November 18, 2001

Twentieth Mercy Secondary Education Conference

"I say that we are wound with mercy round and round . . . ." Many of you will recognize these words of Gerard Manley Hopkins from his poem "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe." This extraordinary blessing I extend to all of you for this Twentieth Mercy Secondary Education Conference. I am honored to have been invited to say a few words to open this conference and this special celebration of twenty years.

This blessing-to be wound with mercy round and round-carries with it an extraordinary responsibility. Each year since 1981 we have been gathering together as educators in Mercy secondary schools in the United States and in Latin America and the Caribbean to examine together how we are meeting this extraordinary responsibility and determine how we are carrying into the future what has been entrusted to us. We gather again this evening and for the next two days to do this yet once more, for the twentieth time. And rightfully so, for this great blessing, this great trust, is all the more compelling because our responsibility for it is lived out among the young-upon whose heads and hearts the future of our world depends.

These brief remarks will not be an account of the history of this endeavor from its beginnings. You can read for yourself the beautifully crafted account of the first decade and a half written by Judith Heberle before her untimely death. Nor will they be an exercise in nostalgia, though there is much of interest there-including our beginnings without two nickels to rub together until the $1000 seed money provided by Helen Marie Burns, then Provincial of the Detroit Province, and the generosity of some individual schools. Nor will these remarks encompass story-telling, delightful and sometimes rollicking stories though there have been-not least among them Cathleen Cahill's comic relief accounts at Executive Board meetings about misbehaving students at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago of which she was then principal.

No-what I want to speak about this evening is POWER. I want to speak about power because it is power that has been the driving force behind the Mercy Secondary Education Association from the very beginning. I hope that doesn't sound frightening or irreligious, because what I am talking about is recognition of the potential for power and recognition of the responsibility which accompanies this potential. What motivated us at the very outset was the realization that there were all these Mercy secondary schools across the U.S. and in Latin America and the Caribbean, all shaped by the tradition and legacy of Catherine McAuley, and that there were literally thousands of young people spending seven or more hours a day in them, being educated inside and outside the classroom-and that there was really nobody who knew what was going on in all of them, nor was there any linkage and communication among them. This came, actually, as a somewhat startling insight and was recognized immediately as a rich but unused opportunity.

It is precisely this singular recognition and insight that initiated and propelled the movement to establish the Mercy Secondary Education Association. As early as 1977 or 1978, beginning in informal conversations, we began to realize that as educators in Mercy secondary schools, we were at a crossroad. And, as always, arrival at a crossroad asks for choice and action, and inaction at such a time is itself a choice and an action. The decision was made to invite all Mercy secondary educators to come together to consider the potential for power which we had in joining together, talking together, working together, and meeting together at least on an annual basis to further education at the secondary level in the tradition of Catherine McAuley. Out of that initial decision, the Mercy Secondary Education Association was born.

I want to suggest that we secondary educators in the tradition of Catherine are now at another significant crossroad. Still further, I suggest that the same recognition and insight which drove us in our beginnings some twenty years ago should continue to be the driving force behind the continuing collaborative effort which we call Mercy Secondary Education-that is to say, the recognition of the potential for power and the responsibility which accompanies this potential.

But let us pause for a few moments to consider POWER. This is important, I believe, because the notion of power is a troubling one. In spiritual literature we are often warned against power, against exercising it, even sometimes are urged to give it up. And, indeed, we have seen, even experienced, terrible misuse of power-both in massive large scale ways and in smaller ways in our own daily experience. And if we are honest, we would no doubt have to admit that we ourselves on occasion have been atleast tempted to use power in a way of which we would not be proud; this would have to be the case because as teachers we hold enormous power over the students who have been entrusted to us.

While recognizing the negative possibilities inherent in power, nevertheless, I want to ask us to focus on the enormous positive possibilities inherent in power as well. To assist this focus, I will call upon some ideas offered by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. in her 1990 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. The title of her lecture, and of the small book in which it was published, is Job's Daughters: Women and Power. In it she relies on a discussion by psychiatrist Rollo May in his 1972 book Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence.

In this book May describes different kinds of power. We would easily recognize and concur with his description of the negative impact of exploitative power, which aims to drain the other of power and take control of the other for the sake of the one in power; and of competitive power, in which someone always has to lose, in which the other is defeated, is devalued in order to build up the one in power; and of manipulative power, more artful and subtle than the first two, which makes use of indirect control of others in order to manage them and is more often a control of their ideas rather than their bodies. Clearly we do not want consciously to be party to the use of these kinds of power and we dearly hope that we are not party to them unconsciously.

However, Chittister discusses another kind of power, what May calls "integrative power." As you may surmise, Joan Chittister's purpose in this discussion is different from our own. Nevertheless, it is parts of this discussion which may be helpful to us.

"Integrative power...

is devoted to mutual concern. . . . It sets out to unify and synthesize and empower. Integrative power is power used to create a whole new world where relationships are formed out of both need and gift . . . . It is based on structures of collaboration, the ability to work with others as equals, the intention to listen and to learn from one another. . . . In integrative power, one element does not consume or control the other. They both become something new, something beyond themselves, together. . . . Integrative power assumes that each one of us has a power that is needed by the other and then sets out to work together, as equals, to enable it." (Chittister, pp. 41-44)

I would take this all one step further, to say that when a group has such power as we have-the power in our common tradition and history, the power inherent in our extraordinary blessing-our responsibility is to recognize this power and to use it for the sake of empowerment of others. What better context in which to do this than the incredibly important context of educating young people for the sake of the future of the world.

This brings me back to what I would suggest is our current significant crossroad. We have attempted for the past twenty years to link ourselves in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean and we are the stronger for it, our schools are the stronger for it, and we have sent our students out into the world the stronger for it. But we have colleagues in Mercy secondary schools in other parts of the world, also rooted in the tradition of Catherine; and we have students in all those schools as well, who have been touched by the spirit of Catherine and the Mercy tradition; and collaboration with these schools, these colleagues, these students, for the mutual empowerment of all of us-of all of us-is as yet an untapped opportunity and, I dare say, a responsibility.

Why might this extension beyond ourselves as Mercy secondary educators in the Americas be particularly significant at this moment in time, at this moment in history? I suggest that it is because of where our world is at this particular time. The challenges which face us today, and in a particular way face the young, we could not have spoken about twenty years ago, although perhaps we had a half-conscious hint of them in 1990 when we identified one of the core Mercy secondary education values as "Global Vision and Responsibility."

Two massive challenges which face our global society today are the process and phenomenon of globalization and the question of the sustainability of the planet. Let me comment briefly on each of these. "On the surface, globalization is a process of economic integration the goal of which is to facilitate the unfettered flow of goods and services around the world." (Donahue, p.1) In a paper dated 24 April 2001, Karen Donahue, RSM, discusses this phenomenon and identifies the transnational corporation as "the engine driving this whole process," which, of course, has the maximization of profits as its overriding intent. There are social and cultural aspects involved in the process of globalization as well, including the speed of information flow and ease of international communication and movement. We need only think of such things as the spread of HIV as a familiar example.

It is now widely believed that HIV was originally harbored in chimpanzees inhabiting the West African rainforest, crossing over into human populations as early as the 1940s. How HIV made the leap frombeing an isolated condition confined to Africa's remote hinterlands to its current status as a global pandemic is still a question, but a range of phenomena is thought to have contributed. This includes the paving of theTransAfrica highway, population growth and urbanization, and, ultimately, expanding international travel and migration. (French and Halweil, p. 31)

The more recent " foot-and-mouth and mad cow scares have brought home to people the world over just how porous national boundaries have become. And it is not only animal diseases that are crossing borders, but human ones as well. International air travel makes it possible for people to reach the other side of the world in far less time than the incubation period for many ailments." (French and Halweil, pp. 30-31)

And then there is the sustainability of our planet. This issue is, of course, not unrelated to the process of globalization. Just for a start, the promotion of consumerism implicit in certain aspects of globalization is doomed to ultimate failure because our Earth cannot sustain unlimited increase in the patterns of consumption that now characterize the richest 20% of the inhabitants of our planet. And this statement doesn't yet speak to the injustices already involved. "Every year, 20 percent of Earth's people in the rich nations use 75 percent of the world's resources and produce 80 percent of the world's waste." (Johnson, p. 9) Our human habits of overconsumption and over-population are exhausting the capacity of the planet to sustain life.

Not only is our species gobbling up resources faster than Earth's ability to replenish itself, but our practices are causing damage to the very systems that sustain life itself: holes in the ozone layer, polluted air and rain, clear- cut forests, drained wetlands, denuded soils, fouled rivers and lakes, polluted patches of ocean. (Johnson, p. 9)

Perhaps you are aware of the work of the Canadian Maurice Strong, now in his seventies, who has spent his life working internationally to create a better world, most notably on issues of the environment.

Perhaps no one in the world has done more than he has to get the world's mutually suspicious nations to work together-however grudgingly and uncertainly-to save the global environment, which they all share but still take little responsibility for. He believes cooperation on a global scale is not only essential, but urgent-the basic decisions and actions must be taken over the next 30 years. After that, it will simply be too late. (Cornish, p. 30)

In recent years there has been some increased awareness of the precariousness of the planet and some movement toward environmental conservation. However, even where there is agreement on the importance of these issues, agreement on specific actions that should be taken-both within nations and among nations-are hard to achieve. "Profound entrenchments in culture, ideology, and customary patterns of thought" (Smith, p. 91) do not lend themselves to such agreement. We in the United States share in these entrenchments.

In light of these global challenges, can the enormous importance of the education of young people for the future of our world be anything but enormously clear? Can the responsibility this puts on those of us who have this power in our hands on a daily basis be anything but compellingly obvious? But I want to take this one step further. I want to call attention to Mercy secondary educators in Mercy secondary schools in parts of the world beyond ourselves in the Americas. They too have this global responsibility and they too have this enormous power. Moreover, I believe that all of us have an even greater potential for power by joining together in mutual collaboration. Collaboration is formed out of both need and gift; there is an essential mutuality in it: it involves the ability to work together with others as equals and the desire to listen to and learn from one another. There is no doubt in my mind that we need the insights, experiences, and perspectives of our colleagues beyond the Americas, even as I believe that we have something to offer to them as well. And we will all be the stronger, the more effective, for this collaboration.

This brings us back to what I consider our present crossroad. Even as we were essentially insular within our individual schools in the Americas prior to the early eighties, we are now essentially insular within our Mercy secondary education interconnections within the Americas. Do we have a fragment of a doubt, especially after the events of and following September 11th, that we need vastly greater global understanding? And should we not make use of our particular international connections to move toward this? This said, where might we begin? I have already made a suggestion to the Mercy Secondary Education Association Executive Board that we begin with Australia and New Zealand. There are 31 Mercy secondary schools in Australia and six in New Zealand. I don't have a count of the number of students in those schools; however, I am aware that the sizes of the schools vary in pretty much a similar range as our own, which would suggest that in the 37 schools in Australia and New Zealand there may be approximately the same number of students as we have in our own MSEA schools.

There are several reasons why we might start with Australia and New Zealand.

  1. These schools also have a Mercy Secondary Education Association, including a conference every other year. Thus there is organized connection and communication among the schools in these two countries. (We also have a significant number of secondary schools in Ireland and England; although I have a listing of these schools, I am not at this point aware of an established association among them.)
  2. As some of you will recall, the Australia/New Zealand MSEA actually used our MSEA as a model when they established their association. Sr. Maureen McGuirk, RSM, at the time principal of Monte Sant'Angelo College in North Sydney, and one of the key persons in establishing their association, attended one of our early conferences and consulted with us on how we had gotten started and how we were organized.
  3. There have already been a few formal connections between ourselves and these schools. Some of you will remember that Sr. Adele Howard, RSM, from Fraynework Multimedia in Melbourne, Australia, was a presenter at our conference in Omaha last October, and stayed with us for the entire conference. Adele's presentation to us was essentially the same one she had presented at the Australia/New Zealand MSEA Conference the previous July. Some of you may also recall that I was a keynote speaker at the Australia/New Zealand Mercy Secondary Education Conference held in Auckland, New Zealand, in September 1998. At one of their prior conferences Sr. Helen Marie Burns, RSM, was a keynote speaker.
  4. And there are some informal connections as well. Visiting students from two Australian schools, Monte Saint' Angelo Mercy College, North Sydney, and Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta, have visited several of our schools in the U.S. on several occasions. Students from Mercy High School, Baltimore, and St. Vincent's Academy, Savannah, have visited in those schools as well. And some of you know that I spent 4 months as a visiting Mercy educator in New Zealand between December 1999 and April 2000, during which time I had the privilege of living on the campus of St. Mary's College, Auckland, and also of visiting four of the other five Mercy secondary schools in New Zealand. I have also visited Monte Saint' Angelo, North Sydney, and Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta, having traveled to Australia following the Auckland conference in 1998.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting at this time that we try to form an international Mercy secondary education association. I am suggesting only that we start connecting, that we start talking together, that we start working together, that we start learning from one another-in order to move toward greater collaboration out of our shared tradition, spirit, and values for the sake of empowering our students for the building of a better world. What is to stop us? Let me close by sharing with you some words of Nelson Mandela, taken from his inaugural address in 1994. He said: "Your playing small doesn't serve the world." He also said: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." We Mercy educators in the tradition of Catherine need not succumb to this fear. We know we have that extraordinary blessing-we know that "we are wound with mercy round and round."

Carol E. Wheeler, RSM
Twentieth Mercy Secondary Education Conference
Mercy High School
Farmington Hills, Michigan
19 October 2001

 

Bibliography

Chittister, Joan, O.S.B. Job's Daughters: Women and Power. New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, c1990 (Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana).

Cornish, Edward. "The Global Struggle to Save the Environment," The Futurist, September-October 2001.

Donahue, Karen, RSM. "Globalization and Mercy: A Challenge for the21st Century," 24 April 2001 (paper prepared for the participants of the Second Mercy International Justice Conference, 11-13 September 2001, Sizanani Centre, Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa), available on www.mercyworld.org, Mercy World, Sisters of Mercy International website.

French, Hilary and Brian Halweil. "Microbial Migrations," Orion, Vol. 20, No.3, Summer 2001.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. "God's Beloved Creation," America, Vol. 184, No. 13, April 16, 2001

Smith, Paula. What Are They Saying about Environmental Ethics? New York/Wahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, c1997.

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