Christine Roe makes a heartfelt appeal to her fellow Catholics Looking back down the awesome stretch of the 87 years of my life I begin to realise how much has changed since the 1930s, when I was at school and World War II had not yet blasted its way into our lives.
And now, looking at the younger members of the Catholic Church in England, by comparison with those days, I am struck forcibly by the apparent lack of knowledge and paucity of understanding about the faith among the young Catholics of today.
In those pre-war days Catholic schools were often run by religious orders. There were also parish schools, sitting alongside the parish church, roughly equal to the “elementary” state schools, staffed by lay teachers with the local parish priest coming in to assist with catechism classes and preparation for first Holy Communion and Confirmation.
At that time teaching the Faith was given due prominence, first by a thorough learning by rote of the old Penny Catechism and also by the observance of the Holy Days of Obligation, and the stressing of the discipline of the fasting and abstinence rules and of Sunday Mass-going.
At the Benedictine-run school I attended from the age of nine there were about 200 pupils, but we Catholics numbered only about 40. As a consequence of our fewness we had to miss a lesson here and there each week to go to the Oratory instead where we received instruction in the faith. In our senior years we were kept after school twice a week for a half-hour of instruction. We may sometimes have been reluctant, but at least we were taught what was important. And every class started with a prayer.
Looking at the aim of general education then, it seems to me that its purpose was to instil knowledge, broaden our minds, teach us discipline of thought and appreciation of the arts as well as of maths and sciences. Unhappily now, the emphasis of education seems to be largely on what will get us a good job and earn plenty of money. A poor substitute.
I married in 1946 and when my six children came along they all went to Catholic schools. To my great thankfulness, four of them are still practising Catholics and take an active part in the life of their parishes. But I am not too happy about some of my grandchildren and the greatgrandchildren who follow. Some of them seem to be missing out and to have little understanding of the Faith and small appreciation of the beauty of the Mass, the worth of the sacraments and of the Church’s history here in England. Few attend Mass regularly. The heroism of the recusants at the time of the Reformation is, I think, largely a closed book and unknown, yet how inspiring if they knew.
What is happening to our schools? What can be done to remedy the situation? Bishops, if I had a voice I would get up on my soapbox and I would appeal first of all to you. Pope Benedict lit a brilliant spark by his visit here, but a spark cannot become a fire unless it is fed and nurtured. So I would ask you, bishops, ardently to encourage all priests and nuns to revert to the signs of their calling – to wear the clerical collar, the religious habit, outward signs to all passers-by of their commitment and of their belief in the redeeming love of Christ. Encourage lay Catholics to wear a crucifix – not a cross – so that others can see that, frail as we all are, sinners as we all are, we still believe and we still love the God who made us. Cardinal Newman’s motto was “Heart speaks unto heart”. Let our faith involve our heart as well as our intellect. A bishop recently suggested that we might revert to the old Friday abstinence, to genuflecting at the Et Homo Factus Est in the Creed, to receiving the Host on the tongue – all outward signs of reverence, obedience, discipline and respect. Bravo! I am a Eucharistic minister myself, and I often cringe when I see how the Sacrament is received by some communicants, who seem to have little idea that it is their God they are receiving. Altar breads are often referred to as Hosts and even Eucharistic ministers have been heard to speak of “finishing up the wine”.
Recently my parish priest, Fr Alistair Simmons, gave an explanation of the term Ordinary Sundays of the Year in the parish newsletter. That’s just the sort of thing we need to make sense of otherwise possibly misunderstood terms. Please, priests, remember that the people in the benches did not have the benefit of your years of study in the seminary. The weekend congregations are a captive audience. Let the homily at Mass be used to increase the understanding of the parts of the Mass, the articles of the Creed, the reasons for “bells and smells”, the Real Presence in the tabernacle. The Mass is not a social occasion, good though it is to be praying together – nor is it a concert. Music, if used, should aid devotion, not distract from the importance of the liturgy and from direct personal participation in it.
Today’s parents of young children, who form a large part of parish congregations, have suffered from a drought of the living water of knowledge of the faith. Let us remedy that grave omission. Otherwise we are sending our children out on to the highways of the modern world in vehicles without steering, without brakes, without a satnav, leaving them to survive if they can in the swirling traffic of conflicting ideas and modes of life.
So many young Catholic, leave school and then leave the Church. Why? I believe it is because they have not been given a good enough grounding in the Faith. In our schools so often religion seems to be just another subject, and the study of comparative religions takes precedence over instruction in the whys and wherefores of the true Faith.
Teachers, I would appeal to you to speak of the Mass and the sacraments and all aspects of the Faith with enthusiams, to explain, to encourage understanding, to welcome in the parish priests to visit and discuss and explain, and give the youngsters a chance to voice their misgivings and difficulties.
Parents, I would appeal to you to believe that even the littlest ones can be taught that church is a special place and not a playground. I know about the struggles of bringing up a family – the money worries, the threat of the mortgage, the never catching up with anything, illnesses, tiredness, the need for endless patience, the need to love hugely yet ensure obedience where it matters, the lack of time for self. But I myself have found that the Mass is a tremendous help in coping with all this, and the more we lean about its mystery and meaning the more we can guide our children to recognise the importance of the Faith and the amazing goodness of God. It will stand them in good stead.
My soapbox is put away. For me, the end of the road is almost in sight and, with my trusty satnav on hand, it is a comforting thought. Benedicamus Domino!