Banished Camelots: Recollections of a Catholic Childhood: A Celebration and a Requiem, by John Redrup (Bookpress, Sydney, 1997). 302pp, RRP $24.00 plus $4.00 postage. Obtainable from the author, 16/4 Henrietta St, Double Bay, NSW 2028)
A recurring feature of the magazine features of our state and national dailies are articles written by Catholics, whether still practising or ostentatiously "ex-", which attribute the perceived unhappiness of their childhood (and often enough of their subsequent lives) to the "manifest" shortcomings of the Catholic educational institutions they attended as children. Here is a happy exception.
The author, now in his seventies but deploying still the capacity for vivid memory-recall and the literary graces of a natural-born writer in his prime, looks back upon the ups and downs of his own thoroughly happy childhood from the serene vantage-point of a richly variegated life and securely re-established childhood faith.
The unifying themes of his book are the constant love which enveloped his immigrant Anglo-Irish family and his mother's deep, if undemonstrative, Catholic faith: a faith that looked for and found support in the ordinary Catholic institutions of the time: the parish school - then staffed almost exclusively by Sisters or Brothers of the great teaching Institutes - and the parish church - served by good simple, zealous priests who seemed blessedly untouched by the "identity crises" and the like, which seem so often to plague our own "liberated" generation.
The "banished Camelots" of the title are, chiefly, the author's successive schools in Victoria and NSW: the infants and lower-primary schools conducted by the Josephite and Mercy Sisters, and the upper-primary and secondary schools conducted by the Marist Brothers at Church Hill and North Sydney.
These Brothers he grew so deeply to love that he sought to join their Institute by attending, for the last five years of his childhood, that former initial training-ground of all the Australian Marist Brothers of his tine, the Marist Juniorate at Mittagong. Though he did not, in the end, join their ranks, the Brothers are fortunate indeed to have found so sympathetic and sensitive a memorialist.
I read this book with great empathy, not least because my age and my educational progression are very similar to the author's, though I did not have the enriching experience of travel from Britain to Australia and then through three States while still a child.
The force of the "Celebration" of the book's sub-title is, I hope, sufficiently clear from what I have already said. The "Requiem" half of the sub-title derives from the circumstance that the parish family and faith support-agencies, which the writer describes so lovingly, have almost completely disappeared. Although our national Catholic educational system remains impressive in statistical terms, the schools themselves seem no longer always to display the character and characteristics which the author held so dear; and, most certainly, the number of teaching religious in their class-rooms has dwindled almost to vanishing point.
Within the parish church, too, the author clearly grieves that so much of the remembered beauty and spiritual stability surrounding his boyhood sanctuaries have been similarly "banished", however well-intentioned might have been the motives behind the banishments.
The book's concept of "Requiem", one suspects, applies especially to the post-Conciliar phasing out of the Juniorates formerly maintained by the Brothers' Institutes. While one might concede that it is unlikely that the teaching Brothers will ever successfully recolonise the classrooms of the Catholic world in the absence of the brimming pool of recruits that their Juniorates once provided, it is difficult - given the present social and religious context - to identify with the idea that they should be revived.
The book's simplicity of style is clearly deliberate: its author writes as the recollected boy might have written, excluding adult hindsight except where clearly indicated. He avoids, too, any expression of rancour or attribution of blame for the catastrophic decline in the number of priests, religious and lay worshippers that has marked the decades since Vatican II. History itself will ultimately determine whether the direction-setters of the contemporary Church have been in error; if this should prove to be the case, then the Church itself, in God's good time, will make the necessary corrections. Of so much, by way both of reason and of faith, the author shows that he stands confident.
What is encouraging in this comforting book is that we have testimony from a man (whose claims to be heard, given his personal and professional attainments, are impressive) that the traditional Catholic institutions should not be judged and condemned for the scandal attaching to the comparatively few who have fallen short of their Institutes' highest ideals; and that the achievements of yesterday's Catholic men and women - whether ordained, religious or lay - should be adequately memorialised and held in perpetual honour.
I heartily endorse this book and I hope that it may find a wide and appreciative audience, especially among the young of our faith who generally have little opportunity of ascertaining and appreciating that so many Catholic Camelots have been deliberately banished and that the spiritual desolation ensuing has, in large measure, been self-induced. One may recall the Roman historian, Tacitus's summation: "They create a desert and they call it peace.").