Hope, Compassion & Catholic Education

 Show Transcript

Welcome to Beyond the Bell podcast, where you will get an inside look into school life. We cover school-related topics that support your child's education and well-being. As you listen along, we hope you'll gain insights for navigating school with your child and leave with a deeper sense of connection between school and home. Here's your host, Chantelle Quesnelle.

Chantelle: Welcome Simcoe Muskoka families to Beyond The Bell. Today we are talking about hope, compassion, and Catholic education with our guest Murray Watson, Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board's adult faith formation animator. Murray is from Saint John's Newfoundland, but grew up in a small farming town on the shores of Lake Huron with three younger sisters.

He grew up Protestant and became Catholic at age 16. He completed graduate studies in theology, biblical studies and Jewish Christian dialogue in Rome, Jerusalem, and Dublin where he received his PhD in 2010. Since 2017, Murray has served as the adult faith formation animator for our school board. In his role, he works to support all of our staff in our own spiritual and religious journeys and helps to support and enhance the catholicity of our school board. He's worked for 25 years in the field of Jewish Christian dialogue locally, nationally and internationally, including publishing a recent book on this topic.

Murray loves languages and has spent much of his adult life studying and learning languages. He is actually fluent in French, Italian, and reads biblical… biblical Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. Welcome, Murray. 

Murray: Thanks Chantelle. It's a great joy to be with you and uh to be able to share, share this time together. And I really appreciate the opportunity because um, as you said, I'm a native of Newfoundland and Newfoundland is a province that, about 25 years ago, made the choice to do away with its Catholic denominational education system. So I'm just very aware that the system that we have here in Ontario is a, is a privilege that we should never take for granted. And that it's something that we always have to be working at improving. Um, always living out our faith being intentional about that so that what we are offering is inclusive and welcoming and supportive and, and reaching out to the world around us. Uh, but it also interests me because, you know, as Christians, we've been involved in education almost since the beginning. Um, a lot of schools started in the monasteries back in the seven and eight hundreds, universities began in church settings. So we've been doing this for a long time and I really believe that uh faith and education have a lot to say to each other and a lot to learn from each other. 

Chantelle: Well, thanks for that, Murray. There's uh, a lot to really reflect on there. I, I appreciate that opening. I'm wondering um in, in starting our conversation today, if we can explore what makes a faith based education unique. Um, why is it so special and important in the context of Ontario's publicly funded Catholic education system?

Murray: Well, I come to this conversation as a, as a Catholic Christian myself. And I understand faith is that that big framework within which I live, that helps me to think about what's going on in our world, including some of the really challenging things that are happening in our world. Um, but it tells me that I am part of something bigger, a bigger story. And for me, that is the story of God's love for this world uh that we have an invitation to be partners in and that our actions and choices and words every day help to, to build up.

Um, but I also love history. I've always loved history. And so faith, faith gives me this wonderful smorgasbord of examples of people from the last 2000 years that I really look up to that I try to imitate in terms of the way I live my life. Um people of generosity, people of dialogue, people of compassion, people of wisdom, um great models, great teachers. Um and in the Catholic school board like ours, you see that very concretely. When you look around at all of our schools, almost all of our schools are named for Saints or holy people that we look to as examples of what Christianity is supposed to look like. People who are faithful people, who are generous people who served others. And, and I think those are wonderful role models to, to hold up to our, our students today. Um. but, but at the heart of Christianity, there is also Easter. You know, although, although Christmas is, is in many ways, the more commercial, commercially popular uh holiday Easter for us is theologically more important because we believe in Easter, that life is victorious over death, that uh goodness and justice and love prove to be more powerful than hatred and injustice and violence.

And that's what gives me the energy and the hope uh to work for a better world because sometimes it's, that's not always obvious. Sometimes the victory of goodness is not always, is not always clear when we look at the world around us, but the message of Easter is what I stay rooted in. And that's at the heart of what we do in our schools. And I I, I think that a faith-based education also gives us some wonderful opportunities, gives us some natural ins to talk very, very easily about values and morals.

Uh, but it also gives us vocabulary to talk to people of other faiths as well. We, we discover the things that we have in common, and that allows us to build bridges and have wonderful dialogues and conversations that are enriching in both directions. 

Chantelle: Yeah. I I, I love that. Um, I know in our, in our preparation for, for our conversation today Murray, one of the kind of questions we thought about was the idea of distinctiveness um and distinctiveness within a publicly funded Catholic school. And um I, I really loved your response to that question when we were preparing. So I wonder if you could share that.

Murray: Well, you know, I I I think distinctive is, is a really good way to describe it because I know sometimes the temptation can be for us to, to talk as if Catholic schools are somehow morally superior, are, are better than other schools, which is not the case. That's, that's not how we describe ourselves. That's not how we understand ourselves. But I think faith provides a really unique lens to think about how we educate and why we educate and what we are educating for.

What are we educating towards? It gives us a, it gives us a vision. And as I say, Christianity has been in this business for more than 1500 years and longer than that, if we trace it back into our Jewish roots. So I think we bring a wealth of ideas about all those questions, uh ways that faith can enrich education, ways that education can enrich faith. There's a, there's a wonderful back and forth dialogue that happens there. Um, that I think happens every day in Catholic schools. And I think is, is a, is a wonderful gift that we bring to society.

Chantelle: And then thinking about, you know, what that actually looks like in, in Catholic schools, I suppose. Um, you know, from, from your perspective, how are some of these um values fostered within Catholic education? I know we've heard of uh, the Ontario Catholic School Graduate Expectations. But, but, but what do those mean? What does that look like? 

Murray: Well, I think we, we, we try to embody it in everything that we do. Everything that we say, um everything that happens in our schools every day is, is kind of geared in that direction.

But the, in many ways, what kind of crystallizes that vision, as you mentioned at the Ontario Catholic School Graduate Expectations, which are a set of uh seven kind of guiding visions that that were developed about 25 years ago that try to sketch out what are the learners that we are trying to uh grow in our schools? What are the, what is the vision that we want for our students to aspire to? So um, they're kind of like the photo on the cover of the puzzle box that, that shows with completed puzzle should look like ideally.

But you know, everybody is gonna live that out in a different way. It's going to look unique in everybody's life. But but those seven which are kind of, you know, which you will see in all of our schools and which we talk about a lot. Um We want our learners to be discerning believers, first of all. We want them to be effective communicators. We want them to be reflective, creative, holistic thinkers. Self-directed, responsible, lifelong learners. Collaborative contributors, caring family members and responsible citizens. So a lot of it is about relationships—it's about relationships within families, relationships within schools, within communities.

Um The the Haudenosaunee people have a wonderful way that they often close their, close their public speeches, which is to say all my relations, which is a sense that, you know, everything that exists, I am related to. And I, I think the Ontario Catholic School Graduate Expectations kind of express that; that we have all kinds of relationships and we're trying to, to foster young people who have a sense of that connectedness, a sense of that responsibility and how they can use their gifts and their talents for good in the world around them as they, as they grow up and take on more and more responsibility. 

Chantelle: Yeah. And then I know it's not the topic or the focus of our conversation today, Murray, but I'm just, as the mental health lead, you know, where we think about the connection between spirituality and mental health. And um you know, some of those foundations are sources of strength and coping during difficult times of stress or for or illness, um the basis of family val- values and contribute to moral and social development, for example. And so, um the fostering of that spirituality of that connection is really one of the pillars or foundation um for well-being for, for Children and, and adults uh, uh alike. But I wonder, um you know, as we, as we think about that, and we think about the role that Catholic education can, can play in supporting um our students during difficult news cycles or challenging times as, as we've experienced and, and continue to experience. Um Yeah, what, what would you offer our listeners in contextualizing that about the role of, of Catholic education in um in supporting during difficult times? 

Murray: Well, on an everyday basis in good times, we try and provide all kinds of resources for, for students to enrich their, their, their sense of their own um value and their own importance and their own giftedness, but especially at times um of crisis, times of pain, times of tragedy.

I think we, we, we delve even more deeply into those resources and we try to offer them even more intentionally to, to our students to really root ourselves in the the essence of our spiritual lives. And at the heart of that, there is caring for others, caring for other people um giving priority to those who are impacted by poverty, by disaster, by painful situations. Um We have, we have a wonderful network of clergy who, who serve all of our schools, many of whom have decades and decades of experience in pastoral counselling, and they bring that wisdom. Um in our high schools, we have chaplaincy team leaders in all of our high schools who, who are counsellors, but who also coordinate all the resources.They bring together many of the resources that the school community might need at a time like that. And we have wonderful people like you, uh gifted psychologists, counsellors, guidance teachers. Um And uh in those really… crunch-times when things are really painful and difficult, and we've had a few of them in the last few years, we come together as a team, we work together very closely to make sure that our students and staff have everything that they need to be supported, to feel cared for, um to know that their needs are being met.

Um, but sometimes the best thing I think we have to offer both as professionals and as people of faith is, is listening. Um not trying to give answers to difficult questions, but knowing, letting people know that we hear them, that we understand them, that we are walking with them, whatever they are going through, they are not alone that they have got a community behind them and with them. Um, and they've got wonderful professionals who are there who are gonna wrap around them to support them. So, I, I, I think all of that, you know, we try and bring together in those, in those times to, um, to make sure that our students and our staff have the kinds of support that they, that they need. That they don't feel alone that they don't feel isolated or abandoned because especially in crisis times that- you can feel very much like you're, you're on your own. 

Chantelle: Yeah. Uh, I love that, that, that, that sense of, of community and not being alone is something that, um you know, I certainly think about often. And we think about school climate, we think about those connections and, and the importance of relationship and, and well-being the well-being of a, of a community as well as the individual. Um and so I'm wondering, as we talk about um the role um that Catholic education can play in, you know, responding and supporting during difficult times, I'm thinking about um, um you know, in my, in my language, uh sometimes I think about prevention and intervention, and so I'm thinking about the practices that might build that foundation um uh already so that when um we are travelling through those difficult times, that foundation is already there. And then as you were just speaking, how we can, can, can reach for those resources, um during times of difficulty. Murray, can you speak to that, that, that foundation first, the practices that um Catholic education supports, that helps build those foundations? 

Murray: Absolutely. Thank you. You know, I I I think at the heart of it is relationship. You know, that, that we want our students when we talk about school climate, one of the questions that the areas that we look at is do they have people in their school that they can go to if they have challenges, people who care… that they know, care about them, people, they trust people that they can speak honestly to.

So I think we really try to nurture a network of relations and, and in every school that happens on many different levels, it's not just what happens in the classroom. Um, in many schools, it's, it's relationships with custodians. It's relationships with um EAs it's relationships with, with uh office administrators. It's, it's with everybody in the school and we, we want everybody in the school to think that they have responsibility for, for that kind of climate for our, for our young people. So I think relationships is, is first and foremost, but all the different kinds of prayer. One of the beauties of Catholicism is that it has this rich banquet of different ways of praying and meditating, 2000 years worth. So for some people, that will be spending time reading the Bible praying with the Bible, reflecting on the Bible. For other people, it will be Christian meditation, which looks much more like some of the Eastern forms of meditation that we see in Buddhism and Hinduism, but has a specifically Christian form. Uh, for some people they find the rosary, repetitive prayers like the rosary to be very soothing, especially when their minds are racing, it can help to, to ground them.

Um And we've got this wonderful 2000-year history of, of great thinkers and um inspired spiritual writers, many of whom have gone through terrible crises in their own lives and have shared with us insights into how did they get through it, or how did they relate that to their relationship with God and religion and spirituality? So we've got libraries of wonderful thoughtful resources that we can draw on from our, from our tradition, great men and women who have, who have gone through difficult times and have, have recorded how they made those connections and what, what helped them.

So I think those are, those are some of the things that we, that we offer and that we, as you, as you say, we offer those on a daily basis. We don't often talk about them in a preventative way, but they really are. We're trying to give people a foundation of wellness and health um things that can insulate them in some ways from some of the bumps and bruises that life throws at us. 

Chantelle: Yeah. And when we integrate um those practices, wellness practices of, of any type, whether that be um intentional connection or prayer, meditation um, or looking to story and examples of how difficulties have been navigated by others. Um, then you know, our brains are then wired to look for those strategies when we're more stressed or when times are difficult, that's a harder path to travel when the foundation isn't there. 

Murray: Well, I know, you know, many people, you know, especially people who read the Bible and spend time with the Bible, they will have special verses, special chapters, special stories that are really meaningful to them, and they will go back to those stories in tough times. They will find, they will find meaning, they will find comfort, they will find strength in those stories. So for some people, you know, probably the most famous one is the 23rd Psalm, the the good Shepherd psalm. Um Many people go back to that and find that very comforting, very soothing, very strengthening. Um when they're going through loss or, or tragedy in their lives. Um, and one of the things that I think has taken on a lot more importance in the last 20 years is appreciation for nature, which is a deeply spiritual practice, you know, for, for people of faith, we don't just see this as stuff around us. We see this as part of, you know, what some authors talk about is God's Great Cathedral around us. So going out in nature and appreciating the beauty, you know, we're very fortunate in our part of Ontario that we've got so much natural beauty around us. And, you know, there, there's a lot of, of research that I'm reading that talks about the healing benefits of spending time in nature, going out and spending half an hour or an hour a day in nature if you can. And, and for us, as for us, as Christians and for Jewish people, that's, that's God's world that we're in. So to, to make those connections between nature around us and the creator of it all is also profoundly, profoundly spiritual. So, you know, I I, I think that's another practice that for many people, they might not call it explicitly religious, but I think there's a lot of spiritual depth and richness that people find spending time in nature in different ways as well. 

Chantelle: Yeah. There, there are so many pieces to that and um you know, that maybe inspires me to, to look for a podcast topic, maybe focused on that. I'm thinking about the Science of, of Awe and, and when we're in the presence of, of, of nature, how we can really readily find that if we intentionally um take the time, I suppose to, to, to recognize the- and be aware of, of the world around us. I'm really, wanted to go back uh because I really appreciate the reminder um that that foundation is gonna look different for everybody and that there are many ways, many entrance points and um um many ways we can build that foundation and that's gonna look unique to each of us um as adults and certainly as students try on different ways of, um, building that foundation that's kind of the, the path of childhood and adolescence to, to explore what's gonna work for them and what feels right, um, to build that foundation. Um And so I, I really, uh appreciate that reminder. 

Murray: Well, I, you know, in my own, in my own life, I've been very fortunate that I spent years living and studying and, and teaching in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem, um, where I was in a neighbourhood that was predominantly Muslim, in a city that was predominantly Jewish. Uh, and I have lots and lots of friends in that, in that part of the world. And, and both Judaism and Christianity—Judaism and Islam—have taught me things that have enriched me as a Christian, you know, things that I practices that I saw in those religions that, that challenged me.

Um You know, so for example, in Islam, the practice of five, five daily prayer times that start very early in the morning, uh you know, in the part of Jerusalem where I was, the call to prayer would ring out at 4:30/quarter-to-five in the morning. And there would be people going to the mosque at five o'clock in the morning, and they would stop throughout the day consciously to, to recall God and to take a few minutes of prayer. And that was very challenging to me, I thought, wow, how often do I do that in the course of a day. How often do I take five moments to think about God and think about my faith? So it challenged me. Um Judaism has a, ha- has, you know, this wonderful practices, Judy, I think about Islam as well. The, the idea of the 99 beautiful names of God that there are all these different ways of describing God, talking about God, and that all of them are right. It's, there's no one way to talk about God. And the fact that that Islam has these 99 different ways, um is a reminder to me that everybody finds God in their own, in their own way and that's ok. And we want our students to find their own particular path to that God. 

Chantelle: Oh, Murray. I feel like I could talk with you for, for forever. And I, I can imagine that our, our, our families that are, that are listening in are really appreciating this reflect- this opportunity for reflection on, on Catholic education. Um and, and hearing what we're covering here, um I'm aware of, of the time but, but before we, we wrap up, um something that I've um, had the um, that I've been able to listen to you say, uh many times this year and it's really resonated for me, um is to, to look for the helpers in times of difficulty. And um I think it'd be really nice to offer our listeners um more information about that and how that might be helpful, particularly during this time or times of difficulty. So Murray, can, can you share that with our listeners? 

Murray: Sure. And, and, and my footnote to this is Mr Rogers, that amazing, the amazing authority that he was. But he said that his mother had told him in times of, of pain and confusion and struggle always look for the helpers, because there are helpers out there and, and when everything else is very chaotic, when you feel like everything is, is, is disoriented, there will always be people who will be trying to, to, to do good for others. There'll be people who will try to bring healing, try to bring some sense of order and, and peace in the midst of the, the whirlwind. Um so I think that's really, you know, where we can feel very powerless sometimes, especially in terms of things that are happening in our world, to remind ourselves that there are so many people who are doing good, some of them big national organizations like Doctors without Borders, and the United Nations, some of them working on the ground completely anonymous that we won't know. But to remember that there are people who are doing so much good at a grassroots level who are really trying to be agents of, of healing and hope, who are reaching out to other people helping them to, to rebuild their lives after natural disasters in the midst of war. Um So just, just to you know, on, on one hand to remember that those people are out there and to constantly be looking for them. But the the reverse of that is to realize that we can also be those helpers.

We have that ability to be helpers in the lives of others in small and large ways to the people around us. Um, we can model that, that love, that compassion, that sensitivity to others because we all know that there are people around us who are, who are going through tough times. Uh A few words of kindness, a smile, a few minutes of, of listening can go a long, long way. It doesn't have to be expensive, it doesn't have to be complicated. Um, so to recognize the helpers who are out there in other places, but also realizing that we have the potential and the opportunity to be helpers to others as well in our own lives.

Chantelle: Hm. Thanks for that. Thanks for that, Murray. I'm wondering, is there anything that you had hoped that I would have asked or that you were hoping we talked about today that we hadn't got to yet? 

Murray: Not really. II I guess, I guess for me, um the importance of faith in, in education is, is from a Christian perspective, Jesus says that he came so that people would have abundant life, overflowing life, flourishing life. And that, that ultimately is what we want our Catholic schools to be. We want them to be places where people flourish on every level, physically, socially, emotionally, religiously, spiritually. Um, we want these to be places where people can really spread their wings and be who they are and uh live out the full potential that God has given them. There's a, there's a great Catholic medieval saint that I love, Saint Catherine of Sienna, and she said, “if you are who God made you to be, you will set the world on fire”, And I really believe that that's what Catholic education is about, is, is making it possible for our young people to become the best version of themselves. To live out the, the potential God has given them so that they can go out and make our world a better place through their own contributions and their gifts. 

Chantelle: Thanks for that. Well, Simcoe Muskoka families, I hope you've enjoyed this episode talking about hope, compassion and Catholic education. Um and our guest Murray Watson.

Please stay tuned for other episodes and subscribe to Beyond the Bell wherever you get your podcasts and don't forget to check out our online article. See you soon. 

Thanks for listening to Beyond The Bell podcast. We hope you found today's episode helpful. 

Beyond the Bell is brought to you by the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and our Catholic Parent Involvement Committee. It's hosted by Chantelle Quesnelle. Pauline Stevenson is our executive producer. Episodes are produced and edited by Portage Creative. You can find our show notes and previous episodes on our podcast website, beyondthebell.ca. 

If you like today's episode, leave us a review. If you have any suggestions for future episodes or any questions or comments about Beyond the Bell podcast, you can send an email to info@smcdsb.on.ca. Thanks again for joining us. We'll see you next time.