A forum on Catholic religious education was conducted at the St Leonard's parish centre, Glen Waverley, in the Melbourne Archdiocese in early April. With about 50-60 people in attendance, it was addressed by Bishop Peter Elliott, Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education, before being thrown open to questions and statements from the floor.
I attended as an observer because I am vitally interested in the subject and have gained some perspective while teaching in State, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish schools over many years.
The Bishop outlined the many positive developments in Catholic religious education, pointing to the mandated texts, To Know, Worship and Love, which were prepared and published under his direction, the training of teachers at the Australian Catholic University, and the new staff college for Catholic principals to be opened in East Melbourne. Religious education, he assured the meeting, was alive and well at many Catholic schools, especially the primary schools where a number of excellent RECs (religious education co-ordinators) were in place.
Situation in practice
When questions were invited from the floor, however, many grievances were expressed against what is offered in practice as religious education in our Catholic schools. Some parents attributed their children's giving up practice of their religion to their experience in Catholic schools, while others even reported that their younger children, whom they had shifted to state or independent schools, were retaining their Faith.
Many abuses were alleged, principally a failure to teach the basics of the Faith and misrepresentation or ridicule of some Catholic teachings. A number of home-schoolers spoke, and all justified their decision to home-school as concern for their children's Catholic faith.
Bishop Elliott listened to all of their grievances and expressed his sympathy and support, undertaking to look into any real abuses which could be substantiated. He agreed that the problem lies in the attitude of some teachers in the schools who undermine Catholic beliefs and practices.
He also stressed the duty and the right of parish priests to monitor religious education in our primary schools and also mentioned the vapid songs which pass for hymns in our schools, of the "Share in the bread, share in the wine" variety, which do nothing for children's understanding of Catholic doctrine or spirituality.
The parish priest, Fr Brendan Dillon, challenged the homeschoolers, arguing that children from solid Catholic families are needed in our schools as a leavening and example for those who are non-practising or more casual in their observance. This is a reasonable argument, but who can blame the passionate response from some home-schoolers present, seeing the souls of their own children as their first concern?
I have nothing but gratitude for the heroic teaching sisters and brothers who in the 1950s and 1960s instilled the Faith in us, with the catechism, prayer, an understanding of the liturgy and the sacraments, and hymns which reflected orthodox Church teaching.
This formation contrasts with what I have witnessed in several stints in Catholic secondary schools in the past decade, where religious education has been superficial, if not hostile to Church teaching, and faith development has been insipid. A school Mass is described as a "Eucharist", and the less said the better about preparation for receiving Communion.
New age mysticism and a pantheistic approach to Divine Revelation have also been evident, while traditional Catholic images have been banished from classrooms. It is not uncommon to find the Faith ridiculed: witness the recent "Passion Play" (proudly exhibited on YouTube) as performed at a Victorian Catholic regional college, which pauses from buffoonery only for blasphemy.
For much of the past eight years I have taught at Presbyterian Ladies College, and what I have experienced there puts to shame many of our Catholic secondary schools. At PLC religious education is largely Scripture-based and quite unapologetic, in spite of the diversity of religions among the students.
Every Protestant denomination is represented, along with a sprinkling of Catholics and Muslims, and a sizeable number of Buddhists, Hindus and even non-believers. All students attend and treat with respect their Christian Studies classes and the general assemblies, which have a profound religious component.
Preparation for Easter this year could not have impressed me more. Normally, a general assembly includes two hymns, sung by students and staff, a Scripture reading and prayer, but each morning that week was special. First came a homily on friendship from the school's ordained chaplain, and he took as his text "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). There followed an exquisite "Panis Angelicus" sung by one of the school's several choirs.
On the second day the Christian Studies co-ordinator gave an illustrated talk on the religious significance of the many symbols of the Easter season while on the third day a student read a long Gospel account of the Passion and Resurrection.
On the last day the principal conducted a quiz show. Three senior students answered questions based on the previous day's Gospel and general knowledge about Easter, to the enthusiastic applause of their school-mates.
Of course, much of this strength comes from the families, and many of the girls come from intensely religious ones, including those from Catholic families who have chosen PLC, knowing that their daughters' faith and religious identity are in no danger there, and that parents can "top up" at home. Unfortunately, it is two generations since Catholic parents could entrust this duty to most of our schools.