Since 1998, the Sydney Catholic Education Office has been running a religious education test for Grade Six students in the archdiocese. In June 2002, over 5,000 sat for the test, including, for the first time, children from five Armidale Diocese schools.
Following his appointment to Sydney in 2001, Archbishop George Pell has made clear he will continue with the testing, which will be progressively refined and improved upon.
The test covers the areas of beliefs and symbols, decision-making, Mass and the Eucharist, sacraments, saints, Church, prayer, liturgy and Scripture. Section One consists of 50 multiple choice questions, while Section Two requires students to provide written answers to open-ended questions.
Multiple choice questions in the 2002 test included: "On which Sunday does the Church's Liturgical Year begin?", "Which of the following does not take place during the Liturgy of the Eucharist?", "Which group of symbols reminds us of Advent?", "Which of these events is not found in the New Testament?" and "The Paschal Mystery refers to?"
There are 22 further questions requiring pupils to write answers onto the test paper, e.g., "Give a brief explanation of these Sacraments. List a symbol associated with each Sacrament" and "Explain the significance of the following symbols for Christians - The Cross, Water, The Easter Candle". Others involve comprehension questions on a Scripture passage and the application of Christian principles to real-life situations.
For the first time, the Sydney Catholic Weekly has published test results, with the names of students - including the schools attended - who received High Distinction Certificates for achieving 90 percent or better. Of the 5,000 who sat, just over 100 achieved this mark.
Among the schools, one that especially stood out was St Joseph's, Riverwood, with nine of its 59 Grade Six pupils (or 15 percent) gaining High Distinctions, by far the highest proportion of any school in the archdiocese. The next highest was seven percent at a six-stream school with 170 pupils.
Interested in what might have contributed to such an impressive performance, AD2000 interviewed the St Joseph's parish priest, Fr John Walter.
It turns out that, apart from "preaching the Word of God" at Masses, Fr Walter plays an active catechetical role in his school, instructing its pupils each Wednesday at a class Mass and again each Friday at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He also regularly hears their confessions and with the school staff and catechists prepares them for the sacraments.
The children, says Fr Walter, "love the Mass and they learn to love Benediction." Homily time takes the form of a two-way question and answer format, "where I try to build on the unforeseen possibilities that so often arise as the children's hands shoot up." Some find it hard to remain seated so keen are they to tackle the questions posed - questions which Fr Walter "deliberately" pre-loads "with as much extra information as I can." His approach to imparting religious knowledge "centres around the liturgical calendar, the saints, the sacraments and the meaning of colours, candles and such things as the sanctuary bell, incense and the thurible." Much attention is given to "good old- fashioned Catholic language and its meaning."
For example, "spotting the red light of the sanctuary lamp, they quickly find out what it means that Jesus is at home, and since the tabernacle cover actually looks like a tent - the basic meaning of the word - it sticks in the memory." It is important, he says, that a teacher knows the subject intimately and can tune into the child's mentality.
Father Walter recalls: "The lasting power of this approach was borne home last year when a proud mother told me her boy was the only one in his Year Nine high school class who knew what a monstrance was. He loudly proclaimed that Father Walter had taught him that when he was in primary school."
The Grade Two class learns they don't receive "blessed bread" at First Communion. They know that while God blesses the food we eat when we say grace before meals - and Jesus often did just that - his words of consecration at Mass don't just give us "blessed bread." They easily recognise that the words of consecration are those of Jesus, not the priest's, and that "My" in "This is My Body" refers to Jesus, not the priest.
"When I inquire why we believe these words when Father says them at Mass they tell me straightforwardly that Jesus doesn't tell lies ... For them faith means believing Jesus' words, especially when we can't yet see what happens."
Father Walter has a high regard for the capacity of young children to respond to the challenge posed by the mysteries of the Catholic faith: "Over and over again I have been deeply impressed by the immediacy of the children's comprehension when presented with simple, orthodox exposition of the whys and wherefores of the faith. Minor corrections are incorporated in the follow-up questions and, by constant revision, repetition anchors knowledge."
He recalled that on the second day after school resumed for 2003, the religious education co-ordinator informed him that all the Year Five and Six boys wanted to serve Mass and Benediction. In fact, "Never over the past 23 years has there been any shortage of altar servers from among the young lads in the primary school. Many have continued to serve of a Sunday until well into their teens - and many inches taller than their parish priest."
He concludes: "It is a truism to say that grace builds on nature. But true knowledge is an indispensable partner in remaining faithful to the demands of faith. The Catholic faith cannot be imposed; it must be willingly embraced through a personal response by every generation. It must be taught if it is to be caught. It must be learnt if it is to be lived."