June 2014

A pilgrim reflects

Good Samaritan schools are built on a solid foundation of Benedictine values, witnessed by the practical energy and action of the Good Samaritan Sisters, writes Mark Askew.

BY Mark Askew

What is the relevance of the charism of the Good Samaritan Sisters – a charism which draws on the ancient Benedictine tradition – for the communities of young women (and some young men) educated in contemporary Good Samaritan schools today?

This was the question in my mind as I began a wonderful two-week Benedictine pilgrimage to Italy and England, organised by Good Samaritan Education, in April. There were 20 of us in the group: college principals, board chairs and people involved in Good Samaritan Education, under the gentle, wise and generous guidance of Sister Elizabeth Brennan SGS.

At the heart of Good Samaritan Benedictine spirituality are key values that guide the Good Samaritan Sisters and all members of the Good Sam family to reach out in loving compassion to neighbours in need. Archbishop John Bede Polding, an English Benedictine monk, had a strong missionary orientation and founded the Congregation to go out to where the need was greatest. That has been the Sister’s story ever since.

It was incredible to visit ancient churches in Rome that Benedict knew as a student, a millennium-and-a-half-ago. We stood under the high altar of St Peter’s in Rome, where historical, archaeological and scientific evidence, as well as Church tradition, suggests the bones of St Peter might rest.

We followed Benedict’s path through Norcia and Subiaco, and were saddened to find the neglected state of the church of St Scholastica. We gathered for quiet prayer around the tomb of Benedict and Scholastica at Monte Cassino.

In a different way, the journey through England was equally wonderful. In the monasteries Polding knew, which were frequently set in the most beautiful countryside, the Benedictine value of stewardship was much in evidence.

How important it is for us, in our very busy modern lives, to occasionally take time out to appreciate the rhythm of prayer that the English monks and nuns live out. The daily cycle of prayer, with its focus on the scriptures, also evidences the Benedictine values of balance and community. In particular, the evening prayer was a beautiful, reflective and restful rounding out of the day. Similarly, the monasteries and convents were real places of tangible peace.

Overwhelmingly, the pilgrimage was an opportunity to experience and reflect on the value of hospitality. This Benedictine value can be extremely powerful when done genuinely and well.

At Stanbrook Abbey, now set in beautiful North Yorkshire countryside, almost all of the community of 20 sisters greeted the bus, and farewelled us, and all gathered to welcome us at afternoon tea. The hospitality was palpable, and seemed to be a foundation on which the place rested.

At Ampleforth Abbey, where the monks run a boarding school of about 650 students, the retiring monk headmaster showed us the school, and commented on how much the English Benedictines had learnt about teaching their values from Australian Benedictine educators, the Good Sams. As Australian educators, we sometimes forget that our situation in Catholic education has allowed us to explore the religious dimension of our work in ways which have not been so possible for colleagues in other places.

Polding was a monk of Downside Abbey, a community located outside Bath, which was about the same size in his time as it is today. Unfortunately, none of the monks were available to meet us when we visited, however we were given a comprehensive tour of the Abbey church, and walked through the school with the archivist.

I occasionally joke with the sisters that, when they educated me as a child at St Brigid’s primary school in Gwynneville, I had no sense of them as Benedictine. I experienced a small revelation when our archivist guide pointed out some of the English Benedictine saints in a window in the church at Downside, including Saints Dunstan and Edith. Among our community of five or six Good Sams in the 1960s, when I was a child, two of the sisters were named for Dunstan and Edith.

Polding, like the other great founders of religious institutes in the nineteenth century, would not have used the word “charism”. Although the concept can be found in St Paul, it was not a word Mary Aikenhead, Eddie Rice, Catherine McAuley or Bede Polding used. Theirs was most often a very practical ministry. As St Mary MacKillop said, “never see a need without doing something about it”.

Grounded in the Benedictine tradition, Polding wanted the ministry of the Good Sams to be out in the world, where the needs were most demanding: in the gaols with the convict women, with the young girls driven into prostitution, and with the children of the poor who needed an education.

My learning from the pilgrimage was that this challenge remains for Good Samaritan Education today. How do we build on the Benedictine values and tradition, and the charism of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, to engage contemporary teenagers in the practical needs and demands of their world?

We are in a good position to continue this conversation. Our schools are built on a solid foundation of the Benedictine values, a window into the gospel which is over 1,500 years old, witnessed by the practical energy and action of the Good Samaritan Sisters. The values of stewardship, balance, community, prayer, peace and hospitality are just as fresh, relevant and challenging today as they were for Benedict and Scholastica.

View a photo gallery of the pilgrimage: “Every step along the way has meaning”

Mark Askew

Dr Mark Askew is Head of Educational Services in the Diocese of Broken Bay. He is an experienced secondary school teacher and Catholic school system leader. He is also Chair of the Board of St Scholastica’s College, Glebe Point, and was educated by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at St Brigid’s Primary school, Gwynneville.

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