Our Catholic schools

It has become a cliché that people announce regularly in Britain: “Our Catholic schools are hopeless – the children do not really know their faith”. That is certainly true of some schools, but not of all…and I have been working with a range of schools this past year and, while busy on the next project with them, am of course pondering their role and the challenges that face them.

Biggest challenge is that so many parents do not practice the Faith, and often get angry if it is suggested that they should. “But he’s got football/tennis/cricket, swimming on a Sunday, he can’t be expected to miss that for Mass!”. “She likes to sleep late – she’s busy at school all week and out with her friends on Saturday night” “You have no right to hassle this family about this”.

Catholic schools in Britain are publicly-funded and free (there are also of course a number of fee-paying independent ones). They are popular, and draw from a local catchment area, and there is often great bitterness when one family is granted a place and another is not. Massive scope for anger, resentment, ill-feeling and campaigns against bishops, head teachers, etc etc…

Next big problem is that there is a drastic shortage of teachers who are Catholics, and who know and practise their Faith: this is the fruit of hopeless catechesis in the 1970s and 80s and 90s. Good New Movements like the Neo-Cats and Youth 2000 produce large families, crowds for big events, enthusiasm for World Youth Day, and involvement at the parish level…but their young people often feel threatened by the bureaucratic approach of a state-funded system. are told that they “must not evangelise in a place of education” (not true in a Catholic school, but that’s what the general culture says) and get drawn instead to things like pro-life activity, youth work, or overseas work with the poor .

And while we hear many appeals for the young to listen to a possible call to the priesthood, or to a religious community, we rarely hear a specific appeal to pray about the possibility of being a Catholic teacher.

Parents feel that they have a right to a Catholic school if they themselves went to one. They see Catholicism as something tribal and traditional handed down from one generation to the next. Tradition is all: actual faith and belief and prayer and attendance at Mass and the Sacraments is secondary and only for the really pious.

A good Catholic school is a gem. Of course many are a mixture. It is a joy to stand at a school assembly and join hundreds of teenagers as they make the Sign of the Cross and pray. Some teachers note that what can sometimes look great is actually a bit deceptive: rules dictate that if all Catholic families are satisfied, places should be offered to children of other faiths, and sometimes a Hindu child is the most devout in the class, or a team of enthusiastic teens from a Pentecostal community offers exuberant singing at a lunchtime prayer gathering.

Religious Education is under pressure from the exam culture. “Will this count for my university application?” is the cry that goes up – if it doesn’t why bother to do it?

There is grim pressure from outside: the National Secular Society loathes Catholic schools, insisting – against all the evidence – that they are dominated by middle-class children. A strict dress-code of school uniform, much involvement in local and national musical events, a sense of community fostered by involvement with local churches…all seem attractive, and a Catholic school often inspires envy and resentment.

The projects with which I am involved are all part of Religious Education. Well aware that most pupils are not practising their faith, conscious of the reality of the pattern of religious belief in Britain today, aware that teachers feel out of their depth trying to teach a subject about which they know little…I see in spite of all the problems the possibility of good work being done, and Catholic schools being beacons of light in a darkening post-Christian country.

Children from devout families are often teased at Catholic schools (and honesty compels me to note that in my own schooldays obvious outward signs of piety, while in no way derided or opposed, were seen as distinctly untrendy and old-fashioned even by those of us who practised our Faith with sincerity) . A devout teacher may be much more openly the object of staffroom sneers or snubs, masked by attempts at humour. There can be a sense of loneliness. Parents may not be supportive – sometimes a child comes to a real living faith through some Catholic group, or perhaps even through school, and finds that parents find it tiresome or troubling.

Pray for children at Britain’s Catholic schools.