From Head of College, Ray Paxton
Over the past three weeks it has been my great honor and privilege to attend the inaugural Congress of Edmund Rice Education Beyond Borders in Kolkata, India.
The Congress was attended by 200 passionate educators from from 22 countries where Catholic education, inspired by Jesus and Edmund Rice, makes a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people, united by the common belief that we touch the future by the quality of guidance and care we give to emerging generations.
The congress was held in incredible India! A vast and diverse land of so many contrasts and contradictions; a beautiful and sacred culture that has so much to teach us.
In the Bhagavad Gita, a text so integral to Indian spirituality, Lord Krishna proposes that the true essence of education is the acquiring of what He calls ‘virtuous knowledge’: the capacity to perceive unity in diversity and reverence for the universal God presence in all.
During this, my first visit to India, I learned that authenticity and excellence in Catholic schooling has little to do with the numbers of Catholics we have enrolled or the standard of our buildings and facilities.
I learned that inclusion is at the heart of the Gospel and exclusion is the Gospel’s greatest betrayal.
I learned that a school’s capacity to make a difference is not simply dependent on its physical resources but on humble resolve within the school community to build the Reign of God and embrace solidarity with the excluded.
As a group, members of the Congress walked in pilgrimage to St Joseph’s, an Edmund Rice School in Kolkata on the first day. As we did so, for a brief time we witnessed the lives of many who live very humbly and whose dignity as human beings is challenged by poverty and exclusion. I will long remember the images of these and other people whom we encountered during our time in India and the thought of them will continue to guide my efforts to bring to birth a global vision for education based on hope and liberation.
I doubt that there is anywhere else in the world that holds ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the tragic’ in such fine balance as Kolkata: it is colourful, bustling, crowded, proud – an indescribable ‘City of Joy’. A favorite son of this city was poet, educator and Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, who was described by Gandhi as the moral voice of India, proposed that education must free people from narrowness and intolerance. Education wherein, to quote Tagore: ‘The mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words come out of the depth of truth.’
We gathered on a weekend when India was celebrating both Ghandi’s birthday and Mother Teresa as Saint Teresa of Kolkata. In his opening address, Wayne Tinsey, Executive Director of EREA, called on us to have Ghandi’s moral strength inspire us, his regard for the downtrodden move us and his quest for personal liberation, inextricably linked to the liberation of the most humble of this world, guide us to be the best we could be. We were also called on to be comforted by Mother Teresa’s consolation that we do not necessarily need to do great things, but we do need to do all things with great love.
In India 50% of children aged 6-18 do not have the opportunity go to school and of the 32 million children that begin school each year, less than half will complete the compulsory 8 years of education. This clearly should not be. But Mother Teresa reminded us that there is also much that needs changing in our own cultures: ‘Calcutta can be found all over the world if only we have eyes too see!’
We gathered at a time of great optimism in our church with Pope Francis calling for urgent recovery of our commitment to be heralds of ‘good news’ for the poor and marginalised of our troubled and unequal world. In the words of Pope Francis, a Church ‘of’ and ‘for’ the poor; a Church which recognizes the work of the Divine and the presence of God in all faiths; a generous and inclusive Church that strives ceaselessly to tell the poor and excluded that God loves them.
The Church we serve promotes service and compassionate engagement with the challenges of our world as indispensable to the way we worship a loving and expansive God.
The charism we share demands that we teach our young to ask deep questions of their world, not simply inhabit it. The education we offer must challenge versions of the world that define success solely in terms of money, accumulation of things and over-emphasis on status and security. It must equip young people to critique their culture and its version of the good, the well lived, the important and the meaningful life.
Our charism entreats us to form students to know that the liberty and freedom that they will hopefully enjoy is not merely a license to do whatever they want; but rather, it is the freedom to do what they ought to do for the making of a more just and equitable world.
Ours is a charism that makes bold claims about the way that human beings should engage in our world. It calls us to speak for the voiceless and those who are excluded, about justice, about the way in which we are expected to relate to one another, about the dignity of every human life and about liberation for the disenfranchised.
Wayne Tinsey called on the Congress to proclaim and celebrate our new identity as global partners; one community in mission united by a common vision, purpose and heritage; renewed in our belief that education is the vehicle of liberation for all.