My father once told me this story. As a young seven-year-old boy he would be collected on a Saturday evening from the family home by a Basilian Monk and taken to train as a future cantor in the Ukrainian Church. One Saturday he was asked by a monk to sing the epistle. My father sang the piece through as fast as he could.
The Basilian Monk stretched his hand across the Bible that my father was reading from, and covered the text. He then said: "Now we shall begin to sing again – and this time with a heart believing we are professing the Word of God." Nearly eighty years later, my father still proclaims the Word of God in church.
About a month ago I chose to attend Sunday liturgy at the parish primary school where I was educated. The last time I attended Mass at this parish on a Sunday morning, about a year ago, the church was about half full. But on this day, arriving one minute before the start of Mass, there was not a spare car space within sight.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people attending Mass and as I walked the good distance between where I had parked my car and the church, I mused at how wrong the perception is that few Catholics now attend Mass on a regular basis. When I arrived at the door of the church there was standing room only.
As the priest made his way to the altar and spoke through the microphone, it became clear why the numbers were so great: "Today we celebrate the First Holy Communion of 45 members of our primary school."
Everything went smoothly until the Offertory hymn. At this point the entire church broke into one large talk-fest as the priest sat on his chair head bowed. No one could hear the choir sing and people were even texting on their phones. If one attempted to pray it was impossible. It was as if it was the intermission at a concert or half-time at a football match, with people needing to stretch their legs and talk with the person beside them.
The priest said nothing after the Offertory but prior to the distribution of Holy Communion announced that this was a sacred moment so would the congregation please be silent.
The immediate response to the priest's request was that one of the fathers climbed over the pew and jumped onto the floor leading to the exit. Another father beside me who had been chewing gum throughout the liturgy, quizzed his son, who was not a first holy communicant: "Do you want to go up and get some?" His son declined and the father nodded his head and kept on chewing gum.
After a brief modicum of silence, at the moment the choir began singing, the talk-fest recommenced and grew steadily louder.
What I witnessed in that parish on that Sunday is not unusual, but a very sad sign of the times, a situation in which the Church as a whole and her schools now minister to a clientele who are indeed the third generation of non-regular church attendees.
The lack of church enculturation becomes glaringly obvious on occasions in which families for whatever reason choose to enter a church, e.g., Christmas, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, weddings or funerals. In recent years, at various parishes, at these 'special' events, I have witnessed parents eating in the church, others speaking on mobile phones as they are in the line for Holy Communion, a bride refusing to have her wedding in the church if there were any visible crucifixes, while those attending weddings sit with headphones (discrete enough) so that they can hear the latest sports scores.
For some who still place value on liturgy and prayer, the venue for the wedding reception is now only announced after the wedding service in order to circumvent a growing custom of people avoiding the service but attending the reception.
All these examples point to a lack of religious formation and understanding, and are symptomatic of a loss of a sense of the sacred.
In their Mandate 2009-2015, the Catholic Bishops of Western Australia emphasised strongly the necessity to use Catholic schools as vehicles for evangelisation in the faith through the encouragement of the sense of the sacred.
According to this document: "In their evangelisation plans, Catholic schools need to help awaken a sense of the sacred in their students who lack this awareness, wherever this is appropriate in the curriculum. Outdoor and camp excursions, studies of nature and the sciences are obvious examples. Religious symbols and sacred places, such as chapels and prayer centres that are used exclusively for religious worship, serve also as important reminders to the students of the presence of God" ( Mandate, par. 49).
A major difficulty in successfully implementing such a plan is a lack of support or encouragement from home: "This can be a serious problem where their parents are focused primarily on the material world and affluent lifestyles" ( Mandate, par. 47).
A lack of any sense of the sacred in one generation will be communicated to the next. How can children be expected to pray, believe, revere and worship if adults fail to give good example, often acting more like modern secularised pagans.
Our children will know we have been baptised, but that this baptism stands for little. This realisation can kill God in their hearts, minds and souls. Our children won't begin to hate the Church; worse yet, they will just become cynical.
They will ask with good reason: "Why did you send me to a Catholic School, when we don't go to church?" And when we explain that it is because of the sports program, or the power of an elite college tie they will then know what are the family's real priorities The choice is simple: if a sense of the sacred is important, then good example, and nothing less, must be the teacher.
To this end, a well-known adage runs: "The greatest thing a father can do for his son is to love the son's mother." The truth of this comment lies in the son being able to see an honest witness in his father's love. It is the sublime power of authenticity.
If we as a school seek to convince others of the importance of faith, including especially a sense of the sacred, it necessarily follows that we demonstrate this to others, in the genuine priority we give to Scripture, prayer and sacred places.
As great author and grandson of a Ukrainian priest, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, once wrote: "If you want to be respected by others the great thing is to respect yourself. Only by that, only by self-respect, will you compel others to respect you."
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth, WA.