Father Courage and words that inspire

12th May 2000 at 01:00
I had to look up the Spanish word for bishop before a distinguished visitor from Mexico arrived at Holy Rood.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz was in Edinburgh at the invitation of the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, the Most Rev Keith O'Brien. His diocese of Chiapas had suffered many years of deprivation and oppression. He himself had received numerous death threats and had been provided with bodyguard protection and special security arrangements by, ironically, the Mexican government, whose own sympathisers regarded the elderly churchman as an agent provocateur and subversive. His only crime was to champion the cause of the poor and the dispossessed.

So often in schools, children and staff are asked to fork out cash for charities which are remote and incomprehensible to them. Medical charities invite us to contribute to relief of diseases with exotic names, while Third World causes present disturbing but often stereotypical images of starving children in far-off lands.

The purpose of Bishop Ruiz's visit was not to raise funds but rather to propagate the message of the injustice and deprivation suffered by his people. He was warmly received by assembled staff and my seriously corroded Spanish was summoned to action to translate his warm words of appreciation.

His next audience, our senior pupils, were eager to question him about bodyguards, death threats and dark deeds of subversion. He answered their questions with candour and humility, offering his audience a brief glimpse of the struggle for survival in a troubled country. He did not only describe the poverty of his people, a huge proportion of whom are Mayan Indians, he also recounted his daily experience of such conditions, holding our attention and commanding immediate solidarity with the poor of his land.

Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent followed soon after the visit of this courageous prelate from Central America. This heralds our annual fund-raising campaign, when thousands of pounds are gthered for carefully identified causes. During the remainder of the session, charity appeals, raffles and collections are discouraged.

Holy Rood's Lenten appeal seeks to bring the Third World and the needs of our fellow citizens of the earth into sharp focus. Our pupils' response is invariably generous and enthusiastic. Year after year they astound us by their inventiveness in devising novel money-spinning schemes. In the past, prefects have been sold as slaves, teachers auctioned and midnight beach walks undertaken to raise cash.

Each passing year presents an international disaster which captures the attention and the sympathy of people of all ages. The emerging catastrophe of the children of Romania some years ago is one example, and led to a visit by staff and an ongoing link with a Romanian orphanage.

This year the desperation of stranded thousands in the forests of Mozambique evoked the sympathy and support of Holy Rood's pupils. In discussion with senior staff, they agreed that this year's appeal would be dedicated to the emergency in Mozambique.

They were also keen to ensure that the people of Chiapas and their memorable bishop were not overlooked.

There followed four hectic weeks of fundraising, with form classes competing to collect the highest total. Our sixth year managed to top pound;1,000 in three weeks, including in their repertoire an all-night vigil in the school.

On the last school day before Easter, the Most Rev O'Brien returned to Holy Rood, along with the Rev Andrew McLellan, Moderator-elect of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The archbishop was due to go to Chiapas, while Mr McLellan had undertaken to visit an outpost of the Presbyterian church in Mozambique. Both undertook to return in the new term to report to pupils on how their hard-won funds had been used.

I benefited too, in adding obispo (bishop) to my Spanish vocabulary.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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