Prophets of the Future 3: Sectarianism and Catholic Schools

In this series, MEduc4 students on the ‘Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues’ elective course reflect on how a Catholic educational perspective can enhance school’s’ approach to current challenges.

Maria Haggarty, MEduc4

Sectarianism is a contemporary phenomenon with historical roots, often linked to religious antagonism between Catholic and Protestants. However, framing the antagonism purely in terms of Catholic and Protestants narrows ‘sectarianism’ to religious bigotry, whereas contemporary sectarianism is a wider societal issue. Evidence proves sectarian prejudice and activity spills beyond Christian borders; neither one specific group, nor individual solely experience sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015), rather it embraces a wide range of issues that some pupils may have encountered: immigration, racism, intolerance and/or prejudice (McKinney, 2018).

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The changing definition of sectarianism

The term sectarianism has therefore evolved from beyond the realm of inter-denominational struggles between Catholic and Protestants to a broader definition reflecting Scotland’s more globalised and diverse society. McKinney (2015), when developing his own definition, states sectarianism is a social challenge, one that is associated with religion or ‘quasi’ religion convictions, customs, which create a specific selfhood and exclusivity, which may lead to radical mentalities and conduct. The Morrow Report, (Scottish Government, 2015), reported when attempting to determine what sectarian was in the restricted religious sense from anti-migrant, racist, prejudiced employment, and reduced societal participation was comparable to ‘unscrambling eggs.’
In contrast to this evolving and broadening definition stands the sensationalist nature of the reporting of sectarianism within the Scottish media coupled with prominent societal figures stating Catholic schools are divisive and perpetuate sectarianism, creating a problematic discourse that Catholic schools are no longer relevant within diverse contemporary Scotland (McKinney, 2015). Those voicing such comments have not substantiated their statements with either Government statements or policies regarding sectarianism, nor with academic research. Most media reporting focuses on certain rivalries within football, which is significant in shaping wider public opinion, and/or encounters with sectarianism (Scottish Government, 2015). This has implications for teachers in the classroom: our pupils of today are the technology generation, accessing social media from an early age. Therefore, exposed to widescale rhetoric surrounding sectarianism means they may arrive in class with their own unintended misconceptions, that sectarianism purely exists within Scotland between Catholic and Protestants.

Effective pedagogies and practice

The Irish-descended Catholics and the many others who make up the population of Catholic schools and their families may have encountered hostility and prejudice first-hand, either historical hostility towards their communities, or contemporary direct experience. Thus, the encompassing themes of other world religions, prejudice, racism, and immigration, can be effectively taught through both inductive and deductive pedagogies, both of which are vital to the delivering the ‘divine pedagogy’ promoted in This is Our Faith. An inductive method is based on the personal, relatable experiences of the children in their daily lives, and attempts to identify how God is always present. A deductive method, which seems more conceptual, is found within Scripture, doctrine and liturgy which calls upon children to find applicability to them in their own lives (Coll, 2015).

Inductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Peace – one of the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching – is one of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism, the antithesis of sectarianism. The New Testament advocates for peace ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1). However, Catholic teaching does not only focus on the extrinsic concept of peace, but also in the intrinsic formation of peace within each person ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.’ (John 14:27). Evidencing that Catholic education is committed to the intrinsic nurturing of holistic individuality unique to each child and supported through collaborative learning empowers children within their own identity and freedoms (D’Souza, 2012). That reflects the aims of the RERC Principles and Practice document, Education Scotland, stating RERC develops self-reflection, perceptions, criticality, the formation of conscience and morality. McKinney’s (2015), working definition of sectarianism included the words ‘intolerant, attitudes, shared by groups that fosters an identity.’ Catholic teaching challenges these beliefs. Teaching of other faiths within RERC, stated within the Principles and Practice document Education Scotland, creates tolerance and acceptance of other ethnicities within contemporary Scotland. Promoting these beliefs and behaviours of social cohesion, is the principle of Solidarity within Catholic Social Teaching, which appears for example as a theme of the Sense over Sectarianism (SOS) programme. The learning within the programme investigates sectarianism within both historical and contemporary Scotland, allowing teachers to broaden the scope of pupil learning between Christian sectarianism to wider societal concerns of equality and relationships, with a particular focus on the inductive pedagogy principle of personal experience (Education Scotland, 2022). Using the Divided City novel, (Breslin, 2011), within my last P7 placement class, who were diverse in religion, culture, and race, created a learning environment which discussed real-life experiences, through the cross-cutting themes relating to sectarianism of prejudice, hate crime, immigration, community, social class, culture, and friendship.

Deductive approaches to anti-sectarian pedagogy

Despite Divided City fostering a pedagogically inductive approach, there are also opportunities for Catholic teachers to link the novel deductively to Scripture; by teaching and having a classroom environment built upon Scripture. A classroom culture of inclusivity, built on collaboration and acceptance facilitates children learning to ‘have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.’ (Peter 3:8). As Catholic teachers we are bound to teach through and with the Catholic Faith. However, this is not a means of indoctrination: it is a way to show the love of Jesus through our pedagogies and to practice, embrace and appreciate the rich benefits that diversity within the classroom brings (Education Scotland, 2022). Therefore, Catholic teachers through their effective pedagogies and practices shape children in the appreciation of faith, suitable to their stage of development, enables children to understand that while faith is independent of culture, it inspires all cultures (Catholic Education Resource Centre, 2006).
Teaching within Catholic schools is based on love and acceptance of others, standing as a powerful rebuke to all form of sectarianism, and it in turn challenging the sensationalist discourse which would claim that Catholic schools aid sectarianism. In an increasingly diverse and globalised world, and anti-sectarian pedagogy will do no less than prepare pupils within Catholic education for 21st century citizenship.

Prophets of the Future 2: Mental Health and Catholic Schools

In this series, MEduc4 students on the ‘Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues’ elective course reflect on how a Catholic educational perspective can enhance school’s’ approach to current challenges.

Colette Wilson, MEduc4

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One of the challenges we face today in Catholic education is the increasing rate of mental illness in our young people. Figures from Audit Scotland in 2018 showed 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5-16 had been diagnosed with a mental illness (Audit Scotland, online). This figure has risen, and in 2022 reports suggest that 1 in 6 children and young people have now been diagnosed with a mental health condition. That is 5 children out of a class of 30. Over half of mental health conditions are diagnosed before the child has reached the age of 14 (Local Government Association, online). Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on the health and wellbeing of our young people. There are many experiences and issues that can affect the health and wellbeing of the child and certain groups of young people are more susceptible to negative influences on their health and wellbeing and research suggests that this imbalance has exacerbated since the pandemic (SPICe, 2022).

Mental wellbeing and schools

Feeling good and being able to function efficiently, being able to maintain positive relationships with others and being able to live a life where you believe has a sense of purpose are all positive indicators of mental wellbeing (Scottish Government, 2018).
What can we as a Catholic School and as Catholic educators do to support our young people and in particular those suffering from mental health conditions? Catholic education is viewed as being ‘Christocentric’ where Catholic schools centre their education around the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. A school community with Jesus Christ at its centre ‘‘must work for the healing and transformation of the whole community including those considered to be peripheral or marginalised’’ (Keiran and Hessian, 2005:124). This is Our Faith (TIOF) highlights Jesus Christ at the centre of the Catholic school and asks for us as Catholic educators to ensure children are provided opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ. Teachers are often the first point of contact when a child is experiencing negative effects on their mental health and teachers can often feel like they are not equipped with the proper tools to deal with certain behaviours or situations nor do they believe they have the experience to deal with such issues (Lowry et al, 2022). However, the objective of the Catholic school which is included in the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland is to ensure that the staff are supported with their spiritual and professional development and provided with the tools to ensure that each child who has been made in the image of God feels included within the school community and that their voices are heard.

Purpose and happiness

Evidence suggests that there is a positive relationship between religion and individual happiness and that young people who celebrate and participate in their religion are happier (Francis et al, 2020). One of the aims in the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland is the responsibility that the school community will share in the experience of prayer. Evidence suggests that people who pray were less likely to display signs of mental illness and that they were able to relate to a greatness beyond their own existence. They were able to understand life as having a purpose and meaning and how they as an individual are part of this life and all its greatness (Francis et al, 2008). Mountain (2005) suggested that prayer was a positive part of a child’s daily life, and that prayer could be used as a way to get through difficult periods in a child’s life. Prayer allows the child to connect with God individually or as part of a religious community.

Petitionary prayer

A potential whole-school approach to deal with the challenges of mental health is petitionary prayer, which can help the whole child to feel nurtured, developed and supported. Petitionary prayer is considered as a request to God for something using prayer (Stump, 1979). We can allow the young people to pray for what they feel is important to them whether this be something they are struggling with or something that is happening in their family or the world around them. Through communal prayer and religious activity children can feel part of a community and share a sense of belonging. Evidence suggests that teaching the technique of prayer to children should allow for them to make personal significance. Prayer is an important part of the child’s spirituality where they can explore their relationship with God, their relationships with friends and family, their relationship with the environment around them and allows them to be more aware of their own needs and emotions (Mountain, 2005). We can also prioritise making petitionary prayer more visible in the school: examples of this are the children working collaboratively to create prayer trees where they can add their own prayer intentions. Praying for others allows children to understand that prayer is obtainable for them also. Prayer trees can be construed in several ways but can be seen as a communal space where children can pray together and where they can feel like they belong. People who pray as part of a community feel a sense of belonging and experience a shared acceptance (Mountain, 2005). Petitionary prayer therefore has great potential as one creative technique that can help tackle the challenges arising from mental health issues faced within our schools.

Prophets of the Future 2: Poverty and Catholic schools in the post-Covid era

In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on an elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues.

Sophie MacInnes, MEduc4 student

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The Gospel of Luke (Luke 6:20-21) states that Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”  Examining Jesus’ roots, Patrick Hogan notes that ‘the story of Jesus begins with the birth of a child in degrading circumstances and it is striking that the Saviour of the world should be born in less-than ideal conditions, wrapped in swaddling in a manger of temporary accommodation.’ Angie Miller (2014) further elaborates that ‘Jesus was born into a society with a distinctive hierarchy where he was firmly placed at the bottom.’ Furthermore, throughout scripture, Jesus repeatedly aided those within minorities. He proclaimed, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13-14)

When engaging with the children in our classrooms, we must recognise the contemporary challenges that individuals are faced with and apply our Catholic values when evaluating the needs of the children facing us, a critical issue being poverty. 1-in-4 children in Scotland are living in relative poverty (Health Scotland, 2019) and this number is generally spatially concentrated in urban and industrial areas. A highly affected area is within Glasgow and areas throughout the West of Scotland, meaning that the challenges that our pupils are facing are often ones we must also challenge as our own.  Jesus went beyond merely alleviating financial poverty, as addressed in multiple scenarios particularly in Luke’s gospel, and in living a life mirroring Jesus we as Catholics must uphold his commitment to promoting social justice.  We should aim to achieve this by providing opportunity for all through a Christocentric ethos, echoed throughout all aspects of our school ‘to promote and manifest a common outlook with a common Christian vision centred around the teaching and life of Jesus Christ.’ (Keiran and Hession, 2005; cf. Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland).

The challenge of COVID

A critical challenge that every school is currently facing is the repercussions of COVID 19. Stephen McKinney (2020) observes the disruption of education alongside the long-term effects on children’s health and wellbeing as parents and carers have had to recalibrate their familial role into one of a part time educator.  Although COVID 19 undeniably has affected all children, those living in poverty have been arguably impacted detrimentally more than those with a secure home life. It is evident when assessing the children in our classrooms that they have extremely varied experiences of engagement with online learning and home education. What McKinney labels the ‘digital divide’ is a problem that schools worldwide are currently tackling and as Catholic teachers, we must make provisions for those living in poverty who have limited or no access to technology and therefore have not engaged with a substantial amount, if any, educational resources over the lockdown period. It is our unequivocal duty within Catholic social teaching principles to attempt to bridge the consequential COVID gap which has undoubtedly left children in poverty far behind their peers and forced even more children and families into poverty. (Kharas, 2020). When applying social teaching principles, several values overlap when applying them whilst teaching children living in poverty, but we must always answer to the preferential option for the poor when evaluating whether we are achieving our goals as Catholic teachers successfully. We must constantly reiterate that, ‘Jesus does not side with oppressors, but loves the humble.’ (CAFOD, 2020)

Responding to the challenges

As Catholic teachers, what provisions can we implement to aid the multitude of children who have been affected by this problem? In Scotland, schools residing in areas with high levels of deprivation have been awarded additional COVID 19 related Pupil Equity Funding (Education Scotland, 2021) and this is dedicated to those most in need. Although it is at the head teacher’s discretion how it is to be spent, there are already many educational initiatives from the Scottish Government targeting children advancing in learning that they have missed prior due to the pandemic. Therefore, I would urge schools to review the gaps in faith that have appeared as a result of the pandemic amongst children. Parallel to the lack of access to education, we must recognise the children’s lack of access to the church, their faith-related learning experiences and the barrier to pastoral care. As a Catholic community, it is our duty to ensure our learners are supported and these gaps in faith are bridged by the school and church simultaneously.

Alongside achieving educational goals, our role should prioritise ensuring children are engaging with our local church through re-strengthening the community bond between the school, church and home (cf. Reilly, 2020). Allowing children to watch Masses online in classrooms whilst better than nothing, is certainly not substantial enough to allow children to fully emerge themselves in their faith. Consequently, it is our duty to bridge the gap between the school and church and converse with our parish priest to adapt to contemporary COVID issues to find solutions that will allow children to return to church in person. Whether this is through a system which alternates students to attend weekly, or exclusive full school Masses and other services in school, it is crucial to students’ spiritual development to make provisions that allow pupils to engage with their faith face-to-face.

I believe it is imperative in our mission to live a life mirroring Jesus, that we must take steps to alleviate the burden of the poverty related faith-gap that is an apparent consequence of COVID amongst children in schools today.

Prophets of the Future: Catholic schools and Sectarianism

In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on an elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues.

Aimee McCallum, MEduc4 student

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‘All Catholic education is Christocentric’ according to Keiran and Hession (2005: 123), thus the common aim within Catholic education is for all members of the community to demonstrate a likeness to Christ.

The ‘Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland commits all Catholic schools to honour Jesus Christ through ‘a commitment to communicate Catholic social teaching and thereby to promote social justice and opportunity for all’, and to live guided by Gospel values. Despite the centenary year of Catholic education in Scotland, 2018, focusing on the positive contribution Catholic education has had on Scotland, critics such as Tom Woods, Professor Grayling and Sheriff Richard Davidson have claimed that Catholic schools are responsible for sectarianism in Scotland. However, what evidence do critics have? Headlines such as ‘if we want to end sectarianism, we must abolish Catholic schools’ (Goring, 2019), make bold claims, but where is the evidence of Catholic schools are promoting sectarianism? If Catholic schools are to promote and live by Gospel values, there is no place for the promotion of sectarianism despite critics such as the former Deputy Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Tom Wood (2019), claiming Catholic schools foster and promote sectarianism.

What is the social concept of ‘sectarianism’, and do Catholic schools create division along sectarian lines?


Stephen McKinney (2015) has highlighted there are multiple understandings of ‘sectarian’ and ‘sectarianism’, however both refer to a distinction between sects, whereby each sect is exclusive and holds a distinctive ideology shared amongst its members. Although a sect can exist within art, politics, or science, in Scotland sectarianism refers to hostility between Roman Catholics and Protestants. In attempts to tackle sectarianism in Scotland, the Scottish Government commissioned an Advisory Group to move forward from sectarianism as a society, defining sectarianism in Scotland as:

‘a mixture of perceptions, attitudes, actions and structures that involved overlooking, excluding, discriminating against or being abusive or violent towards others on the basis of their perceived Christian denominational background. This perception is always mixed with other factors such as, but not confined to, politics, football allegiance and national identity’ (Morrow et al, 2015: 5).

This working definition highlights that prejudices and stereotypes have allowed sectarianism to manifest across generations, creating a persisting issue which cannot be solved in isolation as intolerances are translated into actions at micro, meso and macro level.

Therefore, it can be argued a sect involves an exclusive understanding of religious beliefs to cultivate a shared identity, however, the connection to religion is often questionable despite claims that sects are founded in historical religious roots. McKinney argues against the validity of these claims labelling them as ‘selective, self-serving or semi-mythical’, thus highlighting sectarianism is often a front for the justification of the marginalisation, alienation and demonisation of groups stigmatised as the ‘other’.  This ultimately highlights that sectarianism, although closely connected to religion and football, is a social problem resulting in extremist behaviours that unfortunately permeates Scottish society.

To address this social problem, Fuller and Myers (2003) advocate increased awareness, policy determination and reform. As social problems are complex, there may be various causes and effects which require a multitude of solutions, therefore, by increasing public awareness, engaging in discussions to find a means to an end and reform by creating legalisation to combat the issue, in theory, attitudinal changes can occur.

Catholic Schools: Good for Scotland?

Reports by the Scottish Government (2005 and 2015) have clearly indicated that Catholic schools should not be held accountable for causing sectarianism, and there is no evidence to support claims of Catholic schools being a contributor. Similarly, Catholic schools are situated globally and educate without accusations of cultivating sectarian beliefs and attitudes, instead reflecting their specific social, cultural, local and national contexts (Flint, 2012). Thus, highlighting sectarianism as a social problem caused by Catholic schools can be a reminder of a lost Protestant culture in Scotland (Flint, 2012).

Charting a way forward

Nevertheless, as sectarianism is a social problem there will undoubtedly be individuals (including those associated with Catholic schools) who demonstrate sectarian beliefs and actions (McKinney and Conroy, 2014). If the person is an educator, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and SCES would investigate as this publicly contradicts the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland. Similarly, if this was a pupil, individual schools would handle the situation appropriately. However, various measures can be taken to raise awareness of sectarianism to avoid reaching this stage, and there are various projects which aim to tackle sectarianism in Scotland through government funding. Using resources devised by these projects, including a programme with focus on educational, sporting and cultural activities, can raise awareness and ultimately allow learners to question social problems, thus enabling them to be ‘effective contributors’ as they are equipped with the knowledge and understanding to question social injustice in society.

Education is the most important tool in raising awareness of sectarianism, therefore, all schools in Scotland, denominational or non-denominational, have a responsibility to educate young people on the injustice of sectarianism, by providing a curriculum where the topic of sectarianism is integrated, to create a more harmonious future where the dignity of each person is respected.

Prophets of the Future 5: Technology and Mental Health in Catholic Schools

In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on a new elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues.

Nicola Ramsay, MEduc4 student

One of the growing challenges facing the Catholic school system is tackling mental health issues in children and young adults growing up in the technology-driven 21st century. I believe Catholic schools can take action to combat this and create meaningful change.

For many, mental health issues continue into adulthood and lead to harmful consequences which could have been avoided given the correct support and nurture. Schools have increasingly been targeted as sites for mental health promotion and teachers placed to identify issues concerning students’ social and emotional wellbeing, thus there is an expectation that schools can play a major role in reducing impacts of these pressures.

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Lent in Lockdown

Margaret Barton (RE Advisor for Secondary Schools, Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh)

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We are journeying through the desert during Lent. Prior to the first lockdown, by the third week of Lent last year, amongst other things, students would have received their ashes in school or their local parish, Lenten lessons would be taught, Lenten pledges made, classes would have received their SCIAF Wee Boxes and be planning fundraising activities, and the school Chaplain would have been offering additional Masses during Lent for pupils and staff to attend.

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Tom Shields (Vicar Episcopal Education, Dunkeld Diocese)

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“All these things entered you

As if they were both the door and what came

through it.” 

‘Markings’, Seamus Heaney

As younger pupils return to school, and the process of resuming face to face learning begins, we may experience that dazzled feeling of stepping into the light from a period of darkness. No doubt, there will be a mixture of babbling and strained silences as friends and colleagues meet face to face and try to articulate both what they have experienced and how to move forward. Many will ask if this is really happening and could we all once again be herded into our homes and tethered to our computer screens. There is precedent.

Many, of course, will be desperate to get back to traditional routine, seeing it as a sign that all is well again, and declare (with a little of that sensation of ‘hope triumphing over experience’), ‘never again’; some will not. There is genuine fear that we will lose some of the insights that we have gained over this last year, and that a combination of economic necessity and fear of failing a generation will propel us into hectic activity for which we have neither the energy nor the insight. In recent days, several writers and journalists have drawn attention to feelings and thoughts familiar perhaps to retreatants as they end a period of prayer and reflection, hoping that what they have learned about God, themselves, and others, will not be lost in the hubbub of daily life. 

Emerging from another ‘lockdown’, the first disciples were indeed driven out with enthusiasm at Pentecost, but they neither forgot their own experiences and failures nor the beliefs and aspirations of their people. They borrowed from both as they preached and lived the gospel. Growth in Church membership, as it were, mirrored the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Conversion, rejoicing, persecution, and internal wrangling, were all there in almost equal measure, as they prayed, reflected, and stumbled their way to a conclusion about what it all meant and where they were to go.

Christ, his power, presence, and person, came more and more into focus. As each new stage of their journey brought a needfor realignment, Christians realised that the name they bore was for a reason: it was Christ who had to be front and centre of their lives. Incarnate of the Virgin Mary, the challenge has always been to incarnate him spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically into our lives. 

This is the paradigm, I would suggest, for Catholic education. Catholic academic and spiritual traditions provide us with indispensable tools to assist our young people and ourselves in our desire not to waste time either in the ‘paralysis of analysis’ or a headlong rush to get things done in a ‘can-do’ attitude. The Spirit inspires us to examine our lives in such a way as to glimpse how God brings resurrection out of death – not simply a matter of taking the ‘rough with the smooth’. 

It is fortuitous perhaps that the process of emergence will start during Lent, a period of journeying with Christ in the desert in order to be reminded of what is essential. Perhaps the fasting and abstinence has already been imposed by the lockdowns and restrictions. These have brought into sharp relief in our lives the simple but important things we may have taken for granted. It is our prayerful reflection on events, and the buffeting open of our hearts to others that might take a more central role this Lent.

Throughout our discussion, study, prayer, art, poetry and music, while letting our young people run in the open air, babble, and fall silent, we gently invite them to regard Christ, the Lord and Master, Son and Servant. We invite them to ‘incarnate’ Christ in their own lives using the tried and tested methods that have brought the Church through more crises than we have had TV box sets. 

It has often been said that a crisis makes us forget who we are. Remembering who we are, enables us to resolve it. Who are we? People who mirror the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ, that we might focus on him and become him to the world. This ‘comes to be’ in conversation, prayer, and charity, with a special emphasis this time around on charity towards each other (as Pope Francis has reminded us). 

Christ is the door through which we enter and exit, and he is also what we bring through that door.