The Challenge of Secondary School Chaplaincy

Christopher Heenan FAITH Magazine January-February 2010


Meetings are part of every priest's life. That particular morning I was in a meeting with our local Dean and the Head of the Catholic Secondary where I was Chaplain, discussing how the chaplaincy might develop. Some meetings seem to serve little purpose, some can be useful: this meeting was providential. News came in that one of the students had been found dead. He was 15 years old. Evidence suggested that he had taken his own life. A strategy was quickly agreed. The year group would be brought together and the Head would break the news, after which the Dean would read a passage of scripture and then I would say a few words and offer a prayer.

Thankfully, such events are rare. It highlights the crucial role of the school chaplain: to be a presence of faith.

After the funeral a memorial service was held in the school. We invited the young man's family and we also asked the Church of Scotland Minister who had conducted the funeral to participate (the young man was not a Catholic).The service was simple, dignified, and emotional but filled with Christian hope.

The chaplain also has a vital role in planning and leading the liturgical life of the school community. Differences of opinion emerge on the use of "innovation" in the liturgy. My natural tendency would be to avoid anything that could be construed as being a "gimmick". Young people are not won over by such things. Many in the school community, student and staff alike, do have some sense of God, some notion of faith, but all too often it is vague and lacks formation and solidity. Innovation and moving away from the norms of the Church's Liturgy do nothing to strengthen and build up faith and an attachment to the Church. The Chaplain is present in the school to do both. We should strive for excellence in the celebration of the liturgy and in what surrounds it: excellence in our liturgicalmusic and well trained readers; beautiful and noble vestments and vessels; an oratory that is well kept and clearly identified as a place of worship, a place that is set apart and not a spare classroom. All these signals are picked up on. If we treat the liturgy seriously, then our young people will too.

One year on, the year group asked if they could plan a memorial service. They put together a very fine, dignified service, which was clearly Christian prayer: Scripture, prayers for the deceased, for the family, for themselves, in thanksgiving. No pop songs or poems, these came after the service during a show of photographs and memories. I was moved and very proud. It highlights another aspect of chaplaincy: trust. It is a grace if the Chaplain can trust in the gifts and abilities of other members of the school community, share his role with them and benefit from their expertise.

As time moved on, and I speak in terms of months and years, another need highlighted by this tragic situation was the need for reconciliation. Often in our sacramental provision for secondary schools Confession does not have a very high profile. Yet it can be a moment of great grace for young people. Our concentration on Confession focussed on the lower years of the School. I look back and think that we lacked courage with regard to Confession and the older students. The new school Oratory provided us with a fine venue but in future years I would have placed Confession in the context of a retreat away from the school. It is very difficult to find a perfect approach to providing Confession in the Secondary school context. The challenges are great. A retreat is a good opportunity to provideteaching on this Sacrament. Many do not avail themselves of the opportunity to celebrate the Sacrament, but those who do provide the impetus for us pastors of souls to keep trying to improve our approach.

Secondary School Chaplaincy can often seem to be unrewarding. The Chaplain often feels that he is trying to promote something that many of the school community have little or no interest in. My work in the secondary school benefitted from the fact that I was in the parish for a lengthy time. I knew many of the students from the parish or from the primary schools of my two parishes. It takes time for trust to build up. But it does and that makes High School Chaplaincy "easier". Secondly, a strong Chaplaincy team made up of teachers was invaluable, not just in planning and delivery of Services, but in terms of support. The students would tell their teachers how much they appreciated a Mass or service or the opportunity of going to Confession. The teachers realised how important it was topass this on to me. High School Chaplaincy is perceived as being difficult, this is because the rewards and impact that are made are so often not evident to the Chaplain.

It is difficult to condense ten years of High School chaplaincy into a few words. There are many other important aspects: promotion of vocations, evangelisation, relationship with local parishes, that must be looked at and form part of the Chaplain's ministry. Every aspect of the Chaplain's role must lead back to his first and most crucial task, to be a 'presence of faith' whose fidelity to the liturgy and teaching of the Church as well as to those in his pastoral care, helps to bring shape and solidity to the ambiguous but sincere faith that he encounters in his work.

Faith Magazine