page.
The actual week-long visit began with meeting Pope Francis, then the heads of Congregations and Dicasteries throughout the week, the celebration of mass at the four major basilica churches in Rome: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul’s. There was also the opportunity to get to know the other 24 western Bishops through informal discussions and the sharing of meals. The food and wine of Rome always seems to invite such conversations. In many ways one might describe it as a pilgrimage. A busy daily schedule, but one that is marked by some very profound moments of faith.
The visit began with an early morning mass on Monday in the crypt chapel at the tomb of St. Peter. We then met with the successor of Peter, Pope Francis for a two-and-a-half hour meeting in which he invited us to propose questions and topics for discussion related to our ministry as bishops in Western Canada. These included our relationship and ministry with indigenous peoples, refugees and immigration, young people and the influence of our secular culture, vocations, the need for the vital witness of religious life and how we might in our own dioceses strengthen our communion with him as the Bishop of Rome.
Pope Francis was open and honest at the outset by saying that he “didn’t have all the answers, but was willing to share from his own experience.” His pastoral style was one of affirmation, encouragement and persuasion. The wisdom and advice he imparted was wide ranging. He stated that, as bishops, we need to adopt and integrate a missionary mode of encounter with our people, to welcome immigration of refugees and their culture as a gift, to listen to young people and work for them, to be open to accompany our people, to be men of prayer, deep sustained prayer through the Holy Spirit, to be open to consultation and discernment, and finally not to be afraid to take risks. When greeting the Pope personally, I said that I had only been the bishop of Calgary Diocese for exactly four weeks. He looked somewhat surprised, and then pointed his finger at me and said — “Did I do this to you?”— at which point we both laughed. We all came away from this experience feeling that we were talking with a brother bishop.
Our meetings with the various Congregations offered the same collegial spirit of dialogue on many pastoral issues that we face in Canada around secularism, education, healthcare, immigration, physician assisted-suicide, media and communication. The universal dimension of the Church’s pastoral outreach and the common moral and social issues faced throughout the world were often shared in light of the Canadian issues that we raised for discussion.
The spiritual moments of this pilgrimage were also very important: the celebration of mass at the four basilicas, a tour of the Scavi excavations where the tomb and bones of St. Peter were discovered, and having the opportunity to visit other historic churches that contain the relics of saints or artwork that depict our Christian faith. It is known as the eternal city not simply because of its long history but for the living witness of faith that is found within its city walls.
Upon my return from this Ad Limina visit I shared some of these highlights with the priests at the Chrism Day conference. I said that the Diocese of Calgary will benefit from this visit in various ways but especially in being aware that the Church is universal and that this reality must always be present not only through my ministry as the successor of the apostles, but in being open to receive the gifts that the universal Church has to offer us here locally. I trust that these fruits of the Ad Limina Apostolorum visit will serve our diocesan pastoral planning initiatives in the future.
Statistical Highlights from the Quinquennial Report
Here are some exciting statistics from the Quinquennial report, presented during Bishop McGrattan’s Ad Limina visit to Rome, which shows our growing and changing landscape as we continue to share the good news of the Gospel. Below is a section of the table on the General Information requested by Rome:
The increase in the total number of Catholics in our diocese is substantial over the last fifteen years (showing a 37-50% annual growth). The sacramental data over the past fifteen years has been generally unchanged and matches population growth: the data shows more baptisms and initiatory sacraments as the Catholic population has increased. Marriage numbers, however, have declined greatly.
Other interesting points of data detailed in the report include the growing numbers and the involvement and importance of lay groups in the Diocese; an unfortunate decrease in the number of women joining women’s religious orders; and interesting trends emerging as we look at other Christian groups such as conservative Protestantism, conservative Anabaptists (Hutterian Brethren, Church of God in Christ, Mennonite) and Eastern Christianity (Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox) as they continue to increase in their number of churches and adherents; and finally, non-Christian groups are also generally growing in our diocese, with growth in Islam and Sikhism.
☩ William McGrattan
Bishop of Calgary