The reality of serious problems in the Catholic school system came home to me under the following circumstances.
The Christian Brothers Province Leader announced - some four years ago - that the Congregation Leader was coming to Melbourne and he would be meeting eight or so young people from each of the eight Brothers senior secondary colleges in Victoria/Tasmania.
These young men would showcase the religious formation which they were receiving. Every Brother was asked to be present and the young VCE Year 12 leaders 'scrubbed up' well, speaking articulately, with each group giving an impressive power point presentation.
Every college group stressed their work for the marginalised poor: a food van here, assistance to a Homework Club there; Meals on Wheels for the elderly and teaching English to recent refugee arrivals from strife-torn places in Africa.
However, no speaker, not a single one, suggested that there was any other dimension to religious formation in a Brothers' secondary college. Belief, worship, lifestyle - none of these was mentioned. The touchy moral issues - such as the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion, the gay sex lifestyle, cloning embryos - were absent from discussion.
Moreover, no speaker gave the slightest impression that many other secondary schools, both state and independent, often have similar programs of outreach/social action to the poor and marginalised.
What then was the point of a Catholic school? Has Christ's message been reduced to nothing more than a modest, but useful contribution to relieving the physical pain of the poor? The spiritual needs of the under-privileged were not mentioned at all.
After the young people had finished, four Brothers executives also spoke. As with the Year 12 students not one mentioned any other dimension to the work of the colleges except concern for the marginalised in material terms alone.
When he spoke, the Congregation Leader mentioned, politely, some other levels of work for Brothers religious education in the secondary schools - in an understated way so as not to offend. He did suggest that there were other dimensions to a Brothers' college, appearing to mean, issues of belief, worship, lifestyle and the spiritual needs of the marginalised. But his remarks passed without comment.
Further light can be shed on the condition of Catholic schools from the students' perspective.
In 2007, the Australian Catholic Students Association (ACSA) had its most successful conference (ever) in Canberra with 350 young practising Catholics in attendance. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver was the keynote speaker (see August AD2000).
Over the previous year since the (associated) Victorian Catholic Students and Young Adults Conference there has been considerable activity in youthful Catholic circles with many young practising Catholics 'coming out of the woodwork' and associating themselves with various prayer groups and social life.
Obviously, the approaching World Youth Day has been the catalyst for much of this activity, though not entirely.
The following would be a few examples in the Melbourne Archdiocese:
* SIX30 Thursday Holy Hours in St Patrick's Cathedral;
* Emmanuel Youth Suppers and other associated youth activities at the Hermits Retreat, St Anthony's Shrine, a Franciscan (Capuchin) Ministry;
* the ministries of the Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community and the Missionaries of God's Love in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne;
* the NET (National Evangelisation Teams) Ministry in senior secondary Catholic colleges directed from 260 Queens Parade, Clifton Hill, Vic;
* the Apologetics Evenings arranged at the Thomas More Centre, 582 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne.
This writer explored the background and attitudes of a number of young leaders in these groups in an informal way and was surprised by what was revealed. Many of the young leaders had never attended Catholic primary or secondary schools, and those who did had little good to report regarding their religious formation. In fact, not one has ever praised his/her Catholic formation in these places into which so many resources of the Catholic community have been poured over the past century or more.
Those who have attended Catholic primary and/or secondary schools almost invariably offer the following criticisms:
* the RE teacher(s) obviously wasn't a practising Catholic;
* there was an anti-Church, anti-Catholic aggro about the place among some teachers and some students;
* the religious education teacher(s) contradicted church teaching on the tough moral issues of the age;
* a good deal of time was spent on comparative religions with little on core Catholic matters such as the Mass and sacraments;
* there was a fascination with rhetorical, soft-Left political questions such as care for the environment without the slightest sense that there is a hierarchy of importance in moral matters and concern for the state of the earth is more a political question than a Catholic moral issue;
* the only area that could be endorsed readily was the concern for the least, the little and the lost in society viewed in material terms alone - a good thing as far as it goes.
Tackling these inadequacies will be a long-term project, which must take in programs of teacher formation, re-evangelisation in the parishes and closer monitoring of religion courses and resources in Catholic schools. But if the present situation is not addressed the decline in belief and practice of school-leavers will continue.
Br Barry Coldrey is an experienced teacher in Catholic secondary colleges and the author of numerous books and articles on religious issues.