I have just watched on TV the prayer vigil in Hyde Park as part of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Great Britain. It was a wonderfully contemplative occasion, blest with good weather, which focussed particularly on the beatification of John Henry Newman in Birmingham tomorrow. I was especially touched by the words the Pope addressed to young people, which equally apply to all young people. They were a meditation on the famous reflection of John Henry Newman which recalls the uniqueness of every individual person and the loving purpose God has for them: “God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. He has not created me for naught.” These words were written on a board in the entrance hall of the first school I taught in in Sussex, from 1985, and they made a strong impression on me then. It was poignant to hear them addressed to young people this evening in the context of finding the unique vocation of service God has for all. Those of us who are not quite so young can perhaps forget the sense of excitement and anticipation young people can have about their lives ahead, and we must try also to help them to focus on finding the ‘right’ way of living, rather than simply giving in to the misleading and distracting noise and temptation which surrounds them in our modern world. If you had to sum up the purpose of a Church school, you could do a lot worse than this.
John Henry Newman famously said, when challenged at a dinner, that he would certainly drink to the Pope, but he would ‘drink to conscience first’. It is easy to misinterpret these words. He was not linking conscience with individualism, the ‘it’s my life and I have the right to live it how I like’ attitude so prevalent today. He was thinking of conscience as the result of self-examination in the light of sincere and demanding reflection on the Word of God. In other words, he was rejecting blind or dumb obedience as a truly Christian way of living. For Newman, to quote another of his famous aphorisms, ‘to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’. Life is a journey, we must work at our faith, and never just give in to the first easy temptations which come our way. Again, this is an important underpinning principle for the aims of Church schools.
One of the many things which I find incredible about the Papal Visit is the stamina shown by Benedict. He is, after all, 83 years old, and has one demanding engagement after the other, with intense focus on every word and gesture of his. And obviously some of his encounters are intensely personal and taxing at every level. Although the opposition protests seem to have been relatively low-key on this visit, it must have been a huge burden to know that so many people apparently did not want him in Britain. I was however heartened to read David Cameron’s comment that Benedict should be welcomed by “all who welcome what faith groups contribute to our society and who understand that, for many, faith is a gift to be cherished, not a problem to be overcome.” He also thanked the Pope for offering some challenges to the thinking of society.
You may be unaware of the influence a thinker called Philip Blond has on the thinking of Cameron’s Conservatives, and Blond himself is heavily influenced by the body of thought about the role of faith in society known as Catholic Social Teaching. There is a direct connection. Let’s hope that this visit has been the catalyst for a turning of the tide when it comes to the valuing and support of faith and religion in Britain today, something that Church schools and faith-based approaches to education can themselves benefit from.