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Article in CISC New on 2014 Catholic Headteachers' National Retreat

CISC News Volume 13 Issue 70


National Retreat for Catholic Heads led by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP

‘I have come that they may have life… abundance’ John 10:10


A retreat in the middle of June seems like the last thing we would want amidst the end of year frenzy that besets all our schools, no matter what size, type or character. When I saw that Fr Timothy Radcliffe was leading the Catholic Headteachers’ Retreat, I was in! I heard Fr Timothy speak before, but the idea of spending two days with him as a retreatant somehow pushed me to go, even though I had lots of work to leave and would have more to come back to! The coming together of Heads from the independent and maintained sector was also an attraction because as we know, while our context may be different, the challenges of Catholic Leadership are the same. My worries about not having much in common soon dissipated at the first coffee break coupled by the comfort of knowing that John and Maggie Shinkwin were very much part of the organisation of the EducareM Retreat. I was now set up for a very fruitful two days.


After a truly warm welcome and opening liturgy, we began the first session where Fr Timothy referred to the pressures Headteachers are under; from parents, trustees, staff, the press and how the particular pressures of the country are always placed on teachers’ shoulders. We are either the saviours or those to blame. But as Fr Timothy said we must try not to be the saviours; we need to use all our staff as the ‘many parts of the body that makes up our school mission’. We are to be reminded our initials don’t start with J and end with S!


While we shouldn’t think we are Jesus, the main message for me was about how leadership in a Catholic School is the using of our whole bodies to express our faith, mission and school identity. It’s about how we are Christ’s feet, hands and ears.


 The physical nature of our mission was further explored through clever references to the gospel along with the bodily focus of school leadership through a reference to the first miracle of healing after Pentecost; ‘the healing of the crippled man’. The listening, the touching and the raising up by Jesus was testament that our faith as Catholic School leaders is rooted in our giving our whole bodies to what we do. The sacrament of  Christ’s body and the importance of embracing our bodily existence was reflected in us as Heads, in how we give our bodies away when we get up very early and attend meetings till very late, how we sacrifice on an ongoing basis for what is right for our school mission.


Every serious point delivered by Fr Timothy was always followed by a humorous anecdote that was so cleverly carried throughout, from a man with a very rich array of life experiences.


The sense of community during the evening meal was followed by a moving evening liturgy and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, with opportunities both for one to one reconciliation and/or spiritual guidance.


The second day was about how teaching is an act of love and an exploration of the Christian understanding of leadership.


 Fr Timothy explained how there were three elements; how we teach in love i.e. loving the truth for its own sake. Secondly by loving the subject we teach and thirdly, the love and friendship we can have for our pupils and students.


The vocational aspect of leadership in a Catholic School was referred to and the need for us as Catholic Leaders to keep that firmly in our sight. The need to move away from a culture of accelerated career paths and the performance indicator culture to the deep work of vocation where as a leader you forget yourself, you are lost in the subject and are propelled beyond yourself. A beautiful reference to Auden and what vocation is was read out ……


You need not see what someone is doing

to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:

a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,

a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,

forgetting themselves in a function.


A great strength of the retreat was the time to reflect and network with Heads from both the independent  and maintained sector. To realise that we all struggle with the task of enhancing catholic mission and identity is both reassuring and an opportunity to learn how others operate in their own context. Colleagues in the lunch breaks or during reflection were struck by the intense wisdom of Fr Timothy. The many references to Aquinas were so insightful such as how we know something by opening ourselves to it and falling in love with it…. so the challenge was to fall in love with our Catholic Leadership and know the great vocation it is….  The learning of a new language is the opening up to something new and to ‘master it’ is to fall in love with it… so the question being posed was ‘could we fall in love with leadership rather than be worn down by it?’ Referring specifically to leadership, Fr Timothy talked  about how ‘each Head is exercising leadership in the church as priests, prophets and kings’. Leadership in the church is forming pupils for leadership in the world. We were reminded that Pope Francis wants a church in which everyone is called to exercise leadership in some form. The parable of the Prodigal Son was used to explore the gentle and reconciling leadership that was needed, not a leadership based on business and administration or on how budgets rule and how people become personnel – it’s about liberating our imagination from business to the core purpose of Catholic Leadership.


Throughout the retreat Fr Timothy referred to the concept  of ‘leadership as service’. Christian leadership was about being at the service of God’s grace and allowing ourselves to be at the end of God’s surprises. Going back to the parable of the Prodigal Son, Fr Timothy proposed that when you understand a parable you identify with everyone in the parable and when you understand your role as leader you identify with everyone you are serving. The importance of not being ‘cramped’ in our leadership role but rather, being there to always do what needs to be done – even though we won’t always know that in advance was the liberating aspect of true Christian Leadership.


Ultimately the goal and challenge of Christian Leadership was to build unity in our schools – gathering people together, having confidence in the young, healing hurts, reconciling people and speaking the truth. Being both truthful and reconciling in our leadership was cited as the greatest challenge where we need constant support to help us and spiritual food to nourish us.


Christian leadership was about taking the first step into the unknown, and about not caring about our dignity and pride. Being the first person to step into vulnerability and having confidence again in the young was critical. Part of our leadership should be about letting go of what we know and to open the space for something new. The reference to ‘Ars Morendi’ and the positive connotation to what is worth fighting for in Headship and more importantly ‘what is worth letting go’ was insightful.


A final message to take away from this wonderful retreat was that we will be successful if we remain true to the real purpose of Catholic Headship which is to help our pupils, students and staff realise their true vocation in life so that they too ‘may have life and have it abundantly’.


I hope you will consider attending the next Catholic Headteachers’ Retreat on 11th and 12th June 2015 which will be led by Sr. Mary John Mananzan OSB, Principal of St. Scholastica’s Girls’ School in Manila, Philippines, an inspiring international speaker who was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Stephen McKernan

Headmaster of St Edward’s Junior School,