BY BISHOP GREG O'KELLY
A good question. Why did an angel come to earth to confront the young woman Mary, not much more than a girl, with the invitation to become nothing less than the Mother of God?
It was the incident that changed the Universe, that the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. God became a human being through the cooperation of one of us, in the person of Mary. For eight centuries it has been a dear Christian devotion, to commemorate that invitation and Mary’s response, and the consequence.
Bells were rung three times a day – morning noon and evening – to call Christian people to remember and celebrate in their hearts that event. We have all seen Millet’s painting of the two French peasants working in the field, putting down their basket and hoe and bowing their heads in prayer as the bell rings out in the village church.
I was caught by surprise by a journalist from the Adelaide Advertiser phoning me to say he had heard that as bishop I had instructed the Angelus to be reintroduced into all the schools of our diocese of Port Pirie. He wrote up our conversation as an article, which was then published in CathNews.
I am intrigued by the scale of response, from comments on the website, blogs, emails and phone calls, and virtually all have been positive. How did I take this step, was it not like putting toothpaste back into toothpaste tubes, or old wine back into new skins?
Two reflections impelled me to take this step. At the National Catholic Education Conference late last year, a speaker reported on the Catholic School Identity Project being undertaken at Leuven University in Belgium in conjunction with the Victorian Catholic Education Office comparing the religious dimension of Victorian Catholic schools and the Belgian Catholic schools, their faith effectiveness.
The presenter showed a slide of a statue of Mary, one you would see in almost all Catholic schools, with a series of placards on the pedestal which listed ideals and values the school obviously would like its students to embrace.
The signs read “service”, “kindness”, “generosity”, “honesty”. He made the point that promoting secular values by themselves does nothing to deepen religious faith, but in fact can further the secularisation of an individual.
These are good values, of course, but the lecturer claimed that if we stopped at them, without making explicit reference to why we believe these to be high values, they will to a degree satisfy the religious sense of a person, and weaken the need to go deeper to the person of Christ whom we see as the origin for living such values. In other words, values like kindness and generosity are important to us because that is how Christ would have us live the Christian life. We need constantly in such matters to point to Jesus.
A second reflection was that for many people Christ has diminished in significance to being simply that of a good person in history, a teacher of beautiful morals and stories, a profoundly good man. We live in an age when the name of Jesus can be used as a swear word, whereas for a Muslim, for whom the Prophet is not divine, would be greatly incensed and not permit such language. Yet for us Christ is the Son of God. Our schools must do all they can to reinforce the central tenet of Christianity, that the Word became flesh, that Jesus was divine.
The changing circumstances in the Church demand that our schools take a more active role in faith formation, as we are still a long way from having an active family Church, where such devotions and prayers are recited in the ordinary context of the family. For us the Angelus can be a powerful reaffirmation of our belief in the Divinity of Christ. The prayer that concludes it is very rich in its theology.
My suggestion to our schools concerning timing was that the Angelus should be recited on two or three days a week, at the end of morning classes, to mark the commencement of the week and the concluding day, so that it becomes a part of the rhythm of our practice as a Catholic school, to herald and conclude the week. I suggested that classes from Year 7 to 9 commence the Angelus, and it can move through the more senior years in each subsequent year.
It is crucial that our students realise that for us Jesus is not just a fine figure of history, and a very good man who taught lovely sayings, but in fact is the Incarnation of God in our world. Moreover, it is marvellous affirmation of ourselves as His handiwork, that the cooperation of a young woman was necessary for an extraordinary event to take place. God so loved us that He wanted to become one like us, the Creator living amongst us, we who are people made in His image and likeness.
Some schools in my diocese of Port Pirie now have the whole community saying the Angelus, staff and students. In another the office staff asked to be able to join in at the same time. A couple of schools have begun to ring the bell. In another it is the students who are very keen to remind the teacher that it is time to say the Angelus prayer.
This prayer of the angel to Mary, and her response, underlines the central tenet of our faith, and indicates the extraordinary dignity bestowed upon human beings by the Word who became flesh and wished to live amongst us.
Greg O'Kelly SJ is Bishop of Port Pirie, South Australia.
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