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  • David OMalley

Vocation at the heart of education


Vocation at the heart of school

The figure above shows some of the dimensions at work in a Catholic school. The vocational dimension at the centre is highlighted because of the sacred nature of each person’s engagement with the mystery of all life that many people call God. The areas in blue can be dealt with in a matter of fact way but the central red area contains the sacred story of each person. The doorway to this area of a person’s life can only be opened by the individual from the inside and yet within that area lies the central mystery of a person and the purpose of the Catholic school.

The central shape is also highlighted because it contains the energy for life and the motivation for learning and for the growth to fullness of life and potential. From this area comes the energy to persevere, to search for meaning, to change the world and to take the risk of love and sacrifice. Don Bosco described this area as a kind of fortress that can only be opened up by loving kindness and confidence. He said that when these connections are made there is a kind of electric flow of energy that lights up the other three areas.

Therefore, confidence and trust become crucial in establishing an holistic educating community. Developing this culture of trust and confidence requires us as teachers and leaders to talk to each other at a meaningful level. Listen to Parker Palmer on this point:


“If we want to grow as teachers -- we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives -- risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”

― Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach:


Finding ways to open up these pathways to personal connections among staff is a sensitive task. The inner work can be transforming professionally, raising motivation, empathy and resilience but the work is always personal. The pathway to discernment and trust needs to be flagged up regularly as an invitation:


  • “Talk to a colleague about this.”

  • “Explore this with your head of department”

  • “Think about your own reactions and where they come from”

  • “Notice how you feel at the end of this term and tell someone you trust”


Phrases like these, thrown into the normal patterns of meetings and training, point to the inner spiritual dimension of colleagues in school. Simply acknowledging this dimension of spiritual experience already makes a person feel more whole and that they are being seen as a whole person and not just a factor of production. Many of our colleagues may have only a vague awareness of their unseen spiritual life and may need help to engage with it. Woody Allen makes the same point in his inimitable way:


  • “There is no question that there is an unseen spiritual world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?”


We have dulled our spiritual senses in this westernised culture and many thinkers believe that we are in danger of losing our souls. The constant emphasis on measurable outcomes especially in education, squeezes out the softer and more initiative energies rooted in our spiritual lives. Some of the reasons given in various studies for the rise in mental distress is linked with isolation of our inner lives from the external aspects of our living. Fr Michael Paul Gallagher sees this as a kind of woundedness in our memory, a kind of split deep down within each person that can only be healed by loving kindness and trust. Our spiritual lives thrive on such love and trust and wither when they are absent. It is an overemphasis on individualism in a secularised world that maintains that woundedness. The Catholic school is called to heal that woundedness through the experience of an educating community that support individuals but also draws them into a relational consciousness that re-connects them to God, to themselves and to others.


David Hay, speaking about this toxic environment for spirituality, suggests that schools have a tough challenge on their hands as they try to engage with the spiritual and vocational life of young people:

  • The adult world into which our children are inducted is more often than not destructive of their spirituality……Children emerge from infancy with a simplicity that is richly open to experience, only to close off their awareness as they become street-wise.

(Hay and Nye The Spirit of The Child 1998 21-22)

The Catholic Church has always insisted that the main duty of a person is to save their own soul:


  • I must take most care of my soul; for Christ has said, 'What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of their soul?' Matt. 16:26.


The soul is that part of our lives which is linked directly to the mystery of life and of God in whose image we are all made. St John Bosco, the patron of youth saw his work among the poor youth of Turin as “saving souls” which meant awakening in them an awareness that they are loved and are of deep and infinite value. He built that concern into a community where each person was called upon to let everyone else know that they were loved. In that space he created a home where all could belong, a school of life where mistakes could be admitted and learnt from, a playground where everyone could relax into the present moment and the flow of life and finally a church where they could reflect deeply on their lives and the meaning hidden within it.


It was this positively charged atmosphere that allowed young people from fragmented and sometimes violent lives to re-root themselves in a deeper sense of their own sacredness and in a trust that made space for freedom and a joyful spirit. This same atmosphere is desperately needed in all our lives and many Catholic schools are working hard to create this spiritual and soul-filled space in their classes and corridors. Families too achieve this despite the fragmentation of life and the challenges of managing social media. But the general trend is still towards a strong individualism, to competition and to instant gratification that pushes the awareness of young people up to the surface of their lives and leaves them vulnerable to the turmoil of constant change.


The key for St John Bosco in managing the school community was both simple and demanding: It was presence. Woody Allen once quipped that 80% of success in life came from just turning up. He was right, simply being there in every sense, physically, emotionally and also in a guidance role for young people and colleagues allows that inner space, that soul, to be supported and nurtured. It is a lovely thought but one that draws the educator into a life of self-sacrifice in which the focus of attention is moved away from oneself as an individual towards a sense of belonging to a wider community. Standing on a corridor to make sure everyone gets to class, being in the yard when not on duty, whispering an encouraging word or a warning in the ear of a pupil all these things unveil a deeper level of understanding about the meaning of relationships in school. But it costs to stop and try understand a young person, it costs to chase up a pupil who escapes detention, it costs to reflect on one’s experience at the end of the day. And yet such self-sacrifice primes the pump of the spiritual energy in school. It saves souls.


Being present in this way is mirroring the experience of the whole Gospel story because that is what Jesus did: he became present to us, became one of us, identified with us and lived and died with us. That trust, identification and self-sacrifice proved stronger than death and the Gospel tells us that the love we share in school, the patience we show to others, the consistency we maintain under pressure and the forgiveness we share with colleagues and young people is never lost. It is kept safe for us in heaven. There is something of eternal value and goodness about the will to be present to others that saves our own soul and fulfils our sense of vocation as teachers.


So the sense of vocation illustrated in red in the diagram is really nuclear core that energises the teaching vocation and the school community. It is only when that area is alive and well that it can energise the daily good practice of the professional educator and provide enough energy to go the extra mile. It is only when a person recognises that the flow of energy they feel is rooted in Gospel patterns that they can find a common language to share and celebrate their inner life through scripture, through sacraments and self-sacrificing action for others. As our church document says:


  • The purpose of education at school is the development of the person from within, freeing them from the conditioning which prevents them from becoming fully integrated human beings.

The Catholic School 29 1977

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