Helping Catholic school students to love the Church

Helping Catholic school students to love the Church

Br John Moylan CFC

A Catholic school has a duty to assist its students to love the Church. Are Catholic youth developing a love for the Church? What obstacles are hindering them in this? What can Catholic schools do to help their students have a stronger attachment to the Church?

The Church is no less than "the people of God", "a royal priesthood", "the Spouse of Christ", "the universal sacrament of salvation", "our Holy Mother", "the community of the disciples of Jesus Christ" and many other images derived from Scripture, conciliar documents, the writings of popes and doctors of the Church and others. They are among those presented to the faithful in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

A Catholic can easily skim over reading that "the light of Christ shines out visibly from the Church" without realising the awesome privilege that he or she has in playing a unique role in the Church founded by Jesus Christ. That the light of Christ shines thus is clearly taught, for example, in the opening statement of the key document of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church): "Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly, the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that by proclaiming his gospel to every creature, it may bring all men to that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church."

Given the truth of these images and the enormity of the privilege of bringing the light of Christ to the world, it should be obvious that the Church should be embraced and loved profoundly. As, "the Catholic school has as its specific duty the complete Christian formation of its pupils", (Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 1977), the responsibility of the school to assist students to form appropriate attitudes to the Church is apparent.

What are some of the obstacles to Catholic students meeting this privileged responsibility?

Indifference appears to be the prevailing attitude of today's Catholic young people towards the Church.

Fr Michael Paul Gallagher SJ has written extensively on the crisis of faith among youth today. His writings are a valuable resource for educators trying to discern why the Catholic Church has not gripped the imagination of the young.

At the 1996 Melbourne Catholic Education Conference he suggested why in the '90s apathy towards the Church has become more prevalent over two other undesirable attitudes. These two attitudes, anger and alienation, with apathy making a third, were prominent attitudes towards the Church in the '70s.

Fr Gallagher concluded that in the '90s anger was rare and alienation seemed in decline. Both anger and alienation imply some meaningful Church contact from which to be alienated or against which to be angry. Gallagher also stated: "What emerges is that, especially in younger generations, unbelief has become an inherited confusion, a distance from roots, an unaggressive puzzlement about religious practices and their language. As a result they experience unbelief as a cultural by-product".

Criticism of the Church

Today's young hear conflicting voices within the Church. It seems that constant criticism of the Church, the Pope, and the Church's authentic teaching authority, has had a devastating effect on the faith of its young members. Constant criticism of members of the hierarchy who firmly support the clearly stated position of the Pope and the Church's teaching office has exacerbated this situation.

Catholic school students can be led to the conclusion that the Church is an unreliable teacher pushing an impossible moral code which many of the charming people around them appear, at least in part, to reject. Moreover, the widely publicised evil behaviour of a number of clergy and religious, including some who were popular and well-respected, does not help the young appreciate the Church.

Poor modelling, constant negative criticism and the prominence given to strident dissident voices within its ranks are major obstacles to today's young identifying closely with the Church.

What can a Catholic school do then about this situation? It is not proposed here to discuss all possibilities, but it is submitted that the suggestions outlined are of real importance.

There are numerous studies demonstrating the power of parents, teachers and other significant adults to influence the young. The models the young imitate change over time from parents in early childhood, teachers and parents together in pre-adolescent schooling, towards peers and popular entertainment personalities during adolescence. However, even during adolescence parents and teachers have a more long-range importance (education, religious beliefs, basic approach to life, career) while the others have a more immediate and peripheral influence (hair styles, dress, music, language, entertainment).

It appears very important then that if students are to learn love and respect for the Church, its place in God's Plan of salvation, the good it has done, and is doing, they need to hear these significant adults speak in genuine awe of the Church and of God's love in giving it to the world. If students are exposed to parents, teachers and other significant adults whose attitude towards the Church and its leaders is one of continual negative criticism, they could be tempted to see little value in closely involving themselves with it. Even students from Church-going families in this situation are likely to see the Church in a negative light.

It seems imperative that there be a massive paradigm shift in the attitudes of a considerable number of Catholic parents, teachers and others in their manner of thinking and speaking about the Church. Prayer and reflection on the reality of the Church, its extraordinary achievements, what it is trying to do, and on the privilege of belonging to it seem extremely important means in bringing about this change.

Respect and love

In helping students develop a strong attachment to the Church, parents and teachers should inculcate great respect for and love of the Pope, the hierarchy, clergy and religious, especially those whom Divine Providence has placed in their lives as pastors, teachers or otherwise. These Church leaders are human beings with faults and failings, even serious ones, and one can never be sure of all the circumstances behind any undesirable habits. They have surrendered much to serve God and His people in a special way. Just as Catholics must care for all sinners, Catholics must show the respect, understanding, care and love for those God has given special responsibilities for their spiritual welfare.

As the attitude of the principal, faculty and parents towards the Church is crucial to the school fulfilling its duty in forming the attitude of students towards the Church, formation of principal, staff and parents in this matter seems indispensable.

There are ways that student leaders can provide leadership by their example and action. Creative educators, who are alive to the need to train their students to be other Christs, united with him in the Church, can find innumerable ways to assist school student leaders to help other students appreciate both the Church and their important role as Christ's representatives on earth.

It goes without saying that the school needs to engage parishes and parents in the task in question. There are already some fine initiatives in this way, but much more could be done if busy schools find more time and energy for this essential duty.

Just as after-school learning and activities are demanded for other subjects in the curriculum, the Catholic school should require that after-school structured and unstructured activity and learning be carried out in religious education programs. The school, whose mandate requires it to form complete Christians, has the duty to require parents and parishes to co-operate with it in the task of helping students develop appropriate attitudes towards the Church.

A wide consensus of US Catholic educators in 1972 was reached that there were three major activities required for authentic religious education. These were encapsulated by the key words, "message", "community" and "service". In 1990, the US bishops, added a fourth component which they called, "the centrality of worship".

All four components need to be used, both inside and outside the school and classroom, in assisting the students to love the Church and their involvement in it. This should be done at each age level in ways appropriate to it.

It is important that students absorb their Catholic heritage transmitted through story, doctrine, interviews, art, architecture, song, poetry, carefully chosen guest speakers and teachers, etc. It is vital that they experience themselves as being part of the Church by being involved, alone and with others, in both structured and unstructured activities in everyday life. All four components of religious education, mentioned in the previous paragraph, need to be used.

To assist in understanding of what Vatican II calls "The Mystery of the Church", Fr Avery Dulles SJ, has developed models of, or ways of understanding, the Church, and they have been used world-wide. His models are intended to be taken in conjunction with one another, as concentration on any one model can distort understanding of the Church.

More recently, Dulles has suggested strongly that two models, one of which he has developed lately, have need of greater emphasis today.

Alternative society

One of these is an understanding of the Church as an "alternative society". This understanding of being a member of an alternative society challenges a young Catholic to be faithful to Christ and his Church in a wider society, which largely ignores him and his teachings.

The other is an understanding of the Church as being hierarchical in nature, a society in which members have different functions according to their place in it as bishop, clergy or laity. Appalled at the theological dissent within the Church and its advocacy, Dulles appeals for a "more 'counter-cultural' Church, a more orthodox Church, and more emphasis on strong hierarchical structures."

The Church is intimately linked with Christ. It is his Church and his chosen means of bringing his message to the world, to provide community with him and all his followers, and to be of salvific service to its members and the world.

Students have a right to be assisted effectively to love the Church. This love includes feelings and resolution to play their full part in it gladly. The message about Christ and his Church needs to be accompanied by structured and unstructured activities providing students with experience of being part of the Church. The engagement of parents and parish must be demanded strongly.

If students do not continually hear their teachers, parents and adults speak sincerely, positively and proudly of the Church, and of their great privilege of being united with Christ in it, their respect for and love of the Church will be endangered. If the students are not made aware of the salvific greatness of the Church, its functions and the important role they are playing and have to play in it, there is a great danger that they will become indifferent to the Church.

Br Moylan, BA (Adelaide), MA (Fordham), M Ed (ACU), is presently located at Christian Brothers' Community, 78 Glen Stuart Rd, Magill, South Australia 5072.

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