Mass attendance: a key measure of Catholic schools' effectiveness

Mass attendance: a key measure of Catholic schools' effectiveness

Br John Moylan CFC

Some highly positioned and influential leaders in Catholic education have claimed in reputable journals that it is inappropriate to use regular Eucharistic worship as an indicator of the effectiveness of Catholic schools. Their position is both erroneous and seriously harmful, argues Br Moylan.

In developing its argument, this article refers to key documents of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) which provide official Church teaching on matters pertaining to Catholic schools. There will also be references to some documents of the Second Vatican Council with their Latin title and paragraph.

The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (1998 document, par 15) has pointed out that the aims of Catholic schools include human and Christian formation. The same congregation (1977, par 45) made the following statement: "The Catholic school has as its specific duty the complete Christian formation of its pupils, and this task is of special emphasis today because of the inadequacy of the family and society." (Emphasis mine.)

This "complete Christian formation" involves living a life as a member of the Christian community. The Second Vatican Council teaches clearly that it is impossible to build a Christian community unless it has "for its fundamental component and its centre the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist" (Prebyterium Ordinis, par 6). It is appropriate then that one important measure of a Catholic school's effectiveness should be whether its Catholic students, past and present, attend Mass regularly.

Vatican II (Gravissimum Educationis par 2) emphasised that the development of a personal spirituality and participation in the Eucharist are included not just as aims, but as the principal aims of a Catholic school: "Such an education [Christian education] does not merely strive to foster in the human person the maturity already described. Rather, its principal aims are these: that as the baptised person is gradually introduced into a knowledge of the mystery of salvation, he may daily grow more conscious of the gift of faith which he has received; that he may learn to adore God the Father in spirit and in truth (cf. Jn. 4:23), especially through liturgical worship" (Emphasis mine).

The fulfilment or otherwise of the principal aims of a Catholic school should be matter for assessing, as far as is possible, their effectiveness.

A document of the Australian National Catholic Education Commission issued in 2000 to clarify the purpose of Catholic schools stated that, in part, "Catholic schools are for Catholic children who, through baptism, have a right to an education in the Catholic faith in a Catholic school." Space limitations permit only an examination of a few teachings of this faith appertaining to the Eucharist as expressed in its most recent ecumenical council.

Lumen Gentium, par 11, teaches that the Eucharist is nothing less than "the source and summit of the Christian life". Sacrosanctum Concilium, par 47, reminds us that in the Eucharist the baptised are called to participate with the whole community in the sacrifice of Calvary which is perpetuated throughout the ages until the end of time.

Apostolicam Actuositatem, par 4, points out that the Christian vocation of its very nature is a vocation to the apostolate, and an apostolate "is any activity that is trying to spread the Kingdom of Christ over all the earth". This document (par 47) also declares that "the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, communicate and nourish the charity which is the soul of the whole apostolate".


No wonder, then, as pointed out in Catechism of the Catholic Church in Article 2181, that "because the Sunday Eucharist is nothing less than the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice", "the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants), or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin".

When high profile and highly influential Catholic educators make erroneous statements such as the following, extreme harm is done: "Catholic educators ... who judge the effectiveness of Catholic schools by the number of students who continue to go to Mass on Sundays are not only entertaining an irrelevancy, but show they are ignorant of the raison d'├ętre of the Catholic school's existence."

True, there is more to the Christian life than regular attendance at the Eucharist, and while this indicator is an indispensable indicator of the effectiveness of Catholic schools, other indicators also need to be used. Presbyterum Ordinis, par 6, teaches that if Eucharistic "celebration is to be sincere and thorough, it must lead to various works of charity and mutual help, as well as to missionary activity and different forms of Christian witness." Fr Walter Abbott SJ, editor of the well-known English translation of the documents of Vatican II, noted in a footnote, that while several times Vatican II teaches that the celebration of the Eucharist is "the mainspring of the communitarian spirit", Vatican II also teaches that "Christianity reduced to mere fidelity to Mass-going is to be rejected."

Nevertheless, there is solid empirical research to show that there is a high correlation between other good Christian behaviour and regular worship as a member of a Christian community. I will point to three examples.

In his landmark research of 6,000 Year 12 students in 50 Catholic schools in 11 dioceses of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory in 1990, Br Marcellin Flynn, FMS, found that there were "surprisingly large differences" between those who celebrated the Eucharist each week and those who did not on a range of indicators designed to reflect a religious attitude to life, and which included both moral values and justice values. In a 1971 study of 7,050 high school youth the renowned Strommen's Search Institute in the USA found that "a sense of moral responsibility strongly correlates with both a consciousness of God's presence and participation in the life of a congregation." A recent study among youth by the International Red Cross, conducted in Portugal, Italy, France, Holland and Spain concluded that the use of drugs is greater among non-believers and those who do not practise their faith, than those who have a live Christian faith.

So, even on the evidence of solid pieces of empirical research, it would be most unwise in assessing the effectiveness of institutions which have the specific task of completely forming Christians, to dismiss as irrelevant to their effectiveness whether or not their Catholic students and past students participate in the Sunday Eucharist.

In 1833, Archbishop Polding's Vicar General, Fr Ullathorne, later Bishop Ullathorne, described Australian society as "a cesspool comprised of scum upon scum and dregs upon dregs". Br Ambrose Treacy, who founded the Christian Brothers in Australia, described the morals of early Australian youth, their religious ignorance, and the type of homes, from which they came, in a way which is in tune with his conclusion that Australia was a "wicked colony".

As unrealistic as it may seem in these circumstances, both Polding and Treacy considered Sunday Mass attendance, reception of the sacraments, and personal prayer outcomes from Catholic schools as matter for assessing the achievement of their goal.

Far from relinquishing such aims as student participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the sacraments, Br Treacy sought effective solutions to his problems. In a letter to his Superior-General in Ireland he wrote: "As you have undertaken this mission we must rely on you for good Brothers to carry it on successfully. The question is not of the children being a little better or a little worse, but of their being brought up in the fear and love of God, or being lost to the Church and their Creator forever. Let the Brothers you send be men of virtue and ability. All the future of the Christian Brothers in this wicked colony will depend on them."

Treacy tackled difficulties and did not resile from his schools' principal aim to have his students participate worthily in the worshipping life of the Church, an essential part of which is the Sunday Eucharist.

Archbishop Polding is regarded as the founder of the Catholic school system in Australia. In his rationale for the Catholic school system in Australia, he wrote that it is not only "presumptuous, but speciously religious, to select certain virtues as the kernel of Christianity ... [B]ut what is worse than this presumptuous selection is the covert assumption that it is possible for men to have these genuine and constant, without the operation and guidance of Christian doctrine and sacramental grace ...".

Everything in the Christian life of a baptised Catholic now, since the time of Christ and to the end of time, flows from the Eucharist and must be directed towards the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the essential unifying action of the Christian community. This is the case for all cultures and all times. Excluding participation in the Eucharist as a measure of the effectiveness of institutions founded to lead to complete Christian formation, provides implicit powerful teaching which gravely distorts the Christian message.

As Pope John Paul II taught in a 1998 apostolic letter, Dies Domini, the obligation of celebrating the Sunday Eucharist is not an arbitrary law imposed by the Church but "an indispensable element of our Christian identity".

Do we want many teachers and students in Catholic schools to be left with the impression that, practically speaking, participation in the Sunday Eucharist is not required for authentic Catholic or Christian faith? Do we want teachers and their students to be implicitly taught that, in an institution aiming to form Christians, participation in the Sunday Eucharist is at best of minor importance or cannot be expected?

Harmful consequences

There are many other extremely harmful consequences of the erroneous way described of thinking and speaking about assessing Catholic schools. For example, it can lead to a lack of solid resolution to educate fully, with God's help, administrators, teachers and parents about the Eucharist, its importance and how to participate in it. The expectations of Catholic schools will be seriously and harmfully diminished.

Education cannot be value-free, and the values learned implicitly from students' teachers can be seriously flawed. Through their teachers, any lack of appreciation of the Eucharist is likely to be absorbed by students whose teachers are significant adults in their lives. Students influence one another, and a climate can be created in which students are taught, not always verbally but powerfully by implication, that attending Mass is irrelevant, eccentric and even possibly ridiculous.

Research demonstrates that even the verbally unexpressed attitudes of teachers powerfully influence students. And it is well known how strongly adolescent behaviour is also influenced by that of their peers.

Surely drastic and difficult decisions need to be taken to ensure that, first of all administrators, teachers and parents, understand and appreciate the place of the Eucharist in the Church or the Christian life. If these adults do not participate in the Eucharist fully, consciously and actively, the downward spiralling rejection of the great gift of the Eucharist by young Catholics is likely to continue. What then of the future of Catholic schools and the Catholic Church in Australia? Are the numbers of Catholic schools, or teachers and students in them more important than authenticity in the message the schools convey?

It is a grave error and extremely harmful to disregard Catholic students' and past students' attendance at the Sunday Eucharist in assessing the effectiveness of Catholic schools.

Br John Moylan last year celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a Christian Brother and has two Masters' degrees in Religious Education. He has had extensive teaching experience in four States of Australia, and had several articles published in Australia and overseas. He can be contacted at: Christian Brothers' Community, 78 Glen Stuart Rd, Magill SA 5072. Tel: (08) 8364 4494; Fax: (08) 8364 3949

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