Catholic schools and 'youth spirituality'

Catholic schools and 'youth spirituality'

John Kelly

When I see some Catholic educators urging "youth spirituality" as a substitute or alternative to formal religious teaching and practice, I wonder whether such people really appreciate the extraordinary provision God has already made for us in the revelation and self-giving of Christ; and because of Christ, in the Church.

When I raise this with some colleagues, the usual response is: "Triumphalism!" or "Religious imperialism!"

I fail to see what is triumphalistic or imperialistic in the acceptance of God in the terms in which He Himself chose to disclose and give Himself.

The life of grace completes and elevates nature. The created human soul and its operations are structured for the knowledge of its Maker who has endowed it with intelligence, freedom and the capacity for love. Despite original sin, this capacity, at least in Catholic understanding, has never been obliterated; gravely impaired, yes, but not cancelled.

In twenty years of working with young people as a teacher, it is clear to me that that the deepest yearning in young people's spirits, in their "heart's core", is the reassurance that truth matters and that they are loved. In their expectation, not only of teaching but of life itself, truth and love are intrinsically connected.

This axiom and its conviction in young people's experience are fundamental to their sense of self-worth and the purposefulness of the attitudes and actions which derive from it. Without the security and conviction that truth and love are inseparable and decisive, young people's outlook on life can become disoriented and alienated, even tending towards nihilism.

The stakes, then, for youth spirituality and formation, are high indeed: for living now, and everlastingly.

St Augustine recognised the centrality and universality of our radical human hunger: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are vagrant until they find their place in You."

What is particularly salient and instructive is that Augustine locates the source of the human quest for love beyond the self. In other words, the first reference point of spirituality, youth or adult, is not the self, but God, who is, in Christian revelation, Creator and Redeemer; and, as such, the precondition of all subjective experience, especially of our experience of the need to know that we are loved.

Our Lord's summation of the Commandments - love of God and love of neighbour - is connected to His injunction, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God"; and in the paradox that to find ourselves, we must lose ourselves.

Often I have heard cited in various RE forums St Irenaeus' words, "The glory of God is man fully alive." Curiously, I have never heard quoted the second part of his sentence: "and the glory of man is the vision of God." The prerequisite of authentic humanity and Christian discipleship is a surrendering of the self to the truth and love of God; and, in God, to the service of others.

Living tradition

The Church's living tradition, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, provides eminently accessible and practical means for this re-alignment of self. In Baptism we are initiated into the life of Christ and the Blessed Trinity.

I recall asking a very experienced priest, who spent most of his life in schools and universities, how he would define Catholic education. He replied: "Nourishing the faith and baptismal character of each student in your care."

If the tide of faith, as Matthew Arnold sadly suggested, and some educators in religion today opine, has so far ebbed that formal religious ritual and practice seem an impossibly far-off, even alien shore, the ground of reasonable discourse remains. In this domain the Church is abundantly equipped, having engaged critically throughout her history with the prevailing currents of metaphysical and scientific reasoning.

That eel-like phenomenon known in academia as post-modern thinking, whose influence is strong in contemporary media, poses, no doubt, its own challenges. But they are far from insurmountable. At best, post-modern thought sharpens critical faculties and provokes a systematic clarification of first principles, philosophically and theologically. At worst, like its antecedents in ancient Greece, it promotes a corrosive scepticism, relativism and sophistry.

The revival of philosophy - especially epistemology and ethics - in some Catholic schools' RE courses is as timely as it is necessary. The spirits of our young people and the Church's mission cannot be served by a retreat from thinking, any more than they can by an uncritical embracing of it.

A sense of the history of ideas, too, helps students place today's shallow humanism in proper perspective, while philosophy helps engender a sense of the radical continuities of human experience in history, rather than atomised dislocations.

Students in our schools are entitled to the best the Catholic tradition can offer. That best includes formation in prayer, sacramental life, formal Church teaching and practical opportunities of service to others in and outside the Catholic community.

It also includes, I believe, exposure to the tradition of the mind from which "spirituality" cannot be, without truncation and distortion, severed. Senior students leaving Catholic schools should be expected to be familiar with more than just the names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Heidegger, Derrida, and Pope John Paul II. Serious study of them is not beyond our students; and such engagement will help ensure there is a fertile and appropriately rigorous grounding to underpin the "critical awareness" they are encouraged to undertake in tertiary institutions, Catholic and secular.

It will also assist them, I believe, in the pursuit of "doing the truth in love."

John Kelly teaches at an Adelaide Catholic secondary school.

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