I loved primary school. I loved my teachers. I loved my friends. I loved history lessons. And I loved R.E. lessons. We had them about twice a week, and I believed that the topics we covered were helping me to become a better Catholic.
In hindsight, I see that I retained my faith not so much because of, but in spite of the religious education I received at school.
I have recently gone back to primary school for a placement needed for my degree – an opportunity for which I am still grateful. However, I was nothing short of horrified by the things that were taught in the name of Catholicism.
There were the ugly, modern, colorful “crucifixes” and crosses around the building, which I’m sure we’ve all seen. There were the “altars” in the classrooms, which were effectively tables covered in glittery fabric with some “holy” objects and words like “new start,” “kindness,” and “gifts.”
There was the first assembly of term, in which children were told that perseverance is the virtue of the month. It was drawn from the Gospel on Sunday, in which Jesus told the disciples they had to take up their crosses and follow Him. The children were then asked what sort of person Jesus was. “Nice,” “kind,” “thoughtful,” came the answers. Then “honest.” Then “courageous,” which was getting somewhere, but the child followed it with “and nice.”
When one child said a good way to persevere is to “believe,” the head teacher automatically assumed that he had meant believing in oneself rather than God, when in fact no such thing had been said.
During the first R.E. lesson of term, the class I was observing looked at the line from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “For it is in giving that we receive.” To explain its meaning, the children were effectively told that giving things, being generous, is good because it makes you feel good about yourself. The children were then encouraged to share a time when they had said “thank you” for something they had received and a time when they had given something to someone and felt good about it.
Where was God in all this? He floated into conversation occasionally, as a sort of friendly ghost who wants everyone to be happy. Jesus was talked about as though He were not God. “Ask Jesus and God for help,” one teacher said.
The R.E. lessons focused more on boosting the children’s egos with memories and displays of the good things they had done than on teaching them to know and love God.
My all-girls secondary school wasn’t much better. The offertory procession featured not only the gifts necessary for the Consecration, but also some of the exercise books with the neatest work, as well as objects that “symbolized” parts of our “journey” through the school. Girls were pressured into serving at the altar at end-of-year Masses. It was never made clear that in order to receive Communion, one needs to be Catholic (and therefore know exactly Whom one was receiving) and to be in a state of grace.
We had “retreats” with the nuns whose order had founded the school, in which we were encouraged to “meditate,” “anoint” each other with water, color in circles and “let the colors choose [us],” pour sand into jars, and burn pieces of paper with lists of things we were sorry for. Confession was not mentioned once. Mass was not celebrated. We had a discussion about the ban on burkas, in which our “catechist” compared it to a ban on crucifixes. All religions were considered equal. The following year, the catechist couldn’t distinguish between free will and the physical ability to do what we want.
We had year group assemblies in the chapel, and in order to save time and avoid being late for lessons, we were told to bow toward the tabernacle all in one go, instead of genuflecting. No one seemed to think it would be a good idea to shorten the assemblies by two minutes.
Our Sixth Form, attached to the secondary school, was described as multi-faith. The girls – both of other religions and the alleged Catholic girls who were angry on the others’ behalf – complained about how the school was “too Catholic.” We had a week in which a “missionary” group came to the school, singing charismatic songs, giving emotional monologues, dancing during the Mass, and implying (although never explicitly stating) that all people who believe in God are guaranteed both happiness on Earth and eternal life in Heaven. They wished a happy feast of Diwali to the Hindus among us and then followed with a series of role-plays and interpretive dances. It was all well meant but cringe-worthy. These events were compulsory, even for the Muslim, Hindu, and atheist girls. And so the complaints rolled in. “I knew it would be Catholic,” they lamented, “but not this Catholic.”
The tragic thing is, it was hardly Catholic at all.
This is not unique to the U.K. During the third year of my degree, I worked in two Austrian schools. One was a private Catholic school in which there was Mass at the end of each term. The teachers, wanting to make it all extra-“nice” for the children, came up with ideas like hanging objects on trees, objects that supposedly represented the different aspects of school life. This brought back many memories of my own school. In the officially secular school, in which the majority were at least nominal Catholics, there was an “evangelical Mass.” Thankfully, I was never around to attend on those days. God only knows what sort of liturgical abuses may have occurred.
Is it any wonder that the youth are leaving the Church in droves? This sort of “worship” isn’t dignified. It’s patronizing and embarrassing.
While my parents and I disagree on some things liturgical and practical (I wish Vatican II had never happened, while they think it wasn’t so bad; I am all for being direct about the Faith and calling out all heresy, whereas they prefer more diplomacy), I am very grateful that they brought me up in the Faith and that they told my sisters and me about the importance of the sacraments, of praying for the dead, and of devotion to Our Lady. Without them, I would not be a Catholic today.
If you intend to bring up your child as a Catholic, it needs to begin at home, and you cannot rely on any so-called Catholic school to supplement your efforts.
Jenny Roberts is a twenty-one-year-old student of German at the University of Exeter, England. She is particularly interested in the restoration of the pre-conciliar liturgy and the education of children in the Faith.