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Reflection for the start of the academic year

Reflection for the start of the academic year

125 years ago, on September the 29th 1898, St Mary’s opened to its first 2 pupils, Daisy and Dorothy. 

In her account of the life of Mary Ward, one of her close friends, Mary Poynz, wrote nearer 400 years ago that:

‘…contrary to the ordinary straine, the youth that frequented our schools came to them as to a place of satisfaction and content, not of rigour (by which she meant harshness) or force.’ 

At the heart of Mary Ward’s vision is the concept of vocation – discovering God’s call – what she called His ‘Deep dream’ for each of us. Her focus was on educating the girls in her schools so that they might live life more fruitfully, each according to their vocation. 

A school can be defined simply as an institution where learning and teaching happen and where, if you are 16 or 18 (or in some 11) you do exams. We are lucky, privileged, or challenged to be a story where it is something more and where the gospel values of Joy and Justice and Freedom and Truth and Love are more defining than the definitive summer papers. 

In 1932 the Cambridge Evening News said that the school:

“Improves morals and character and a girl’s soul receives training which sets her on her way to face the problems of life with a firm grounding in the things that matter.” 

The values of Love, Freedom, Truth, Justice and Joy underpin that story from 400 years ago to 125 years ago and should inform all our efforts and decisions in the present – we are part of that story. We will have opportunity during this term to give thanks for the life of Sr Christopher who died in Chishawashe, Zimbabwe over the summer at the age of 106. She was Head Girl in 1933 (Ruth Angell), later became a Mary Ward sister, then Headmistress through the 1950s and 60s, retiring in 1972. But Sr Christopher’s ‘retirement’ was probably 40 years of active ministry in teaching, children’s homes and community work with young mothers in Zimbabwe. 

“You have not chosen me, no I have chosen you that you may bear fruit that will last.”

Those words of Jesus, in John’s gospel, are addressed to us as much as to his first followers, or Mary Ward, or someone like Sr Christopher, who seemed sure of her vocation. God has called each of us, as St John Henry Newman put it, for a particular purpose to which no one else is called, though we may not be sure of it in this life – being part of this community and this story must be part of that. For some of us, as Sr Gemma explored with school staff last year, our vocation comes from our baptism, for others it may be mediated through another religious tradition or set of humanitarian values. Whether we think ourselves religious or not, some of us may be very clear about our vocation and purpose, while others may be unsure or confused about it, and we may change from one to the other at different times.

“You did not choose me but I have chosen you to bear much fruit, fruit that will last.”

What a wonderful commission to be spoken to each of us, and to be an antidote to the days we feel ‘only’ or ‘just’: I’m just the assistant, I’m only new, I’m only temporary, I’m only just coping, I’m only part time. 

I have chosen you to bear fruit – to contribute, in ways we don’t always appreciate or understand, through our daily interactions, to a process of growth and transformation which is the building of a community which, theologically, we call the Kingdom of God. 

There will be many demands made on us this year in our school, work, and home lives, but we should remember that above it all, above all, sits that requirement expressed in the words of the book of the prophet Micah – that we act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God and each other.