BY ANN RENNIE
In the career supplements of the Saturday broadsheets most weeks, there are advertisements for teaching vacancies in Catholic schools.
More often than not, the ability to teach Religious Education is a much hoped-for addition to the subjects that distinguish the mainstream curriculum.
Catholic schools are mandated to teach Religious Education to their students. Their raison d’etre is the education and propagation of the faith that, usually, comes from the home.
Parents send their children to Catholic schools for two main reasons. One, because they are Catholic and two, for the value system which aims at providing a foundation of attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that contribute to the social good.
Parents send their children to these schools so that they will learn the Gospel lesson of loving one another. They send them in the hope that the entrenched and practiced values of faith will ultimately underpin their own children's personal value system as they leave school, whether or not that system is internally consistent with all the Church’s teachings.
There are Catholic parents who are not regular churchgoers. There are Catholic parents who are. And there are those in the middle – not lapsed, but otherwise occupied with the demands of busy lives. They celebrate the holy days of the liturgical year, whisk off the odd Hail Mary, and mean to get around to going to Mass. These are the parents of today’s Catholic youth.
Recent research suggests that young adult Catholics dismiss Catholic teachings as irrelevant and restrictive, but we must remember that our students are still developing spiritually.
American researcher and religious phenomenologist, James Fowler, has developed a theory of the seven stages of faith based on the insights of structural developmental psychologists. These range from the primal faith of infancy to the universalising faith of those special few who can transcend and transform reality, such as Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and our own recently canonised Saint Mary of the Cross.
For adolescents, changes in faith development commence with puberty where their experiences of the world begin to extend beyond family.
Meaning making is worked out from a synthesis of values derived from a variety of sources and perspectives. Young adults arrive at their faith position through examining the clashes and contradictions they see in organised, hierarchical, institutionalised religion. Personal value systems clash with institutional ones; part of the growing process, part of healthy discussion and dissent.
This is not peculiar to the Catholic Church, but can be extrapolated to include many mainstream institutions that promote and maintain the status quo. At this stage, young adults begin to take responsibility for their own commitments, attitudes and actions. They start defining themselves in relation to principles, hence the idealism and commitment to issues of social justice.
Professor Maurice Ryan from the Australian Catholic University notes that it is important to make the distinction between spirituality and religious belief. Religious belief pertains to those who hold beliefs in divine power and participate in rituals and observances related to those beliefs. Spirituality is an animating or vital principle which may not necessarily have an attachment to a particular religion. Many young people are enormously spiritual, but are baulking at the commitment to a named belief system, whether Catholic or not.
As a religious educator, I know how hard it can be to teach a class whose religious inheritance, or literacy, is patchy. The class may range from the responsive to the resistant, with the bulk of students stuck somewhere in the middle, doing Religious Education because they have to.
My job is to build a climate of affirmation, where debate, not dogma, flourishes. In my class I will occasionally have those from other persuasions; Orthodox or Lutheran, the occasional Buddhist and the teenager who loudly proclaims that she doesn’t believe in God.
Hopefully, the lesson, whether it’s about the application of the Good Samaritan parable in today’s society or John Paul II’s call to ecological conversion, is relevant and inclusive for all. I’m trying to pass on a little of what I know and believe and hope that some of it takes root in the hearts and minds of those I teach. If it does, great. If it doesn’t then I trust these children will find their answers in other fruitful ways.
So young Catholics are finding their own spirituality in the ways of the world. And they’re doing it differently from previous generations. They’re working for Caritas or St Vincent de Paul, sponsoring a child, helping out on a soup van, walking against want, loving their neighbour. And they’re questioning the teachings and traditions of the Church, just as Jesus questioned rabbinical authority.
They may be accused of being prodigal sons and daughters as they find their own paths back to or away from the Church. They may find Church teaching irrelevant in the context of their lives right now, its influence ameliorated by a more secular spirituality, but they are still growing and learning and will find faith in a fuller flowering when they know who they are and where they fit in the world.
If the Church is to touch the lives of the young it must be in touch, in dialogue, with what motivates and concerns them.
Let’s not write off the Church of the future. The Spirit still moves amongst Catholic kids, just not always in expected ways.
Ann Rennie teaches senior students in a Melbourne Catholic girls' school. Yesterday The Sunday Age published a piece of Ann's writing on Catholic identity, in its 'Faith' column on the editorial and letters page.
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