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  • The Mystery Unfolds Again 

    November 2010

    In a recent conversation with one of our senior parish priests, he told me that it was always a marvel to him to watch a new group of students came into the school. They come from a wide range of religious family backgrounds, yet, as he put it, “the mystery unfolds again,” as the mix of young people become part of a prayerful Catholic community.    

    Indeed, the Religious Education classroom in the Catholic school is an interesting place, presenting many challenges to our highly professional teachers. Those who have worked in these classrooms know the challenges well, as they know the joys, successes and frustrations, too. 

    Let us consider one of those challenges, the students themselves.  In this article, we will meet just three of the 25 or so in the class.  It might be a prep class or a year 6, a year 7 or a year 12 class.  The students we are about to meet are fictional, but they are no less real!  Their names are Monica, River and Tanya. 

    In Monica’s family, God and the Catholic parish community play a central role.  The family is at Mass together every weekend;  Mum and Dad are both involved in parish activities; the family prays together quite often; the parish priest is a regular visitor to the home for pleasant meals; dinner table conversation contains frequent reference to God and to religious matters. 

    River lives in the next street. In his family, however, no one has been near the Church since his mum had him baptised to please her own parents.  (During the baptism ceremony the priest wondered, as he often did, “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned Christian names, like Peter, Paul and John?”). The family home is a loving place where good human values are given high priority. The whole family are committed to the outdoor life and saving the planet, but there is no room for God, no room for Church – except maybe at Christmas, if it can be fitted in.  River’s parents are ambitious for him to do well but that means, basically, to have a successful career that brings high income. 

    Finally, we meet Tanya.  She lives on the other side of the tracks.  In her family, there is violence, substance abuse and neglect.  Her dad is often away, and it’s just as well because when he is home, home is not a nice place to be.  And besides, when he is away, one of a number of “uncles” comes to stay for a night or two.  Mum loves her alright, but her own life circumstances and poor parenting skills make things very difficult for them both. She doesn’t know how to set limits on where Tanya goes or what time she should be home.

    Monica, River and Tanya are all in the same class at school, the same Catholic school.  All are baptised Catholics.  All have a fundamental right to a Catholic education.

    How does the school respond in the matter of faith and religious education?  Can anyone expect Monica, River or Tanya to emerge from the Catholic school with the same level of religious knowledge or faith commitment?  While we can never judge faith response, it does seem ridiculous to think they would.  Yet this is the reality of every classroom in every school.  It is very clear that our classrooms are not filled with Monica’s.  Nor should they be.  But we wait for the “miracle to unfold.” 

    Our own Bishop, in his recent pastoral letter, Finding Home in Jesus (9 June, 2010) identified three groups to whom we, as church, need to reach out.  He named the three as: those who have always been a member of the active Catholic community, those who are no longer Christians and those who have never been Christians.  We might see Monica, River and Tanya in those three categories.  Our Bishop tells us we have a mission to evangelise all of them. 

    The Roman document The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, in paragraph 15, tells us that the Catholic school should “turn in a spirit of love…to those who have lost all sense of meaning in life and lack any type of inspiring ideal, those to whom no values are proposed and who do not know the beauty of faith, who come from families which are broken and incapable of love, often living in situations of material and spiritual poverty, slaves to the new idols of society, which, not infrequently, promise them only a future of unemployment and marginalisation.”  It would seem the Church is telling us that we need to reach out more to the River’s and theTanya’s than even to the Monica’s. 

    It is worth remembering that our unique Catholic school system in Australia has confused origins, too.  In the 19th century the Bishops’ courageous decision to maintain Catholic schools in the face of government hostility was clearly meant to ensure that the faith was to be passed on.  

    But the founders of the great teaching orders, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Catherine McAuley, John Baptist De La Salle, Daniel Delaney, Edmund Rice, Macellin Champagnat, Nano Nagle, Don Bosco, etc., all established their orders, not to teach the children of committed Catholic families (though, of course, they were always welcome) but, rather, the poor children of the streets and the bush.   The writings of the time paint a pretty clear picture that many of these children were far more like Tanya than they were like Monica. But it was to them that the Church reached out in the schools founded by these great men and women. We reach out to those same children today.  There are, and there should be plenty of Tanya’s in our classrooms.   

    But while there are Tanya’s, there are Monica’s and there are River’s.  They are all at vastly different places on their journey.  It is a complex web indeed, and one that our teachers are always challenged to respond to. 

    In the Diocese of Sale we have an excellent and highly acclaimed religious education program, Journeying Together in Hope. In many places that document tells us that, “individual students differ considerably in their backgrounds, abilities and general characteristics”.  It goes on to say that there are certain patterns in children’s development.  That is very true.  But there are vast differences, too.  Teachers are required to interpret that program to meet children across that vast array of differences.  What a challenge! In literacy and in numeracy lessons, for example, teachers assess each student’s level of knowledge and readiness to learn. Then they tailor their lessons to meet the needs of the individual.  It is so difficult to do that in the Religious Education classroom. More often that not, sadly, Monica, River and Tanya will all be presented with exactly the same lessons, in a one-size-fits-all approach. 

    Perhaps it may be that teachers are hesitant to “judge” a student’s faith. Of course, gaining religious knowledge and responding to God’s offer of faith are very different things.   

    But here, we are talking about knowledge – a knowledge of the teachings of the Church, of Scripture, of Sacraments, of prayer. Monica knows these things well when she enters the class.  They are part of her very fabric. River knows nothing at all of them. He has no experience of religion or of things religious. Providing them with the same program seems a strange thing indeed! 

    Our Bishops have the responsibility of ensuring that all our programs are aligned with the teaching of the Catholic Church and provide that comprehensively.  We are assured that our program fulfils those conditions.  But the program is only as good as the teachers who deliver it.  Once again, they are required constantly to rise to the challenge of meeting the students where they are on their life journey. And so often, they do. 

    There are many students from religiously privileged backgrounds, like Monica, who do not find it in their hearts to respond.  There are many from religiously deprived backgrounds, like River or Tanya, who choose to respond.  That is a mystery that is beyond us.  But, “the mystery unfolds again.” And the wonderful work our teachers – and other staff – do, inside and outside the classroom are part of the reason that the mystery can unfold.  We should thank God for them and their work every day.

    The lessons these teachers give in the Religious Education classroom are critically important.  So are the relationships they develop.  Our teachers, as the church tells us, do not write on inanimate materials but on the very spirit of human beings.  What a privilege!  They are required, as St Francis of Assisi tells us, to “preach the Word of God constantly.  Even use words if you have to.”