A timely document aimed at strengthening the religious character of Catholic schools was launched on 7 August, on behalf of the 17 Bishops and Eparchs of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, by Bishop David Walker of Broken Bay.
Titled Catholic Schools at a Crossroads, Pastoral Letter of the Bishops of NSW and the ACT, the document identifies major problem areas and proposes courses of remedial action.
The Bishops acknowledge the present situation calls for urgent action: 'Many of our young people now have little or no connection with the Church outside their school. Furthermore, many other-than-Catholic families now entrust their children to Catholic schools.'
While numbers at Catholic schools continue to increase, 'most of the additional students in our Catholic schools are not Catholics.' In fact while non-Catholic enrolments have more than doubled, the proportion of Catholic students attending Catholic schools has fallen, with half of them, mainly from poorer families, enrolled in state schools, and a growing proportion, mainly from wealthier families, attending non-Catholic independent schools.
A first step towards enhancing the Catholic character of Catholic schools lies in enrolment policy, which means there must be a 'critical mass' of Catholic students in each school.
But the Bishops emphasise that 'much more is required for a genuinely Catholic school than just a preponderance of students from Catholic families'.
Among the requirements for this are 'leaders and staff' who 'understand, and are solidly committed to, the Catholic identity of the school', a sound RE curriculum taught by properly accredited teachers, student involvement in school Masses and confessions, ample opportunities for prayer - 'at assemblies, in classes and in other staff and student meetings' - and spiritual practices encouraged, 'such as Scripture reflections, the Angelus, Eucharistic Adoration and prayerful silences'. There should be crucifixes and pictures of Our Lady and the saints around the schools.
The Bishops cite Pope John Paul II's call in Redemptoris Missio (1990) for a new evangelisation, 'to preach the Gospel anew in previously Christian communities which were falling away from the Gospel in the face of secularisation and other cultural change'.
This approach is 'all the more urgent in the context of growing numbers of non-practising Catholics, under-catechised Catholics and other-than-Catholic students in our schools.'
The calibre of school staffs is particularly important: 'No-one doubts that the faith and practice of the leaders and staff in Catholic schools significantly affect the students and the character of the education offered'.
This means that 'all those appointed as principals, assistant principals and religious education co- ordinators (RECs) are faithful Catholics who are ready to embrace the mission of the Catholic school today and to lead and inspire their staff and parents accordingly', 'as far as possible only practising and knowledgeable Catholics are charged with the task of teaching RE in our schools' and all teachers in Catholic schools need to be 'committed to the mission of the school and each live in accordance with the teachings of the Church.'
The formation of future teachers is all-important. Here the calibre of teacher training courses (e.g., at Australian Catholic University) will be monitored, including 'the 'fit' between the needs of our schools and the present programs of teacher education, inservicing and professional development' and 'the means developed by these institutions to foster the Catholic faith, knowledge and practice of future teachers.'
At the same time, all institutions 'engaged in the formation of Catholic teachers' should 'examine their programs in the light of the goals expressed in this Pastoral Letter.'
Some of the 'Critical Indicators of Progress' listed include:
* the Catholic purpose of the school is clearly stated in each school's Mission Statement;
* all Principals, Assistant Principals and RECs are practising Catholics who understand and profess the Catholic faith, model it in their own lives, and can teach it effectively;
* progress towards an increase in the proportion of school staff - especially of RE teachers - who are practising and knowledgeable Catholics;
* at application and appointment to a new position, and on other appropriate occasions, leaders and staff are reminded of the Catholic identity and mission of the school and of the expectation that they will commit themselves to that mission;
* progress towards an increase in the proportion of students in our schools who are Catholic;
* at application or enrolment, at admission, and on other appropriate occasions, parents and students are reminded of the Catholic identity and mission of the school and of the expectation that they will assist in that mission;
* the presence of distinctively Catholic symbols and practices as part of the daily life of the school;
* efforts to connect with Catholic families [and parishes] to maximise their participation in Catholic schools;
* continued development and deployment of curriculum, methodologies and resources such as texts which promote high levels of Catholic religious literacy;
* systematic external assessment of Catholic religious literacy;
* progress toward significantly increased attendance at Sunday Mass, and deeper involvement in the life of the local Church by students and ex-students.
The Pastoral Letter is a most welcome document. The challenge for each bishop will be to see that its goals are implemented in his diocese. Setting realistic time-frames and devising ways of monitoring progress will be essential if the Pastoral Letter is to have the desired impact.