Having supplied religious education texts to schools and parish catechists for the past five years, one thing has been abundantly clear to this writer: that faithful and culturally relevant Catholic primary school resources are hard to come by.
Although there have been, and are, some satisfactory and accessible materials, particularly from St Mary's Press in the USA and Social Science Press in New South Wales, these are in one way or another still inadequate. However, the To Know, Worship and Love primary school texts, produced by the Vicariate for Religious Education of the Melbourne Archdiocese, are without doubt the finest religious education primary school texts produced to date in Australia.
These texts were put together by a team of educators under the direction of Monsignor Peter Elliott, and its production has involved a collaborative approach with over 50 educational professionals consulted at various stages of the text formation. This approach has ensured that the texts are suited to the needs and challenges of the Melbourne Archdiocese.
The texts are published in-house by James Goold House Publications and have assimilated into their content four Catholic foundations:
* We believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who loves us.
* We believe in one Redeemer, Jesus Christ, only Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died and rose from the dead to save us.
* We believe in the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ, where we are led in service and worship by the Pope and Bishops.
* We believe that Jesus, Our Lord, calls us to repent and believe; that is, to choose faith not doubt, love not hate, good not evil, and eternal life in heaven not hell.
These foundations appear on the back cover of all four books.
The first of the four books is for kindergarten and prep grades and is written by Tricia Murray and Catherine Blythe. The latter's talent as a primary school teacher, and facilitator of other primary school teachers, is manifested impressively throughout this volume. In fact her professionalism has enhanced the quality of both this volume and the next. Furthermore, added to the text are simple, realistic and engaging illustrations of the Scriptures and the liturgy, which animate the writing within the text for the child.
The nineteen units in volume one are based on Scriptures, making the units thoroughly Christ- centred. The primary pupil's own life is introduced to the person of Jesus, beginning with unit one, "Our Prayer Place", where the child is introduced to personal prayer with a delightful home activity of setting up a prayer place with a "candle, a cross on a small table", and in this prayer place the child is reminded that "Jesus, you are with me".
The Church is introduced in Unit 12. With evident similarities to the Montessori teaching method, the child is introduced to the items found within the walls of a church: the altar, lectern, tabernacle, crucifix and so on. The activity suggested for this unit is a "family activity" where the child is asked to identify the items in the local parish church. This would be a challenge for a number of families whose children receive instruction at Catholic schools but who do not ususally attend church themselves.
In unit 13, the family activity is taken one step further, with pupils being asked to attend Mass with their families. At Mass, the they fill in a scrapbook made at school with what is seen as essential aspects of the Mass: e.g., the Lectionary, the bread and wine, the priest, etc. The children are then asked to present their scrapbooks to the priest after Mass for comment.
What an exciting exercise! I must note the week this particular unit is being taught so I can observe our parish priest being surrounded by primary school children asking for his comments.
The second book, Good Shepherd Experience, covers Grades 1 and 2 and more or less continues on from the first volume. However, important additional units include: God's Book, the Bible, Together at Mass, Journey from Ashes (Ash Wednesday), the Stations of the Cross - where the home activity is to "organise a visit to the Church where your children can talk to you about what the Stations mean to them" - Mary our Mother and Forgiveness.
Core of Faith
If these texts are used properly, one might dare to hope that by the time they reach Grade 3, children attending Catholic primary schools will understand the core of the Christian faith. This, despite seeming a tall order, is theoretically achievable with these texts.
The following two volumes explore the faith in more depth. Level 3A is written for Grades 3 and 4, and introduces children to the sacraments, prayer, death and everlasting life.
Death and everlasting life are challenging topics, but the writers have served the texts well by relying on Scripture and Sacred Tradition, following closely Vatican II's teaching that "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture ... are bound closely together and communicate one with the other ... Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ ..." (Dei Verbum, 9).
The fourth and final volume is a substantial work (196 pages in length), lavishly illustrated with contemporary pictures. It includes an important index of prayers and a summary of the Christian faith.
This volume might be viewed as a primary pupil's religious reference book, to be consulted periodically on matters of doctrine. Written by Msgr Peter Elliot, Joy Atwell, Geoff Tracey and Sue Kidd, the text begins with God the Creator and takes children through the virtues of faith, hope and love, Lent, the seven sacraments, Holy Week, the Church Community and "Respect Life".
In an age where the culture of death is seen more and more as the norm, the "Respect Life" unit introduces the primary pupil to the culture of life - the path Christians should follow. The newly opened centre, Mary of the Cross, is introduced as a place where the culture of death is turned into the culture of life with help provided to families of those suffering from addictions.
By providing such illustrations, the text demonstrates how a Christian faith can be lived out, while reminding the pupil: "A day for life is celebrated by many Christians every year. We remember and celebrate God's gift of life and we promise to protect human life, especially the innocent, the unborn, old, sick and disabled."
It is intended that by the time children leave primary school, they will understand and appreciate their Catholic faith and heritage. This should help them face the challenges of secondary school and teenage life with clear notions of God, His Grace, His faith community and His love.
The question arises, will these texts be implemented by teachers in Catholic schools? One can confidently respond in the affirmative. Such are the texts' quality, scope and all- embracing approach to the Catholic faith, that even the most skeptical of teachers should be convinced of this excellent production's value as an educational resource.
These texts are the best fruits to come from the Melbourne Archdiocese to date. I now look forward to seeing the secondary texts. q
Anthony Cappello has a Master of Arts degree in History and a Bachelor of Theology from Yarra Theological Union. He has spent the past three years working as a book room manager for John Garratt Publishing and is currently the manager of AD Books. He is married with a young family.
The texts can be purchased on a retail basis from Central Catholic Bookshop, 322 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne 3000, tel (03) 9639 0844, fax (03) 9639 0879 and the Office for Worship Bookshop, 383 Albert Street, East Melbourne 3002, tel (03) 9926 5791, fax (03) 9639 1905.