A message from Father Peter Lyness

Following the Staff Mass at the beginning of the academic year 2020/21, we would like to share the speech delivered by Father Peter Lyness, below. 

To say that someone has a past is to be negative and to imply that that person’s past is far from what it should have been, but when we say that our school has a past we are speaking positively and proudly about 452 years in which we have striven to provide education both to men preparing for the priesthood and, initially, for boys, and more recently for girls too, so that that may take their place in the society of their time and contribute worthily to that society.

In fact, the Rule drawn up when the English College came here from Douai to Old Hall in 1793 states that the College was established “for the purpose of promoting the good of religion and society by forming Catholic youth to the duties of the sacred ministry, or of civil life, according to each one’s respective vocation”.  Nothing stands still, of course, and things change. 1975 saw the end of the Douai dual system of educating for priesthood and civil life in one place, so part of that statement of our purpose no longer holds and St Edmund’s, while firmly remaining a Catholic school,  now welcomes students from all faiths, and none, confident that our Catholic values and outlook can be of benefit to all.  But the rest of that statement of purpose remains true today – “forming our youth to the duties of civil life”.

The implication, of course, is that our Catholic tradition and values play an indispensable part in this.  But this was nothing new when that Rule was drawn up; the thinking behind it was based on centuries of Catholic culture and education in this land which can be traced right back to the life and influence of the saint we honour today, Pope St Gregory the Great, known as the Apostle of the English.  His life spanned the 6th and 7th centuries and not for nothing has he been given the title “the Great”.  In the long history of the Church, only two popes have officially been given that title, the other being one of his predecessors, Pope Leo, who lived in the 5th century and who, quite literally, saved the Church from sinking into the oblivion of the darkness of barbarism we know as the Dark Ages. Coming to ordination as a monk, after some years in public service in the city of Rome, St Gregory was soon recognised as an outstanding leader and elected to the papacy where his work touched every area of the church and civil life. He saw that his life only had value and purpose as a life of service and so, perhaps, he is the first true servant-leader.  He took the title “Servant of the Servants of God”, a title which every Pope has borne ever since.  He wore himself out with his labours and died in 604, his last years clouded by intense physical suffering. His particular relevance to England lies in the fact that it was he who sent a fellow monk, Augustine, with forty others, to re-evangelise the English people.  By causing the reinvigoration of the Xn faith in this land he paved the way for the Church to offer a Christ centred method of education, in which young people are formed to take their place in society, creating what has been called a “Christian civilisation of love”.

It is precisely this which gave the impetus to that Rule which was drawn up when the English College, expelled from France by the Revolution, came from Douai and was reconstituted here as St Edmund’s College at the end of the 18th century.  So what has been done here and what we continue to do here is essentially Gregorian, based on two complementary aspects of St Gregory’s life: contemplation and action.  St Gregory was a contemplative, convinced through his prayer and study, that the truths revealed by God and taught by the Church were the only way to true and mature growth and life.  He also understood perfectly that if we are to convince others we ourselves need to be utterly convinced.  “We teach with authority what we first practice before teaching others,” he said.  So, whether we are Catholic or not, we will only have authenticity in our work if we are convinced, after due contemplation, that the values and standards which the College upholds are ours too and worthy to be passed on.  St Gregory was also a man of action – he was never still in the service of those entrusted to his care. In this, he sets the tone for us.  We are called to serve and in a Catholic school such as ours, part of our service is to help strengthen the faith of those entrusted to us.

It is not only in RE or in the chaplaincy that this is done.  We strengthen the faith of those in our care by giving them example and serving their needs in each and every discipline and area of school life.  This is often costly, but St Gregory himself reminds us, “. . . the one who serves will think nothing of the wounds of his own body; he will heal the inner wounds in others.  In the midst of their own pain and distress, those who serve do not abandon concern for the good of others.” Our example of service must inspire our students to lives of service in their chosen ways of life.

So this wise and great man whom the Church honours today on his feast-day has much to teach us as we prepare for a school year which will, in all probability, be more challenging than most.  May he inspire us to ponder the things of God and then, through our actions, put them into practice for the good of all those whom almighty God entrusts to us.

St Gregory the Great, a patron of this College, Servant of the Servants of God, Apostle of the English, patron saint of teachers, pray for us.