Chaplaincy turns 10
It may not have been the most significant decision made by former Prime Minister John Howard but, after 10 years, the public school chaplaincy program he introduced still makes a difference in the lives of 2000 students each week.
Mr Howard knows this because he sat in the front row at the Museum of Sydney last month as chaplain after chaplain told stories of lives changed and prospects made brighter by their work. From the young student anxious over the possibility that her mother’s cancer might return, to the older boy who wanted to gain a place in a selective school in order to get a good job and support his struggling family.
A public school principal told how the chaplaincy program “adds soul to our school” and that, aside from supporting the students, the chaplain had now organised fathers into a group to encourage each other to be better parents. Almost all the fathers in the school, in Sydney’s south, were involved.
These good news stories were shared at the tenth-anniversary celebration of the chaplaincy program. On hand were representatives of several providers, including Generate Ministries, which is the largest provider of chaplains in NSW state schools with more than 220 positions.
Generate’s general manager James Flavin quoted the words Mr Howard used as he unveiled the scheme: "Chaplains will be expected to provide pastoral care, general religious and personal advice, and comfort and support to all students and staff, irrespective of their religious beliefs. A chaplain might support school students and the wider school community in a range of ways, such as assisting students in exploring their spirituality; providing guidance on religious, values and ethical matters; helping school counsellors and staff in offering welfare services and support in cases of bereavement, family breakdown or other crisis and loss situations".
Added Mr Flavin: “From what we have heard this morning, Mr Howard's words were definitely prophetic. This is a very popular program, with the last funding round oversubscribed by 200 schools. I think we can all agree that the Government receives excellent value for the $5 million it spends on these 400 or so chaplaincies.”
The former PM was clearly delighted by the stories of the good work chaplains have been doing. “Today is a celebration of something that was sneered at, at the time,” Mr Howard said. “It was labelled as an invasion of the separation of church and state but in reality, it was fulfilling an increasingly growing need within our community.
“We all are conscious of the terrible impact on young lives of violence in the environment in which they live, of family breakdown, of the inability of a family – because of its dysfunction – to cope with sudden tragedy and loss. While I acknowledge and I was very happy to emphasise at the time the program was introduced [that] it was not to be a vehicle for overt proselytisation, clearly the driving force behind this program and its great success has been the spiritual commitment of individuals.”
The former PM said the value of chaplaincy work needed to be stressed to governments. “The best thing I heard this morning was that there was an oversubscription of 200,” he said. “In other words, more and more people want chaplains and the greatest weapon [in] defence of the program – against those who might try and withdraw it or cripple it or reduce it or weaken it – is the evident need. If communities want this program, in the end, can I tell you that governments will keep it.”