Celebrating principals: Homily by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli

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26 April 2021

At last week’s Celebration of Principalship, Archbishop Peter shared a very special homily with principals at St Patrick’s Cathedral:

It is a quirk of linguistic history that the word by which you are called, principal, is spelt with ‘al’ at the end, while the word to which it is related by sound is spelt with an ‘le’ ending. Principle (with the ‘le’) is the noun, meaning a fundamental truth or proposition; while your word for principal (with the ‘al’) is an adjective, meaning first in order of importance. Both derive from the Latin word ‘principum’ meaning the source or foundation for something. And so begins the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John, in principio – in the beginning. Not as in start or commencement, but in order of precedence and priority.

School principals are, in this sense, not the first in terms of delivery – speak to your class or subject teachers about that – but first in terms of purpose and direction. A school principal is someone who is meant to be the beginning of what is undertaken, and the one who sets the direction for those who follow.

To be a principal, therefore, is to be a foundation, a source for others in the great endeavour of schooling our young. But what is that endeavour, which you have accepted as your mission? As the new constitution of Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools puts it:

Catholic schooling seeks to provide the young with the best kind of education possible, one that fosters a formation of the whole person that is deeply and enduringly humanising.

I like that phrase ‘a formation … that is deeply and enduringly humanising’. This is a neat way of summing up the principle (with an ‘le’), the fundamental truth, by which we seek to educate the children and young people in our schools. But for an endeavour to be truly humanising, it needs to pursue excellence as its fundamental purpose to allow each human person to flourish. A humanising excellence is threefold in character: it is of the head, the heart and the hands – or to use more fancy words: of intellect, goodness and action.

Your ‘al’ principalship is a calling to live well this threefold excellence in your own life and mission, so that you may be a witness to it for the sake of others. But how might this be achieved? Certainly, there is the task of pursuing your own formation so as to live your life in a deeply and enduringly human way. To do this, you may wish to ask to whom might we look for an originally, well-lived humanity? And I would answer, look to Jesus Christ.

For he is – in his humanity lived for our sake – the Principal of us all. He is the First before all else – who is able to say simply of himself ‘I am’. He is the beginning; the foundation; the source of any fullness of life we might claim. And of himself, Jesus would say: I am the bread of life. I am he who nourishes for life – never allowing hunger; never allowing thirst. Jesus nourishes, as a spring flowing from the source nourishes.

Who is a principal in our Catholic sense? A principal is someone who nourishes, in the image of the original Nourisher, for the sake of the lives of those for whom they are responsible. May you be the best of principals, drawing always on the foundational source of your life, Jesus Christ.

This is an extract of an article originally published in Melbourne Catholic on 22 April 2021.