Fr Gregory Jordan SJ is Chaplain to St Leo's College at the University of Queensland. Apart from celebrating Mass at the College, Fr Jordan conducts Scripture Study sessions attended by students from inside and outside the College. He also serves as National Chaplain to the International Movement of Catholic Students' Associations (IMCSA).
A recent student survey at St Leo's College, Brisbane, has shown that just on half of Leonians considered religion as "very important", and just on one-fifth claimed they attend Mass "regularly" - the lowest figure ever for Mass attendance. This is not because of any decline in the proportion of students in College who are Catholic, since this remains at nearly 90 percent.
It is certainly true that the same trend can be seen amongst the contemporaries of our students, whether from Queensland generally or from other States or Western countries. The causes for this striking change are multiple, from the growth of a youth culture through the all-pervasive media, to changes in Catholic education, which almost all of our students have received. In very broad terms it may be said that there has been a change in the culture itself within which we are born and grow up.
Before the Second Vatican Council, Western Catholicism was characterised by the ideal of self- sacrifice, exemplified by the saints and heroes of the Catholic Tradition, and supremely in Christ's life on earth. It was typified by the conversion of the wounded soldier Inigo de Loyola, inspired while reading the life of Christ and the lives of the saints when recovering from his wounds.
That ideal of self-sacrifice made demands of every Catholic, and was embodied in such practices as Friday abstinence, Lenten fasting, daily prayer, the discipline of certain devotions like Sunday evening devotions or the nine First Fridays, and daily Mass maintained by a substantial minority. Attendance at Sunday Mass and the observance of a consistent sexual morality were insisted upon and there was certainly a strong respect for religious authority.
The previous twenty-five years had dramatically reinforced that ideal of self-sacrifice: World War II and even Korea offered endless examples of courageous selflessness in the face of an evil that was all too easily identifiable. Popular culture in films and books about the war in their own way supported that ideal, and anyone who fought against evil, heedless of personal risk, was made a hero.
Typical is the story of Paul Cox, director of Molokai, the film about Father Damien the leper priest on whose herosim we were all reared then. For his confirmation, it was the name Damien that Cox took.
In my own year at school there were 60 boys, twelve of whom entered the priesthood.
After Vatican II, that ideal of self-sacrifice gave way to a preoccupation with self-fulfilment. Dr Carl Rogers' Chicago school of counselling, with the introduction of "sensitivity" groups, the drive for desegregation and the rise of feminism all conspired to shift the emphasis from doing one's duty to an insistence on rights - individual or class/race/gender rights.
Society's debates during the Vietnam War were set in terms that differed totally from previous conflicts. This is not to be attributed to Vatican II at all, though a misreading of the Council documents could tend to support that philosophy; it was widespread in civil society and in other denominations. If anything, the Church in her official position resisted the new emphasis longer than others.
In education, the emphasis moved from what the truth is to what the individual is, believes, and inevitably feels is the truth for him or her, or would like it to be. That philosophy is not likely to make a youngster leap out of bed of a morning to start the day, let alone plan the day around ensuring that amongst many competing activities he gets to Mass as a top priority; but that is the prevailing philosophy. Nor does it inspire vocations or give that hardy tenacity essential to those with a vocation if they are to persevere.
Within the Church the culture of rural Queensland probably resisted these trends longer than anywhere else, so that the level of Mass attendance at St Leo's, which was filled almost entirely by students from the country, was the highest in Australia. Anecdotal evidence has it that there has been a dramatic decline in youth practice throughout Queensland and this is inevitably passed on to the tertiary level.
The fight-back is all too slow, but it is there, in various movements within the Church to instruct and rekindle the enthusiasm or redirect the idealism of young people to faith and practice and service. The NET team (National Evangelisation Team), True Love Waits, the recent World Youth Day in Toronto, Newman Societies and Pro-Life groups are all capable of engaging young people and available to be called upon.
Within St Leo's College there is a committed minority, many of whom are not only devout, but are intelligently interested in their faith and its bearing on the world. For example, there are senior residents who have done the complete Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola under the direction of the noted spiritual director, Fr John Drury SJ.