Archbishop Nicholas Chia and other speakers provide encouragement and set hopeful tone for future of Catholic education in Singapore.

SINGAPORE - While students from Catholic schools enjoyed the start to their year-end holidays, their principals and vice-principals gathered with Archbishop Nicholas Chia and members of the Archdiocesan Commission for Catholic Schools (ACCS) at a two-day seminar to review Catholic education in Singapore.

This seminar, with the theme "Towards a Vision", was held at Catholic Junior College on Nov 14 and 15. It was organised by ACCS to raise awareness of what Catholic education is about and of the role of the laity to sustain the Catholic ethos in Catholic schools.

While the Ministry of Education (MOE) sets the direction on academic education in Singapore schools, ACCS is empowered by the archdiocese to look after Catholic education in schools.

Archbishop Nicholas Chia, Bernard Chen and John Yip (ACCS Chairman and Vice-Chairman respectively), Father John Paul Tan, and Brother Paul Rogers addressed the concerns that Catholic educators at the frontline face and it was made clear that a resolution of these concerns require that educators are clear on the vision and purpose of their schools.

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Mr Bernard Chen urged Catholic school leaders to appreciate their mission "to promote Gospel values in their schools".

Archbishop Nicholas Chia admitted that leading a Catholic school in Singapore is challenging. While having to integrate into the larger education system in Singapore, Catholic schools have to maintain a moral cutting edge or they would be no different from government schools, he emphasised.

Archbishop Nicholas Chia praised the leaders of the 32 Catholic schools here for achieving a good balance between the two demands.

"Over the years, as you strove hard to build the public standing of our schools, you have retained what our schools have been outstanding in - values education and pastoral care," he said. The archbishop encouraged school leaders to continue to be the "extension of the teaching arm of the church" and to use the many gifts God has given them to reach those they serve. He also encourged them to call upon him should they need to, and stressed to them that the church depends on them to educate our young Catholics.

Concern over how to achieve this aim, especially with the decline of religious vocations, was allayed by Father John-Paul Tan who encouraged the laity to step up to their dual identities as Catholics and educators.

"Every teacher is responsible for the moral and religious education of his students," he said. It is wrong to believe that Catholic education should be left only to religious brothers and sisters, he added. "Today, the task of inculcating Catholic values and faith is the responsibility of qualified Catholic men and women - the apostolate of the laity - a task that religious used to do" but which they have ceased to because the needs they used to address have vanished, he continued.

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"Instead of bemoaning the fact that religious are diminishing, lay leaders need to take ownership of their schools," Father John-Paul said. He suggested that lay people consider studying Theology to equip themselves with the necessary church teachings to fulfil their responsibility to pass them down to the children.

"In Canon Law, any institution with the name ‘Catholic' must stand by Catholic values," he said. But these values need not reflect the school traditions of the past, he explained.

"Get to the core of teaching and living of Catholic values, pastoral care… our mindset is often nostalgia and if we do not move out of it, we do not move forward."

The Franciscan friar said that moving forward also means that principals and vice-principals should uphold Catholic values and ensure that these are expressed in the teaching and lifestyle of the school, even with non-Catholic students around, and there are sensitive ways to go about this.

"We are in an inter-religious environment in our schools. We have documents in the church that guide us but we need to adjust our vocabulary to suit our inter-religious culture," he explained.

"We propose, expose but we don't impose," Mr John Yip said to highlight the difference between evangelisation (which the church encourages) and proselytisation (which the church does not).

With changes going on around us, "it is up to us to respond in dynamic and creative ways to the opportunities that God puts before us," summed up Archbishop Chia, who is hopeful that Catholic schools here can grow stronger in their Catholic character with the (support, vision and leadership of ACCS.)

This seminar is one response. It has opened new perspectives and stirred up positive discomfort, said Sister Cecily Pavri, the Secretary of ACCS.

Brother Paul Chin, the principal of Maris Stella High School feels more hopeful for the future of Catholic schools now, after attending the seminar. He says that there is more unity between Catholic schools with ACCS and now knows who to approach should the need arise.

Ms Geraldine See, the vice-principal of CHIJ Toa Payoh, shares his sentiments.

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