Talk To A. C. U. First Year Student-Teachers

Given by Archbishop Denis Hart
at Knox Lecture Theatre, East Melbourne,
on Wednesday, 10th April, 2002, at 1.00pm

I am very pleased to have the opportunity of saying a few words to you at this important and exciting time. Student life is a time of joy and friendships, a time for study and for socialising, for learning new skills and building on past achievements. All of this is true, but in a Catholic university there is something more that has to be said also. As students and prospective teachers in Catholic schools this should also be a time for considering and deepening your faith. Each of you must spend time asking what is God's will, what is the role he has in mind for you - is it to teach young people in our Catholic schools?

Parents hand over the sacred charge of their children to teachers. Educating and caring for young people could never be 'just a job'. For anyone truly committed to this it is a way of life, a true vocation, a response to God's call to serve and support his people.

Being a Teacher

We all know there is something special about teachers. Many of us, looking back, will remember a teacher we particularly admired or respected: good teachers can open up a whole new world to a willing student. We never forget our good teachers, they are parts of our lives for ever. Unfortunately, some of us will also remember bad teachers - teachers who seemed incompetent, unable to communicate, lacking in respect for their students or their subject, lax in the practice of their faith. Incompetent or uncommitted teachers can create months, even years, of real misery for students. This is why it is so important for our teachers to study to the best of their abilities, to take part in on-going professional training and development, and to find ways of keeping their enthusiasm for and commitment to their subjects and their faith alive.

We all know that teachers are not the most highly paid professionals. People with a true vocation are of course often willing to accept lesser material rewards for the greater personal and spiritual rewards they receive. But in order to keep this vocation alive through the long years it will be necessary for teachers regularly to renew their commitment to education and to the young. I can think of three ideas to ponder here:

First, keep your own love of learning alive: if you do not continue to read, study and think, you will be unlikely to persuade your students that learning and reading are important

Secondly, keep your love of teaching alive: you will need a continuing interest in new developments in teaching practice and professional standards to maintain a real expertise and enthusiasm in the classroom

Thirdly, keep your love of young people alive: good teachers are neither too distant nor too close to their students. Part of the challenge is to love the whole class, not just a few, and to keep that love alive even when students do not always fulfil your expectations

Being a Teacher in a Catholic School

My hope is that many of you will decide you have a real commitment to the Catholic faith and to Catholic teaching and that you will choose to join us in teaching the new generation of Catholics. This demands more of you than just the ordinary demands of teaching. Honest men and women would not join a Moslem, Hindu or Catholic school without first informing themselves of the doctrines and values behind these religions, thinking seriously about them, and asking themselves if they can honestly choose a life of teaching these to the young. Some of you may struggle with the Catholic package and at the end of the day decide you do not have the commitment to Christ and his Church necessary to work in Catholic schools. If so, in conscience, you will choose to teach elsewhere or to take up a different sort of career.

If this is what you decide, we will still wish you well, hope you will never forget what you have learned in your studies, and pray that you will find a fulfilling way of life. But it would be no favour to you as new teachers and no favour to our students to encourage you to teach in a Catholic school in which you felt you were being dishonest, disloyal or insincere. Most of you are young and you have time still to test and develop your ideas. Perhaps you may need time to think through the seriousness of the next step? Perhaps you need to obtain some more information about just what it is that Catholics believe and just which moral values Catholic teachers represent in their lives and in their teaching? It is certainly wise to inform yourselves as much as you can and then to ask: can I in conscience accept the parameters of Catholic teaching and so teach in a Catholic school?

What is it that I Should Believe and Teach?

Pope John Paul II reminded us in his most recent Encyclical Letter (Fides et Ratio) that, sadly, it is possible for some people to be highly intellectual and at the top of their professional tree, but in matters of faith to be like a little child. We often meet or hear of successful professional people who are mature and adult in all areas of their lives - except in faith-matters, where their beliefs are as little advanced as childhood beliefs in Santa Claus. We should all remember that Catholic faith has been developed for 2,000 years as a body of teaching and that it can give any other system of thought or values a real run for its money. We believe that there is a rational and intelligent story to be told about the creation of the Universe, our place within it, our salvation, and about the moral life. This is a sophisticated intellectual and moral framework which we should all come to know, feel proud of, and make very much our own. Crucial to our framework is the belief that there is but one true God. His existence can be known by anyone who thinks clearly, but a full understanding of Him comes only through accepting his gift of faith. We believe that Jesus Christ, son of Mary, was also Son of God; that by his life, teachings, death and resurrection from the dead Jesus reversed the path of sin, suffering and death and opened up the possibilities of goodness, conversion and everlasting life. We believe too that the Holy Spirit alive in our hearts and in our Church will teach us wisdom and guide us towards the kingdom of heaven.

Our moral teaching is also important. We hold that moral beliefs are not just whatever suits our personal tastes or is popular or dictated by the media; there are real moral truths that all people, Catholic and non-Catholic, can agree on and it is the mission of the Church to safeguard and defend these moral truths.

These include truths about the sanctity of human life, the importance of marriage and family life, truth-telling and honesty, proper and fulfilling expressions of human sexuality, the need for self-less generosity, and so on. This means we reject abortion, human cloning and embryo experimentation, casual and same-sex sexual unions, lying, social injustice, blasphemy, etc., etc.

Truth of any sort is difficult to handle because it calls us to re-examine our lives and to make painful changes; in moral matters this is especially so. Some of you may ultimately find the moral truths we defend unacceptable; again, where this is so, you should honestly examine your motives for wishing to be a teacher in a Catholic school. A good Catholic teacher will lead a life that is a living sign of Christian morality - so he or she must know and accept that morality.

On the other hand, where moral truths are accepted teachers will play a great part in passing on a way of life that is enriching, challenging, and gives young people something important to think about and to come to terms with. And of course, even when we try our best we will still from time to time fall down; and when we do there is the gentle and compassionate Christ, his Church on Earth and all the Saints in Heaven holding out their hands and offering forgiveness and strength for the future, particularly through the beautiful Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Jesus Christ is the greatest teacher the world has ever known. The life and commitment of a teacher and a Catholic teacher is bound up with his truth and is one of the noblest of vocations. May God bless and strengthen you as you ponder your future paths. May he give you honesty and courage as you explore the option of teaching in our schools. And may you please all be aware of my constant prayers and my hopes for your happiness and your futures.


+ Denis J. Hart,
Archbishop of Melbourne.
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