In one of the most important initiatives in Catholic religious education in Australia since Vatican II, the Melbourne Archdiocese is this year introducing a new series of religion texts into schools and colleges within its boundaries. The series is based on the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' and utilises the pick of modern teaching methods.
Michael Gilchrist, editor of 'AD2000', recently discussed the new texts and associated issues with Msgr Peter Elliott, Melbourne's Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education and General Editor of the Project. Their discussions provide the basis for the following progress report.
It is clearly premature to predict the texts' likely impact at this early stage, but Catholics concerned about the catechetical situation around Australia have cause to be hopeful about future improvements in the knowledge and understanding of the Faith among young Catholics - especially if the texts gain a wider circulation.
A review of some of the new texts can be found on the following page.
Archbishop George Pell decided to produce the new religious education texts, said Msgr Peter Elliott, "as a means of enriching and strengthening the religious formation of all Catholic students in primary and secondary schools in the Melbourne Archdiocese". The project commenced with consultations in 1997, which led to a report titled, To Know, Worship and Love.
That title has been extended to the new text books, because this provides the vision and goal of the whole course - that Catholic students should know God and the teachings of the Church, should relate to God personally in worship and prayer, and live this each day according to the Christ's new law of love.
The texts have a distinctively modern form and include the latest insights in contemporary pedagogy. Over a series of eleven in-service days for primary teachers held in November and December 2000, the education methods and the rich artistic presentation were set out and explained.
An innovative dimension of the new curriculum is the adaptation of the "Catechesis of the Good Shepherd", which was developed by Italian catechetical experts inspired by Maria Montessori's educational approach of learning through doing, acting and playing. This adapted Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is used for the first three years of primary religious education in the series To Know, Worship and Love.
From Grade Three onwards a more cognitive emphasis begins with a focussed approach, integrating and reconciling the three major methods of religious education of the mid-late 20th century: the traditional doctrinal approach, the kerygmatic (scriptural and liturgical) approach of the late 1950s and 1960s and the life-situation or existential approach of the late 1960s and 1970s.
The series To Know, Worship and Love is thus in line with the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis from the Congregation of the Clergy, which sought to keep these different approaches in harmony as long as the accurate content of the Catholic Faith is transmitted to the children and young people.
The major resource for the series is the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the primary doctrinal overview (Prep/Kindergarten to Grade 6) is drawn from the Catechism. The Scriptures, tradition and prayer are woven into all chapters in the books.
The new Melbourne texts also build on and develop the latest edition of the Melbourne Guidelines for Religious Education (1995). In the primary teachers' manual - or Teaching Companion - the Guidelines are drawn upon as a resource that complements the texts.
Msgr Elliott stresses the continuity with the existing Guidelines and the way in which the texts apply and fill out various ideals expressed in the Guidelines, for example, starting to prepare children for their first sacraments as soon as they enter the Catholic school.
Principals and religious education co-ordinators, who have taken part in the in-servicing days, have generally welcomed the new texts and praised the extensive use of vivid art, which has been carefully adapted to each age level. Most of the art was specially commissioned for this project to ensure age-appropriate material and to make the texts present the faith in a fresh way.
As well as the four initial primary books, secondary texts for Years Seven and Nine have been published. These are more in line with the conventional style of text used at secondary levels and are also well illustrated. At these levels more extensive use is made of works of art, in part from the religious repertoire of the National Gallery of Victoria, which has been particularly helpful in assisting the Art Director (Clare Cannon).
Australian Catholic University (at its St Patrick's Campus, Melbourne) has been closely involved in the preparation of the secondary resources. Dr Kath Engebretson and Dr Richard Rymarz, authors of the secondary texts, both teach at ACU. The training of teachers at ACU for the Melbourne Archdiocese will be influenced by the new resources.
At the primary level a team of writers from the Catholic Education Office has been working closely with Msgr Elliott. They have shared their expertise, particularly in curriculum planning, teaching methods and assessment strategies, that are made possible through these texts.
Teachers will also be supported by a religious education website that will be open in February, providing much background material about the themes in the books.
An important dimension of the texts at all levels is the involvement of parents. In the Good Shepherd Catechesis, Scripture is provided to be read at home with the children, together with other activities. At the primary levels, each chapter concludes with "reflecting together at home and at school" activities and points for parents to use at home. Msgr Elliott emphasises that these texts are meant to go into homes, which is why the price of each text has been reduced to the lowest possible level and parent ownership is the ideal.
Next year (2002) the primary set of books will be completed with three further volumes and books being written for Years 8 and 10. Special resources are being planned for Years 11 and 12 to complement the religion subjects offered through the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).
In this first year of use of the texts strategies are being developed to adapt them for use in the government schools apostolate. Catechists have already expressed much interest in the texts, but have indicated they would need to have simple guidelines so they could select the key chapters in each text.
Initial fears about the use of text books have largely dissipated in light of the in-service days when teachers were able to begin working with the books themselves. They praised the simpler methods that accompany the new books and have responded positively to the possibilities which the resources open.
Msgr Elliott said that the books are wholly "Australian made". They are published by the Archdiocese itself - James Goold House Publications. They have been printed by Centre State Printing in Maryborough, Victoria, and even the paper was made in Tasmania!
At this point in the Church's history in Australia, with problems of belief and practice among many of its members, Melbourne Archdiocese's initiative to address this situation deserves every support and encouragement from parents, teachers, clergy and the Catholic community generally.