In the 18th century…

In the 18th century, Vauxhall, on the south bank of the Thames, was famous for its pleasure gardens. Today, Vauxhall railway station commemorates this with verses written along its walls. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was a very poor area, and a famous Catholic priest, later a Bishop – Bishop William Brown, parish priest of Vauxhall for 58 years – built St Anne’s church and a school, and ran a number of projects for local families. Today, the St Anne’s Settlement building carries a plaque commemorating him. The building houses, among other things, the Catholic Truth Society, Britain’s main Catholic publishing group, which has been functioning since the 1850s.

And in the basement all this past week you would have found the writer of this Blog, with two or three other busy Catholic women, surrounded by stacks of Catechisms, illustrated books about Blessed John Paul, prayer books, and children’s Missals. We were mailing out the prizes for the 2012 Schools Religious Education Project, run jointly by the Association of Catholic Women and the CTS.

The Project was launched some years ago, and has grown to immense proportions. The idea is that children at Catholic schools are invited to write essays on aspects of the Catholic Faith. This year, the theme was Christ’s miracles, and they had to choose one from a list of three, and write about it. One of the three was the healing of the centurion’s servant, and we were particularly keen that children should understand the significance of the “Lord, I am not worthy…” and the fact that we still use these words at Mass just before Communion.

For years, we have all been told that most Catholic schools do not teach the Faith adequately, that the situation is hopeless, that it might be better not to have Catholic schools at all, and so on. This has all in fact become something of a standard mantra. But our experience with the ACW/CTS Project has been that, if schools are given something specific to teach, they will teach it, and if the children are set a specific project, they will do it. The standard of entries to our Project also rose significantly when we stated that, except for specific reasons, entries should be hand-written. This eliminated the problem of children simply downloading material from the internet, and it also made for much livelier, more authentic, more engaging, essays.

They wrote with enthusiasm about Christ healing the ten lepers, and only one coming back to say thank-you – with some speculating about why the other nine did not (“They went to the pub” was one thought). They wrote detailed descriptions of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, with many noting the healing of the woman with haemorrhage on the way. They wrote about the Centurion and noted that we use his very words at Mass when thinking about Christ coming to us in Holy Communion. The essays were of hugely varying standards – some children at eight years old producing better work than some ten-year-olds, and some schools producing a great number of high-quality essays with excellent grammar and spelling and others very ill-written pieces with poor handwriting. But the one thing notable about them all was a clear grasp of Christ’s Divinity, of his miraculous powers, of his authority, of his love for us, and of the fact that all this is bound up with our beings Catholics today and part of His Church.

A team of judges read all the essays and winners were chosen in two age groups. I will be visiting St Margaret of Scotland primary school in Luton, Bedfordshire, to present prizes, and Fergal Martin, Director of the Catholic Truth Society, will be visiting SS Peter and Paul School in Mitcham, Surrey.

The task of the ACW team in the basement all this past week was to mail out all the runner-up prizes, of which there are a very high number, with some schools gaining as many as ten or twelve prizes or certificates. Every child taking part in the Project gets a commemorative holy picture. The prizes are all donated by the CTS – we have found that for older children the beautiful little hardback Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Catechism work well, as does the Simple Prayer Book (In print for over a hundred years and still going strong). For younger children, prizes include a lovely illustrated book about Blessed John Paul, a beautiful children’s missal – originally produced in France and translated by the CTS – or a book about the Rosary, again with enchanting pictures. Schools which have produced a large number of high-quality entries get a special prize – Amy Wellborn’s new book “Be Saints!” describing Pope Benedict’s wonderful meeting with boys and girls from Britain’s Catholic schools at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham.

Catholic schools in Britain are publicly-funded. They are popular and often over-subscribed. For this reason, they provoke controversy – parents are desperate to get their children into them, and express anger when their Catholic friends and neighbours can do so, when they cannot. Parish priests are well aware that some families start to take an interest in Sunday Mass when it dawns on them that regular attendance is one of the factors that makes it possible for a child to qualify for attending the parish school. All this can make for tensions. And the situation within a school is very often less than ideal, with nominally Catholic teachers who do not attend Mass regularly, or who do not support some of the Church’s moral teachings, or who are enthusiastic but very ignorant of basic tenets of the Faith.

Our small Schools Religious Education Project cannot make a vast difference, but it can be a support and encouragement to good teachers, a means of teaching some aspects of the Faith to children year on year, a morale-boost for the Catholic community, and part of a winder project of renewal which is ongoing. The Year of Faith starts in October. Watch this space for more initiatives.