Children's Spirituality Conference at ACU: not to be confused with religion!

Children's Spirituality Conference at ACU: not to be confused with religion!

Michael Gilchrist

Dr Marian de Souza, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the Australian Catholic University, Ballarat, where she helps shape the religious ideas of future teachers in Catholic schools, says that spirituality should not be confused with religion. Spirituality, she says, is 'relational'.

Dr de Souza was one the speakers at a recent Children's Spirituality Conference held at the Ballarat Campus of Australian Catholic University from 20-24 January 2008.

Some people may imagine that a children's spirituality conference held at a Catholic university would have to cover such topics as Christian prayer and meditation, making a thanksgiving after Communion, examination of conscience before confession, Eucharistic adoration or saying the Rosary.

Catholic focus

None of these seemed in evidence at the 8th International Conference on Children's Spirituality hosted by ACU in Ballarat, the first such conference to be held in the southern hemisphere. It had as its theme, 'The role of Spirituality in Education and Health'.

The 70 participants from Australia and overseas included academics, practising teachers, psychologists and health workers. Some had religious affiliations and some were secular. Only as handful of the speakers appeared to be Catholic - which no doubt accounted for the lack of anything specifically Catholic among the 'spiritualities' lectured upon at the conference. This was evident from the detailed coverage of the conference broadcast over the ABC program Encounter on 2 March 2008.

The program's lengthy transcript, including texts of the talks, reveals that spirituality, according to the experts, can mean practically anything and everything - from feeling good about oneself to getting on with others.

The following examples are confined to those few identified as having a Catholic background - from whom one might have expected some minimal Catholic focus. Their talks were about as close as it got.

The above-mentioned Dr de Souza, who was one of the co-convenors of the conference, explained during her lecture that 'for me spirituality is very much about this relational sense of who were are.'

Developing this theme, she said she had 'difficulty when people talk about spiritualities, and talk about it as if there were lots of different kinds of spiritualities. I think people who do that very often are confusing it with religion; they can talk about religion in its multiple forms. The way I understand it, spirituality is relational.'

The key to her version of spirituality seemed to be 'connectedness', since 'if a person is deeply connected to self, which requires going within, or outer, to other - anything other than self - it would give them a sense of belonging, and that sense of belonging then gives them a sense of who they are, their identity, it gives them a sense of place in all what that place means; a place in my community, a voice in my community, but also a place in terms of a place in this land ...'.

Concluding on a practical note, Dr de Souza emphasised that it was 'absolutely essential in pluralist societies' that 'we almost make it compulsory that all children start learning about religions, and different cultures.' This was because 'there is enormous wisdom in religious traditions that are being lost because people are turning away from what they see as practices and they're not learning about that wisdom.'

She added, 'I think we have to be holistic in this and look at all religions and the unity in some of their ideas and beliefs, as well as the wisdom that comes through, it needs to be injected into our curriculum I think.'

Dr Paul McQuillan, an Honorary Research Fellow with ACU in Brisbane who also works with Catholic Education in Brisbane, was another of the featured speakers. In his paper, he discussed his research work.

'My own research work', he said, 'is looking at the spirituality of young people, essentially looking at the sorts of things they value and experience. The experiences that in past times, people may have interpreted it as being religious, but these days are simply experiences unless they're interpreted religiously. But the fascinating thing about the sort of work that we're doing in gathering all sorts of data from around the world, is that time and time again, such things as a patterning to events, the wonders of nature, an awareness of a presence of a power beyond themselves, an awareness of a deceased friend or relative, are things that young people do relate to and write about significantly in some of the research work that we're doing.'

Social awareness

Dr McQuillan continued, 'The wonderful thing about young people is that they do care about the world, and that's precisely the work that we're doing, to say those young people who have social awareness, what we call social awareness, the ability to think about others, to work with others, to be concerned about others, to try and help others, are also the same young people who can develop their own spirituality. And who are progressing along the lines of saying 'There is something more important than me; there is something bigger than me in this world'.'

Danile Whitney, who teaches at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta, described the conference to Encounter as 'great, it's excellent' adding that 'it raises a lot of questions and a lot of things that as teacher - I'm a secondary teacher - that we are doing in the classroom, and we need to do more of to encourage the growth of all our students. Spirituality is something that is missing from our curriculum in an obvious way, but it's there within the human heart, and we need to nurture that as teachers.'

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