EARLIER this year the Catholic Herald ran a series of articles looking at the Church in the 1990s. Such was the response to the ideas put forward in those reports and the enthusiasm with which many church groups around the country wanted to share their experience and attempts to live the Gospels more fully in their everyday life, that we have decided to launch an occasional forum in which readers and parishes are invited to share with others their initiatives. In this first feature, Joanna Moorhead, (below) talks to those involved in the National Project which aims to update the religious education given in Catholic schools, while, (right) we hear of an experiment with basic Christian communities in Europe. Anyone wanting to offer an article or an idea for the next "Forum" page should write now to Forum, Catholic Herald, Herald House, Lambs Passage, Bunhill Row, London ECIV 8TQ.
WE'VE come a long way from the old "Who made you? — God made me" of the penny catechism. These days, youngsters in Catholic schools are likely to spend their RE lessons reading Hindu stories and exploring the use of gestures in communication as well as learning about the sacraments.
It's all part of Weaving the Web, the Catholic Church's new religious education programme for schools. But Weaving the Web is itself part of an even bigger scheme, called the National Project of Cathechesis and Religious Education, that looks set to totally revolutionise the way the Church passes on and shares its faith with its members.
Like so much else that's new and different in the Church, the National Project — as it's become known — is really the product of Vatican 11. "The Council made great demands on the Church's education system, and most evident among the needs was a co-ordinated approach," says Fr Harry Stratton, secretary to the recently-formed bishops conference Department of Catholic Education and Formation.
"Education was being provided to youngsters in Catholic schools, but there wasn't really any attempt to follow that thread through during their adult lives. So people started off getting a view of their faith but that wasn't developed during the rest of their lives to help them face the problems of the modern world."
The National Project, in contrast, aims to be a lifelong process of learning about faith. Materials are being prepared which will cater for individuals at each stage of their lives, so that from primary school through adulthood to old age, all Catholics will be able to tune into a way of learning and thinking about Christianity and how it relates to real life.
Not surprisingly, the corner stone to all this work is seen as the school course, Weaving the Web. All the secondary school materials — a series of books on three levels, complete with teacher's handbook, to cover different age groups and written by Richard Lohan, a layman, and Sr Mary McClure, a Notre Dame sister — have now been published.
Each level has six modules or areas to be covered over three terms. The modules have fairly general titles — community, story, people, communication, celebration, values — but each is designed to "reflect key aspects of shared human experience and the related dimensions of religious belief and practice, within the context of the Christian perspective and the major world religions," according to the teacher's handbook.
What that means in practice is that youngsters are given a chance in RE lessons to bring together their own experiences and to use these as a basis for understanding their faith. It is healthily outward-looking, so that, for example, the community module for the secondary school level one (age group 11-13) involves pupils describing their own lives, their families, exploring the community around them, and also learning about how children of their age live in, say, Latin America. There is also comparative examination of other faiths — baptism is compared and contrasted with the Hindu naming ceremony. In the same way, the module on values in the level one programme involves youngsters talking about their own personal and family values, and moving out front there to discuss and learn about values among people in India and about how personal values relate to wider values in, for example, the media.
But Weaving the Web has come in for some criticism, not least from those who believe it has left out all but the briefest mention of that which was previously the centre of Catholic education — the sacraments. The latest books in the series, however, do contain plenty of material on the sacraments — though these are placed clearly in context alongside descriptions of other kinds of "celebration" in other faiths.
Whatever the "Catholicity" of the project, there's no doubt at all that it's emerging as one of the most serious, wellresearched and successful RE systems of recent years. It is proving to be immensely popular, in non-Catholic as well as Catholic schools, and is certainly in tune with today's multi-cultural society — though scope for examining environmental concerns seems to have been sadly overlooked.
The essential factor underpining Weaving the Web, which is carried on through the adult side of the National Project, is the pastoral cycle — that process which takes people through examination of their own experience, on to reflecting on that experience, to deciding what action to take. In practice
that might involve children in a school using their own experience of multi-cultural society, say, to reflect on the differences and similarities between the groups before moving on to organise a project to examine these in the community in which they live.
The experience-reflect ionaction model is already being used in many areas of the Church's work, and its incorporation into the National Project will further strengthen its importance in a world in which we are more aware that being Christian means seeing Christ and his work in the people and events around us.
Most importantly of all, the National Project does not stop when youngsters grow out of RE lessons and leave school. It recognises that we are constantly learning and growing in our faith as Christians, and that we must go on sharing and discussing our ideas as we grow older. So the aim is to continue the process begun in Weaving the Web through our lives as parishioners and, where applicable, as parents — we will go on with the National Project as members of parish groups, as parents of children receiving the sacraments, as helpers in Rite of
Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) groups.
It has sometimes been recognised in the past, of course, that adults need access to catechetics because of their responsibilities in passing on their faith to their children. But the National Project acknowledges that they need to learn about their faith for their own sakes, too — because they have a more complex, wider experience of life, with more choices, more responsibilities, more crises. So using the pastoral cycle to make sense of life is seen as more useful than
The National Project has yet to have its full impact felt in the adult structures of the Church, although it is certainly on the way to making itself heard. Both because young people are seen as a priority by the bishops and because schools provide a wellestablished network for the project to feed into, youngsters have been first on the receiving end. But materials for parish small group leaders and other animators have now been produced, with more in the pipeline and there's no doubt that, in the years ahead, the National Project will emerge as a vital new force in the Church.