Summum Opus Dei
Posted: Thu, 11 Mar 2021 13:23
In this week's Catholic Teacher article, Mike ponders the importance of the phrase "summum opus Dei".
The great Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus called Christ the "summum opus Dei"; literally translated to the "highest work of God". Christ was, is and will always be the ultimate revelation of God—spirit and matter combined in perfect unity and relationship. Christ is in all people, things, times and places—this is the incarnational worldview that Christ established: the Kingdom of God. This reality draws me to one of my favourite quotes by St John Bosco. It is something that I have displayed in my classroom and office since Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB passed it on to me many years ago:
Do you want to do a good deed? Teach the young! Do you want to perform a holy act? Teach the young! Do you want to do a holy thing? Teach the young! Truly, now and for the future, among holy things, this is the holiest.
To me, the above quote sets out a vision that places education in its true dignity. Education is a "holy" endeavour. It is, as I have said time and time again, a vocation. And those who are called to serve the Lord and build the Kingdom of God through the ministry and vocation of education are called to the "summum opus Dei". John Duns Scotus believed that the "divine DNA" of Christ exists in all things—you, me, us—we can simply call this the "soul". Teaching in all traditions, especially in the Catholic tradition, is about performing a sacred duty, which is the formation of the entire person. This is a task that requires four interrelated dimensions to be constantly at work in the hearts and minds of teachers: vocation, formation, mission and ministry.
Vocation—as teachers I believe we need to constantly ask what the Lord wants of us in education. Discernment must be an ongoing process. I for one have worked in five schools over the course of my career—twenty-three years. I have always tried to read the signs that God may be offering me to discern where am I called to be. I believe that I am where I am and I do what I do, not by my will, but by the Lord's. This is the "mystery" of vocation. I have a very good friend who started as a newly qualified teacher (NQT) on the same day as me in 1998, and he has remained in the same school ever since. He radiates love for his students, and he is in many ways "the school". He feels that the only way that education makes sense to him is to serve that particular community. He continues to discern this call to serve in his situation. He is blessed in that he has confidence in his own vocation. A major role of a Catholic leader is to create a culture of discernment where individuals are given the support to consider their vocation and are encouraged to discern. Once, I approached a headteacher and said I was thinking about moving to another school—it was local to my home—and the reply from this wise headteacher was, "Will you be happy there? Do your skills and beliefs about education fit with this school?" I was being invited to discern. Basically to "stop, look and listen". I did and I stayed put! Vocation is at the heart of our lives as teachers. So, it is vital that we take the time to reflect on how we live out this sacred "call" to serve in the ministry of education.
Formation—once we enter into the ministry of education, our formation is vital. Again, the formation of the community is a serious duty of any leadership team. It is more than saying a prayer at briefing; yet this is important too. Professional formation in terms of NQT induction and the national professional qualification for middle leadership are much needed programmes that can form us in many ways. Spiritual formation is also required. Ethos committees, staff prayer groups, staff liturgies and retreats are all ways that staff can be formed within the school. If the well is empty, then there will be no water to quench the thirst! In order to "feed" the children, the staff must themselves be fed! Each Catholic school should be a community of formation. In my current school, the head of RE leads a weekly session of contemplative silence on a Friday after school. This gives our staff the time and space to listen to what the Lord has to say to them. This is formation indeed! Our weekly staff prayer gathering is a voluntary opportunity to pray, reflect, support and nourish each other and provides us with a much-needed time to pause and simply "be" in a busy week. Our staff liturgies that follow the liturgical year give a sense of rhythm to the school year that flows from the Gospels. Without adequate formation, the "work of God" will be lacking.
Mission—those who work in any field must ask themselves, "What am I doing this for?" Teachers especially must reflect on their call to build the Kingdom of God. This is our mission as Catholic teachers. My particular mission has been to do so in areas of deprivation. This is one branch of the tree that belongs to the universal Church. It is my mission to form the hearts and minds of the children in my care so that they can become "honest citizens and good Christians". When times get especially difficult, such as a challenging Ofsted report or a poor set of results, it is fidelity to the mission of Catholic education that will see us all through. When times get tough, as they often will, we must hold true to our mission. I often find that when I have had a difficult day in school, I go back to basics and ask myself a few simple questions: "Why am I here?", "Why did I accept the call to enter into this vocation?", "Why do I stay?" I genuinely reflect on these missionary questions and honestly try to "touch base" with myself and my vocation, and in doing so, I am brought back to "mission". It is not only the tough times that lead me to these questions. When the days are good, I also take the time to reflect, because this time of reflection regalvanises my sense of mission.
Ministry—is the culmination of the process of discerning one's vocation, ongoing formation, reflecting on and refocusing our mission. Our mission is to the "summum opus Dei", to perform the "highest work of God" each day as teachers in the Catholic tradition and to see the Christ revealed in all things—children, adults, the fabric of the school. If we can do all this, we are truly responding to Don Bosco's call to "Teach the young!"
Photo by Robert Nyman on Unsplash