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Ensuring our schools are truly Catholic
The fundamental aim of Catholic education is to help students follow Christ's first and greatest commandment - "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind ...". A student who does this will seek to use and develop the talents given by God in the way God intends. This will also necessarily imply loving one's neighbour.
Article 10 of the 1998 Congregation of Catholic Education document, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, tells us that the 'why' of Catholic education needs more attention to restore "to the educational process the unity which saves it from dispersion amid the meandering of knowledge and acquired facts."
Education is a preparation for life, and, as the ultimate calling of the human person is to love God with all that person's heart, soul and mind, the school's primary task includes the duty and privilege of assisting students to live religiously.
How then can the Catholic school assist its students to commit themselves totally to God in a relationship of love?
To restore to its rightful place concentration on this 'why' of Catholic education, and not to be lost in the meanderings of knowledge and acquired facts, is it not necessary that those ministering in Catholic schools pray and reflect deeply as much as every day, and more intensely on special occasions, on the wonderful privilege of their vocation to assist their students to find eternal salvation?
This includes especially those in governance of them. To help educate students to love God with all their heart, soul and mind is an awesome and exacting calling, one on which those charged with this responsibility must account to God how well they have kept it in mind - and how well they have carried it out.
Needless to say, God expects those charged with the education of the young members of his flock to have done all in their power to assist the young to find salvation, and to ensure the transmission of his message and community to future generations. Just as Catholic educators should keep in mind the biblical teaching found in Daniel (12:3) that "those who teach others unto justice shall shine like the stars of heaven forever," they should reflect soberly on the words of James (3:1): "Not many should become teachers because they will be judged more strictly."
Unless there is unity among a school staff about fundamentals there must be question marks about the quality of religious education a school can provide. If one teacher shows little enthusiasm for encouraging students to pray every morning and night, does not care whether they participate in the Sunday liturgy, or whether they practise devotion to the Mother of God and the saints, for example, and another is convinced of the importance of such practices, students can learn that religion is something which they can choose or reject as they wish, and has little bearing on their lives.
Classroom prayer has been a strong feature of Australian Catholic schools in much of their short history. In more recent times, at least in some Catholic schools, it appears there has been a diminution in time given to daily prayer, that the prayers are more spontaneous, and that they are largely confined to prayers of petition. A glance at the changes which have evolved in daily classroom prayer in many Christian Brothers' schools provides a window to see what appears to be happening in many other Catholic schools throughout the nation. As prayer is communication between God and the human person, obviously prayer has a powerful influence in the development of students' relationship with God.
Structured practices of prayer in Catholic schools prior to the 1960s left no doubt in the students' minds that the Catholic school held that loving and serving God was not a matter of taking or leaving it. Each day the students were being given, through the regularity and prominence of prayer in daily school life, the more- than-subtle message that prayer was essential to the Christian life. The poet's words that "more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of" were taken for granted by Catholic schools.
The congregations of today's Catholic churches are largely composed of older people who learned, by a constant, many times daily immersion experience of prayer at Catholic schools, of the necessity of spending time with God in prayer.
This older group contrasts with another group comprised of more recent past students of Catholic schools, most noticeable for their absence from congregational worship today, who attended Catholic schools in recent years where daily immersion in a school day punctuated by wide-ranging prayer is, in too many cases, little more than non-existent.
From the older group came not only a comparatively large number of men and women who committed their lives to God as priests and religious, but also innumerable stable families. From the younger group there are few vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and those who, with their children, benefit from a stable marriage are becoming a minority.
All kinds of demands are placed on students today because they are appropriate. Regulations regarding the wearing of uniforms, smoking, behaviour towards staff and peers, participation in school activities are among the plethora of school rules that are in place because they are regarded by the educating institution as necessary for the well- being of the school, staff and students. Non-compliance with these regulations, the reasons for which are carefully explained, is not tolerated.
If a student attended a Catholic school right up to recent decades, he or she was required to participate in a life-giving regime of constant daily prayer, whether the student liked it or not. Such a regime hardly exists today, and its absence is often excused by claiming that many of the students come from families where there is little or no religious practice, and that too much prayer may drive even loyal Catholics away from their faith.
What evidence there is suggests that when a school practises what it teaches about the importance of constant daily prayer the students' faith life does not suffer. Indeed, it seems to flourish. The Christian life calls for asceticism, and while nobody is suggesting that students will feel like punctuating the school day with prayer, many prayers are elegantly composed, and correspond to the best aspirations of the human heart. Our tradition and the tradition of other world religions suggest that the frequent repetitions of prayer will have many profound effects, including the bonding of people with God and one another, the absorption of outstanding values, and the capacity for necessary self-denial.
Prayers to be said
Is it not then a responsibility from the high echelons of Catholic education to spell out unequivocally, in writing, what religious prayers are to be said in Catholic classrooms, when during the day they are to be said, how feast days are to be celebrated, and how to present these requirements to students? Parents will have an opportunity to see clearly what the school is doing, and be in a position to support the school in its approach.
However, writing into the curriculum the what and the how of encouraging religious practices among the students is insufficient and will be fruitless if steps are not taken to see that what is stated is implemented. One cannot help but wonder if in these more complex times, when there is a vast array of administrators in Catholic education, administrators whose minds are burdened with financial, expansionary, curricular, public relations and other broad considerations, whether the same energy and time is able to be given to the close supervision of details of what is occurring in classrooms and schools to help the students in all aspects of their religious education, not least, to help them to live religiously.
In a more simple time each classroom and each school would be visited by a diocesan inspector who would closely scrutinise what each teacher was doing to help students know and practise their proclaimed Catholic faith. Life was so simple then that the inspection was often carried out, at least in some dioceses, by the Director of Catholic Education. Also, schools and classrooms would be annually inspected by Provincial Visitors of religious congregations to ascertain what was happening and to encourage and advise.
One can ask if today the same close scrutiny is given, and the same accountability required in these matters, and, if not, what effect is this likely to be having on the religious development of students? Are we to continue forever in the present situation when far too often whether or not prayers will be said, or what prayers will be said, depends upon the whim of each individual teacher?
It has long been recognised that if the Catholic school is to achieve its aims of leading its students to a long term relationship with Jesus Christ and his faith community in the Church, the parents have the most significant role to play.
Ireland's Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, an educator who has shared the faith journey of many adolescents and young adults, is based at the Gregorian University in Rome. He is eagerly sought internationally to address leading seminars, and has done so in Australia at least twice. He has concluded that "if the values of the school are out of harmony with the non-verbals of the home (where religion may come across as marginal, immature or simply unhappy) there will be little hope of the school serving the long-term future faith of the student."
It appears that there has been very little, if any, positive action taken to implement Gallagher's suggestion that, "since there is often a strong desire from their parents to have their children at Australian Catholic schools, the schools might make certain conditions about parental involvement, parent education and faith education."
Certainly it would be ironically harmful if Catholic schools make strong demands on parents in its need to ensure the proper education of all its children in less important areas, and yet in its most important function of educating its students to love God with all their heart, soul and mind, it is not insistent that each child's parents CO- operate fully.
Once again the educational authorities have to ask themselves whether or not they are prepared to clearly write down in detail, supervise and insist upon the implementation of all that is required from parents to ensure that the school's students have an excellent religious education. The strength of Catholic education should not be judged by the numbers of those attending Catholic schools, but by the quality and authenticity of the Catholic education at these schools.
Marvelling Flown, in his famous large scale studies of Year 12 students in Catholic schools in NSW and the ACT, found there is a strikingly significant correlation between faithful religious practice, social justice and moral values, and academic success. As the example of the students from such outstanding schools is noticed, these schools are likely to attract students from far and wide.
Practices required by teachers, parents and students need to be unequivocally spelt out in writing, and Catholic education authorities at all levels, especially those at the very top, must see that they are implemented. Otherwise, the apparent growing ineffectiveness of Catholic schools in recent decades in assisting students dynamically to bond with Christ in his faith community, the Church, is likely to continue. Catholic school authorities, beginning with the highest echelons, have the responsibility to see that what is insisted upon is carried out.
Of course, much more is needed to ensure that students receive a vibrant Catholic religious education, but the above steps need to be begun urgently.
Br John Moylan FCC resides at 78 Glen Stuart Road, Magi, SA. This is a shortened version of his article, first published in 'Catholic School Studies,' subscriptions at $18.00, from 56 The Avenue, Parkville, Victoria 3052.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 8 (September 2000), p. 10
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