Over Easter I went with Fr Peter and Mr Gushurst-Moore to Rome for a conference of Benedictine school leaders from around the world. There were about 170 monks, nuns and lay school leaders from dozens of countries, and from schools that at one level are vastly different, but at another have hugely important things in common. In one seminar, I sat with about 20 people – from Australia, the Philippines, USA, Rwanda and Kenya – who talked about the challenges facing their schools and the great opportunity that Catholic schools have to be leaders in a world that has lost its way and in which the Rule of St Benedict, with its ancient and utterly straightforward teachings about human nature and how community can be made to work, continues to offer us new ways of thinking about what our schools should look like, and what we should be offering its pupils, whether here or in Rwanda.
One of the challenges you encounter at a conference like this is the reality of your own privilege. Fr Donat, from Rwanda, for example, is Head in a school where the fee that your parents pay for you to be at Worth would fund something in the order of 350 pupils’ places. I think Worth would be a better school if there were more social space for the pupils; Fr Donat says that things would be better if he could afford to put a roof over the chapel – but he doesn’t see that happening any time soon.
What are we to make of our privilege as Catholics and Christians in a world – or even just a country – so full of inequality? By accident of birth, here we are at a fee-paying school with beautiful, sweeping views over the countryside; many of you will have just had an expensive holiday, or there’ll be one – or perhaps another one – lined up for the summer; you use more water in a day than millions of people in Africa have for a week.
What would we say to Pope Francis, were he to visit us, who has reminded us that the Gospel teaches us to look to the poor? Wouldn’t the responsible thing to do be to close the School down, sell the land and give the money to the poor? That, after all, is what Jesus tells the rich young man to do.
I’ll leave those questions for a moment.
What was enlightening about this Conference, which is called the Benet Conference, after St Benedict, and which was founded here at Worth by the then Head Master – and, later, Abbot – Fr Christopher Jamison, is how much we have in common as Benedictine schools. Here we are in West Sussex with our Thursday worship, our Subiaco groups, our lectio in Houses. Some of you will talk to your friends in their schools and hear that they don’t have to do any of that stuff.
But if you talked to the pupils in the schools whose teachers and chaplains were at the conference – and we are planning for the pupils also to have a conference in the future – you would hear that you’re part of a vibrant world community of schools, all of whom take their inspiration from an otherwise obscure Roman hermit who, were it not for the fact that he wrote a Rule for living in Christ which just happened to become a driving force in Western European civilisation, would probably be long forgotten by now.
I wonder if St Benedict would be surprised if he knew that, some 1500 years later, a conference of people serious about education meet every three years to explore how his Rule can help us to do education better, and to make what we do in our schools – in your school – more relevant in the modern world by showing us how to live a good life, in spite of all the distraction, all the wealth and all the privilege. Remember that the Rule of St Benedict places great emphasis on humility – groundedness: remembering that, as the Book of Genesis tells us, that “you came from dust and to dust you will return”.
But what about those questions? How can we justify the existence of a school like this in a world so full of poverty and inequality?
Fr Donat invited me to his school. “Come to my school in Rwanda,” he said, “and meet people happy with what they have. Your problem,” he said, “is that you have too much, and yet you still want more. It’s you who are hungry,” he told me: “we have everything we want.” Powerful words from a holy man.
Clearly, we’re not about to close the School and sell the land, so how can we meet the Pope’s challenge to be a school for the poor? Of course, we work for charities; we raise money; we talk about these issues and take them seriously. And there’s more we can do and will do in the future.
But, on a day-to-day level, how do we answer the Pope’s question? I don’t know if I have the full answer. But what I do know is that your privilege in being at a school like Worth comes with great responsibility for the future. The work you do after school must benefit the world; you need to repay your privilege.
But what can you do while you’re here? Treat your privilege with respect, I would say: work hard with the gifts God has given you; work hard to make this a good community to be in; try always to be kind to each other, knowing that Christ is in us all; and, at all times, give thanks to God for the fact of your existence and for the beauty of life.
Mr Stuart McPherson, Head Master Worth School