Fr. James Mulligan

Fr. James Mulligan

March 12, 2001

EDMONTON –Catholic education is navigating in a challenging culture, but it's a culture that offers "wonderful new possibilities" says Holy Cross Father James Mulligan.

Speaking to about 65 educators and parents in Edmonton March 6, the longtime educator, author and passionate advocate for Catholic education said it's up to Catholic schools to offer a meaningful alternative.

"The greatest contribution Catholic schools and Catholic education can make is to offer certainty about what it is to be human and to be loved by God."

Mulligan was invited by the school council of Archbishop MacDonald High School to talk about his latest book, Catholic Education: The Future is Now.

Council chair Marie Bruseker says the idea arose out of a simple question raised by a non-Catholic parent.

"He asked: Why are we supporting Catholic education? And we thought, well, why are we?"

Bruseker was eventually put in touch with Mulligan, a teacher and pastor from Welland, Ont.

Mulligan says he's visited a number of Holy Cross educators in the U.S. and has come to realize the gift of publicly-funded Catholic education in Canada.

"But in realizing how blessed we are, I've learned very quickly that we can't take for granted this great gift that we have."

The loss of publicly-funded Catholic education in Newfoundland is a vivid lesson for Catholic educators in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, he told the audience.

There were many reasons for that loss, he added, including a bias against the existence of faith-based schools in a modern secular society, a heavily administrative system caused by multiple boards serving a small population, and the revelation of abuse by some religious and clergy in residential schools.

"Many Catholics became so disillusioned with the Church that when it came time to put forth a concerted effort to protect Catholic education, there was little enthusiasm."

But a crucial element, he emphasized, was that for some time, principals, teachers and trustees in the province's Catholic schools had been in "maintenance" mode, not in "creation" mode.

"They had received a vision, they had received an approach to Catholic education . . . and they did not add to the vision - they didn't even own the vision of what Catholic schools were. So when it came to crunch time, the vision was not theirs, and they could not stand up and speak and protect that vision.

"There was no formation as to the vocation and mission of Catholic educators - and when that formation isn't there especially in the leadership . . . it's a very, very fragile enterprise we're engaged in, the foundation is very weak, and it can't be expected to endure."

It's essential to be able to articulate the distinctive nature of a Catholic school, Mulligan says. It's not enough anymore to say, "you can just feel the difference."

Although Catholic schools have a constitutional right to exist in Alberta, Mulligan says we can't count on that.

Speaking to the WCR, he pointed out that Catholic schools have never been as constitutionally solid as they are today, in light of recent provincial and Supreme Court decisions.

"But then Newfoundland and Quebec are proof positive that it doesn't matter, because provincial governments can make deals with the federal government.

"We have to do what we're doing so well that Ralph Klein and Mike Harris say we have to have Catholic schools because they're contributing too much to the common project."

Mulligan told the crowd that teacher formation is one of the "compass points" that should guide Catholic educators.

"We have to be able to provide teachers coming in with an introduction into the distinctive nature of who we are as Catholic schools and what we are about."

Patty Clancy-Novosel, president of the Edmonton Catholic School local of the Alberta Teachers' Association, points out that the Edmonton district has focused on teacher formation during professional development days the past two years.

It's a challenge, Mulligan admits, to convince Catholics that Catholic education today is different than it was 40 years ago.

"The Catholic school in the year 2001 is very, very different, but this is where we're supposed to be – we're not supposed to be in 1965. In 1965, 80 per cent of kids and parents were coming to Church on Sunday. In the year 2001, 15 to 20 per cent of the kids are in Church – and yet they're Catholic.

"So what are we going to presume - that these kids are bad? That they're not as good as they were? That's balderdash. There's just as much grace present today as there was 20 years ago, but it's an entirely different reality."