8th International Conference on Children's Spirituality

The Role of Spirituality in Education and Health

Australian Catholic University, Ballarat, 20-24 January 2008

Conference report

Elaine Champagne
Institut de pastorale des Dominicains, Dominican University College, Canada

Held for the first time in the southern hemisphere, under the theme: ‘The role of spirituality in education and health’ and hosted by Dr Marian de Souza and Dr Brendan Hyde from the ACU, this year's conference on children's spirituality was a true success. The regular participants at these conferences had long anticipated it with enthusiasm and the new members were eager to join in. No one was disappointed. And for good reason!

Around a hundred participants benefited from and contributed to more than sixty main lectures, collegiate papers and workshops. Following a tradition at these conferences, the presentations addressed both theoretical and professional issues of nurturing and sustaining children's spirituality from a wide variety of different cultural and age related contexts. Spirituality was understood in the broadest inter-religious and non-religious contexts, while in some cases, its articulation could be reflected upon from a more specific perspective, Atheistic, Christianity or even Tarot, to name a few. Meeting in Australia also offered members an excellent opportunity to become more acquainted with the heritage which the Aboriginals bring to the region. It was remarkable that many, if not all Australian speakers began their presentation with a recognition of the spirituality of the Aboriginals and with a tribute to the Mother Land, a land full of contrast and beauty.

The conferences over time seem to have developed a true 'collective spirituality', a concept Louise Rowling (University of Sydney) reminded us of, comparing it to a 'school spirit'. Clearly, the conference reflected among its participants a growing spirit of shared interest in the deepening of reflection on the spiritual care and education of children. It is a privilege to take part in a scholarly event which allows for the 'consilience' - a major theme brought forth by Professor Rowling - of ideas drawn from a diversity of foundational perspectives. The ambience is one grounded in mutual respect and true openness to diversity, fostering an honest dialogue born of genuine interest in the development of reflection and practice in the field of children's spirituality. Following Jack Miller's suggestion (University of Toronto), it could be said that the conferences show the 'force to bring things together' - which is love - be it people of different cultures, experiences, ideas, worldviews and even spiritualities. Meanwhile, the process experienced makes it possible to actualize what is at stake when we seek 'to promote health and well-being in finding connectedness', as the sub-title of the conference suggested.

I believe that the results are to be found in much more than mutual comfort and peaceful harmony. Rather, it is through the challenges raised by our divergences that the reflections and experiences emerging from our ongoing dialogue could evolve through the years. I was fascinated to discover a sense of direction during this conference, a direction both rooted in previous conferences and publications, by refining, broadening and consolidating our understanding of children's spiritual lives as well as our own, thus weaving promising threads for the future. One of these threads is not only closer collaboration between professionals from the educational and the health care milieux, but also acknowledging and accompanying the search for healing and the thirst for mystical faith present among our contemporaries, as David Tacey (La Trobe University) highlighted.

As a result of this process the theme of happiness arose, a theme developed by Jane Erricker (University of Winchester). Empowerment and new learning were evidenced during the conference; closer relationships with others were facilitated not only by the working agenda, but also by pleasant surroundings, the enjoyment of delicious meals, the interest raised by local history, and the liveliness raised by the jazz band.

The next conference will pursue the journey already initiated. It will be held in Canterbury, 2009.