Communicating the Faith: It’s Urgent
When Catholics get together and get indignant, they don’t always get things right. Statements get exaggerated, truths get mixed up with legend. The internet – which is essentially an endless get-together of innumerable get-togethers, sees all this revealed on a great scale. But well before blogs and com-boxes and tweets, Catholic indignation in the modern era was being voiced in meetings, letter-columns and pubs.
Some Catholic indignation is justified. It took rather a long while to get a decent and accurate translation of the Mass, and anger over this was rooted in a profound understanding that prayer shapes belief. Some of the phrases were not only awkward and ugly ("And also with you") but obviously inaccurate (even someone fairly hopeless at Latin can translate "Et cum spiritu tuo"). And two full generations grew to adulthood being forced to endure absurd and ugly noises masquerading as "folk music" at Mass: anger about this is generally expressed in terms of "horrible kum-by-ya Masses", even though that particular horror slithered away during the 90s except among a few ageing diehard crooners.
Not all indignation is against "modernists". Much older Catholics recall things like the ban on music at a "mixed marriage" – and in some dioceses even the consignment of such a wedding to the sacristy and consequent lack of any sense of celebration – or refusal of the Sacraments because of a failure to send children to a Catholic school.
Which brings us to Catholic schools. One standard cause for indignation in the current generation of young Catholics is: "We didn’t get any proper teaching about the Catholic faith at my Catholic school." Fundraising for worthy causes – or sometimes for silly ones – discussions on topical matters, and various guest speakers from pressure groups or charities, are standard parts of a common diet of Religious Education in many Catholic secondary schools. They will not be the only ingredients – especially where public exams are involved, there will be Scriptural and other studies – but they will be what is remembered by young people who had their own deep and eager questions on major issues of faith and found they were not answered.
"The only absolutely clear message that we got was that the Catholic Church is against abortion," one pupil remembers. "As it happens, I strongly agreed with the
Church on that. But others didn’t – or claimed they didn’t because they didn’t want to appear creepy and look as though they went to Mass and stuff. So we had some arguments." Another recalls discussions on "gay marriage": "We all heard on TV and everywhere that Catholics were against gays – that the Church was cruel to gays. But the subject was never covered properly in RE lessons so we just assumed the Church was wrong and ought to change." Without adequate grounding in the truths of the Faith, debates and discussions are held in a vacuum.
It's not just the syllabus. Nor is it just a lack of good materials. There are some good things now available for those who seek them out. A bigger problem is a lack of seekers: athough there are many good Catholic teachers in our schools who are deeply committed and highly motivated, many teachers of Religious Education in Catholic schools are either non-practising Catholics or are not Catholic at all. Those who do practise often function at a fairly minimal level, and are unfamiliar with the great Catholic writers – or even with the lesser ones – and have no sense of zeal or excitement about imparting knowledge of the Faith, much less devotion to it.
The RE syllabus is too often dictated by the needs of public examinations, but even within this some fine work could be done, and the Faith communicated for what it is: essential knowledge, rich and deep, that opens wide the whole of life’s meaning and purpose and sets it in the context of centuries of God’s revelation and 2,000 years of Church history that is thrilling to discover. The recent changes to GCSE RE resulting from the government led GCSE reviews have given an opportunity to achieve exactly this. With the right teacher, the glories of Christian art and architecture, the saints and heroes, and the whole mystery of what it means to be human and to have a soul, could be opened up.
Where are the Catholic RE teachers? Recruiting Catholic teachers is extremely difficult. Many active young Catholics – we see this among those who attend FAITH Movement events – have been so bored with Religious Education at school that it simply wouldn’t occur to them to become teachers. Yet, having encountered Christ and the Church through FAITH or some other of piece of Providence, they often express a desire to "do something for the Church" or even to "work full-time for the Church," and they look towards the pro-life movement which now has salaried positions to offer, or think about one of the internships offered in Parliament or elsewhere through the scheme initiated by the Bishops’ Conference.
Good news/bad news
People do enjoy swapping bad news. Things are not good in the Church in the West, and anyone who wants to discuss that has plenty to say and plenty of material to use. The numbers – for example for Mass attendance (down), for marriage break-ups (rising steadily), for men offering themselves for the priesthood (down, or static) – all tell their own story.
Oddly, some of the angriest in the discussion do not make use of current relevant material, and often prefer older stuff or rather stale generalisations. A quick romp (or a long obsessive evening’s study) through Catholic blogs and twitter-feeds on the internet will reveal bad news and legends galore. It is poignant to see old legends revived – satanic ritual abuse in the Vatican, Jesuit freemasons infiltrating everywhere, false conclaves in the 1960s – and ugly to see hate-filled diatribes rewarmed year-on-year.
This is partly because the problems of the Church today are less quotable and dependent on idiotic liturgies or heretical textbooks than was the case from the late 1960s and through to the 90s. What we have today are the fruits of those years: the clown Masses have gone but the children forced to endure them are now adults far from the Church and notable only by their absence. We don’t need to be told about rubbish being taught in the seminaries – many have closed. In those that remain, things have changed and are changing. Numbers of seminarians are pitifully small, but the quality is good and the commitment strong, and they know all about the "kum-by-ya" years and see them as history. There is a parrallel here with young teachers: if a young person in their mid-20s is a practising Catholic, it is a deliberate choice, a real commitment. With the right encouragement, such a young teacher can discover the real joy of teaching as a vocation.
And what should be done?
The New Movements in the Church, and the FAITH Movement is among the most active of these in Britain, have initiated some repair work among young Catholics in recent decades. Where RE in schools failed, a FAITH Summer Session or a Youth 2000 gathering at Walsingham offered a realistic and attractive alternative means of encountering Christ.
All that can and will flourish and continue. But what about the schools? Of course some devout campaigners will announce that no school is necessary – children can learn what they need at home. That can work where there are parents, ideally married, who have some minimal reading and writing ability, and are practising or at least semi-practising Catholics. But the Church cares not only about such fortunate people. She cares about the rest.
Our schools are part of that rich tradition of Catholic learning that gave the world its universities and colleges, its village schools and mission schools, its great centres of learning and its small everyday ones, and its sense that intellectual life is bound up with the life of the soul. They are not an optional extra, and if many are currently doing a poor job, the slick announcement "Let’s be rid of ‘em – waste of money and time" doesn’t provide a solution. Active engagement with the young through parishes and youth movements is important, and for many young people will be the way they meet Christ. But turning poor Catholic schools into good ones is both achievable and necessary – and requires a commitment and a belief that it can be done.
Active and committed Catholics need to engage more with Catholic schools. There is room for the mature Catholic who seeks to enter teaching later in life, for the young Catholic who senses that this could be a real vocation, for the volunteer who would like to turn skills acquired in Confirmation classes into some professional commitment. We need to foster a sense of vigour and hope: Catholic schools are popular, and often show excellent achievements in many fields. There is no reason why they should not offer superb religious education as a central part of that.
The man on the cross
Some of the legends shared among Catholics when waxing indignant or sorrowful about the plight of society and the Church are old ones. Some crop up again and again. A popular favourite is the person who happened to be in a jeweller’s shop and heard the assistant enquire politely, when a customer was choosing a cross "D’you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?" Like all legends – urban and otherwise – it conveys a truth. People in modern Britain are ignorant of Christ and the Crucifixion and its significance is not part of their lives.
St John Paul wrote a play about a jeweller’s shop. But instead of repeating a cliché about people not knowing about the Cross, he gave a voice to the human enquiry about why we are here, about the nature of human love and the purpose of it all.
God, "infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life". Thus speaks the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its opening words. The publication of the Catechism in the 1990s marked the end of one era in post-Vatican II Catholicism, and opened another. Young Catholics today have grown up with World Youth Day, Eucharist adoration, New Movements, Nightfever and an image of the Church marked by the idea that it is normal for a Pope to canonise vast numbers of saints and to be a figure instantly recognisable across the globe. It is time to translate all that into the life of the educational institutions that seek to transmit knowledge of the Faith: it can and must be done.