In 1997 Archbishop Pell met with young people from the Archdiocese of Melbourne to discuss youth issues. That discussion formed the basis for his first Pentecost Pastoral Letter to Young People. Since that time the Archbishop of Melbourne has met annually with youth leaders penning a Pastoral Letter based on that discussion.
In this year of the Eucharist, the topic was "Stay with us Lord. Jesus, the Eucharist, in our lives." After a shared meal, the 200 or so participants listened to addresses on the Eucharist by Monsignor Peter Elliott and Fr Tim Costelloe SDB. The former corrected common misunderstandings about transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass, while the latter spoke about St Dominic Savio and Eucharistic devotion.
Following these addresses, small discussion groups were formed. At the end of the night, the main points of discussion were fed back to Archbishop Denis Hart.
Some groups discussed Eucharistic Adoration, a practice many delegates had never heard of. Several spoke of Catholic Youth Ministry's weekly Holy Hour "six30" and the impact adoration has had on their faith. Others spoke about the need to offer this practice within schools (as Mazenod College does) and within parishes.
Others confessed that they didn't know that the Eucharist was "supposed" to be Christ's body. "That's just a figure of speech - right?" Thankfully Msgr Elliott had spoken quite plainly about this, but unfortunately many attendees noted that Msgr Elliott's explanation of the Eucharist differed markedly from the explanations of their teachers. As an RE teacher myself, I am very conscious of the inadequate level of formation that many students receive.
Some delegates recommended that sacramental preparation be withdrawn from the schools and given over to parishes and families, to limit the impact of poor teaching. Other young people suggested that the age of first communion (and possibly other sacraments) be raised to the mid-teens, rather than left at seven or eight years. After all, if so many adults (e.g., teachers) misunderstand Eucharistic doctrine, why should we expect children below ten to grasp it?
It is my understanding that some schools are in the habit of having first Communion before first Reconciliation based upon the humorous reasoning that children find sin too much of an abstract concept (the implication being that appreciating the Real Presence is child's play).
Most probably out of a desire not to offend the Archbishop - or the CEO staff in attendance - criticism of Catholic schools was reserved to intra-group discussion, rather than given as public feedback.
This charitable effort at diplomacy presented an almost entirely positive appraisal of the state of Catholic education in Melbourne.
However, when you have school delegates in attendance who are essentially agnostic, or Islamic, or merely benignly ignorant about the Catholic faith - and when these representatives readily question the divinity of Christ and the need for the priesthood (or the Church for that matter) - it is inappropriate to offer unreserved acclaim for Catholic education as a whole.
I readily sing the praises of the successes of Catholic education, but faith formation and the integral development of the inner life of the student are not - for the most part - among them.
Some representatives addressed this, noting that school Masses seem preoccupied with engaging the students' attention, rather than lifting their hearts. It was suggested that, perhaps, homilies at school Masses should be more concerned with offering apologetic and catechetical food for thought, rather than moralistic platitudes or political editorials.
I also recall one Year Eleven student voicing her opinion that school Masses should be toned down, so that rather than the musical and gymnastic talents of the students, Christ's passion and sacrifice should be emphasised.
In the midst of this, you may be wondering about the impact of RE reforms in the Archdiocese - including the new series of text books based on the Catechism. What effect do they appear to have had?
Well, imagine a boat in a harbour. The boat is struggling, stalling. The lighthouse keeper sees the boat in distress and sends help. Sadly for those aboard the boat, the lighthouse keeper sends lifejackets rather than the coastguard or tug boats.
Those young leaders present at the consultation were asking, very politely, for more than lifejackets. They were asking for the coastguard. They want Jesus, they want the Eucharist, in their lives, but they don't know who to turn to. More than good RE textbooks is needed.
Among my own students and my friends I have witnessed a flowering anger emerge when one discovers the rich heritage of the Catholic faith, and realises what it is that they have missed out on; what it is that has been kept from them.
To forestall this righteous indignation, renewed vigour is needed, especially in the areas of teacher training, curriculum development and sacramental preparation.
But it is naive and unjust to ascribe all causality to the schools. Parishes and families also need to instil in themselves a steadfast gaze on Christ, particularly on His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Remembering that ours is a personal and communal faith, we need also to encourage each other to deepen our knowledge of the Lord.
Shannon Donahoo teaches Religion, Ethics and Politics at a Catholic secondary school in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.