On Retirement from Teaching
~ Reflections of a 56-year-old Catholic Dinosaur! ~
As my retirement from teaching approaches, I have been trying to reflect with some degree of self-satisfaction on the contribution I have made to the development of Catholic education during the past thirty-five years. After all, I have reminded myself, a career such as mine is not one to be sniffed at.
In 1964, following a year of unqualified student teaching, I entered St. Mary's Catholic Teacher Training College (Simms), Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, embarking on a three year course taking English as my main subject with subsidiary studies in art, basic maths, religious education and the philosophy of education. I should also mention that this formative period of my life was enriched to varying degrees through my involvement in extra-curricula activities which included playing football, beer drinking, following the sixties music scene and socialising, when possible, with members of the opposite sex. St Mary's, at that time, was an all male college and because of this I was able to make many strong friendships with young men of my own generation, some of which have continued to the present day.
With the exception of one year my entire teaching career, since qualifying in 1967, has been in the service of Catholic education, incorporating six schools within the Archdiocese of Birmingham. I was appointed as headteacher in the fifth of these at St. Elizabeth's School, Coventry, where I served for four years before moving to The Rosary School in Birmingham where I have been custodian for the past seventeen years and from where I am due to retire (early) in August 2001. (Teachers are encouraged to work until age 60 but I have decided to 'go' at 56 years and 5 months).
So, as stated above, surely this is a career of which I should be justly proud, in the knowledge that I have played my part in educating two successive generations of Catholic - and some non-Catholic - children whilst contributing to the greater good of society at large. What could be a problem with this and why should any reflection upon my career give me cause for concern?
Jigsaw of Failure
Why should this be the case, I ask myself. Have I not worked hard for the pupils in my care? Should I not then accept any plaudits cast in my direction? The truth is that, whichever way I turn, I cannot disentangle myself from the personal and collective levels of responsibility and accountability which I have held during my teaching career - indeed, my entire adult life - which, sadly, have run parallel to the decline of the institutional Church (by that I mean dioceses, parishes and schools' networks) and which has culminated in the crisis of Catholic education so clearly evidenced today: in the dwindling numbers of baptisms, weddings and ordinations, the rocketing rate of lapsation from the Faith by both pupils and their families at all stages of education - infant, junior and secondary - and the freefall in numbers of those attending weekly Mass.
Hence the tension in my state of mind. On the one hand, a touchy-feely grasping after a sense that I did my bit. But, on the other hand, an overwhelming awareness that 'my bit' alongside all 'the bits' of my generation of leaders in Catholic education has been little more than a piece in a jigsaw of failure.
We live in a world where everyone, it seems, is coming to terms with some personal family or community crisis. Without wishing to step into the realm of melodrama, I appear to be in the situation of coming to terms with the fact that the undoubted efforts, often gruelling, of a lifetime's teaching, supposedly dedicated to Christ and His Church on earth, have been both qualitatively and quantitatively unsuccessful.
In my view that stark realisation is that I have achieved the opposite end result of that for which I consciously or unconsciously aimed, namely, the building up of The Body of Christ and His Church on earth, especially that part of His Church in the Birmingham area! Further to this, my career-long efforts have been but a mere fraction of the total endeavour of the Catholic educational Community during this period. I have been but a small 'cog' in the edifice of the institutional Church and the vast network of Catholic education so proudly established through history within the dual system of the nation's provision for the education of its young.
This being the case it is, therefore, inescapably true that if my efforts have been self-assessed to be lacking in success, based on the aforementioned performance indicators of the knowledge and practice of the Faith, then this must also be true of all my contemporaries who have shared the burden of building Catholic education for the past three or four decades.
All of us, bishops, priests, catechetical advisers, headteachers, governors, teachers, and, yes, parents and pupils, have demonstrably failed in our vision and mission to build the Church during the last thirty years.
There has been, I believe, individual and collective failure and I, for one, wish to own up to my share of the culpability associated with this. Further, I believe that my retirement now affords me the opportunity to use any experiences I have had personally and professionally within the context of Catholic education as primary historical sources.
I believe that Catholic men and women now in their mid-fifties are very special indeed because they represent what might be referred to as the last of the 'traditional' line of Catholics. Born at the end of or just after the Second World War, they grew into young adulthood before the onset of 'the sixties cultural revolution' and the gathering of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, both of which had the effect of turning the teaching of the Church and consequently that of Catholic education upside down.
Before offering my own analysis of how and why the rot in Catholic education has developed it would, I feel, be helpful for me to emphasise the fact that I was born pre-sixties and pre-Vatican Council, yet I have worked professionally in post-sixties and post-conciliar Britain. The impact of living and working professionally in Catholic education, as it were, on either side of the sixties/Vatican Council divide has been, for me, profound. In fact, I can say that in terms of practising the Faith and transmitting this in school it has rendered me something of a 'catechetical dinosaur,' albeit at the premature age of fifty-six.
Perhaps before this particular dinosaur finally becomes extinct, then, a trip down memory lane may prove to be very useful in comparing and contrasting the Church pre and post-1965 as a means to seeing the way forward. So what does a 56-year-old Catholic dinosaur remember of his early days in church and school?
Mass and Communion
Stomachs rumbled frequently also on Sunday mornings because a fast from food had been made from Saturday midnight, at least. I remember often receiving my last sandwich of Saturday from my mother at about 11.57 pm with words to the effect that "that's your last until after Communion tomorrow."
Mass and Communion were indeed holy and people dressed and prepared for them accordingly - receiving the Sacrament of Confession (frequently) during the week or on a Saturday evening when the church was opened specifically for that Sacrament (there being no Saturday night Masses at that time). The regularity of going to Confession for most people undoubtedly highlights the fact that many, if not most, 'trotted out' the same or a similar list of sins that had been uttered the week or fortnight before. However, the awareness of sin and the need to confess and seek absolution as a means of gaining grace and fighting temptation to sin again seemed to be more important than the style or format of how one approached the confessional. This was long before the negative debate about the credibility of reciting 'lists of sins' and the notion of 'reconciliation' undermined the Sacrament of Confession.
The focal point of the church and the Mass was The Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Everyone understood fully the need to genuflect before the tabernacle and I cannot recall that casual conversations took place amongst the congregation. Again, this was long before the habit of chatting in church became commonplace on the grounds that the church as a 'community building' was a place to meet, greet and talk even though others might wish to pray silently in adoration of Christ on the high altar.
The faithful approached the priest for Communion in the full knowledge and understanding that he was a specially ordained man with consecrated hands. There were no extraordinary ministers of the eucharist - now mistakenly referred to as 'eucharistic ministers' - and those going to Holy Communion knelt at the altar rail to receive the host on their tongues, allowing it to disperse gradually with a sense of interior understanding that the Body of Christ, the Son of God and Redeemer of mankind, had been consumed in faith and love.
Queuing to receive the host in a line, as one might wait at a supermarket checkout, did not happen and there was a disposition towards reverence in receiving. Body posture was indicative of humility and sights like chewing of the host or walking casually to the altar with arms swinging to the side were rare or unseen, unlike today.
Of course, the Mass was spoken in Latin with the priest facing The Blessed Sacrament and only turning to greet the people. But since most people had a missal or simple prayer book which had the English translation printed alongside the ancient language of the church the liturgy was easy enough to follow, whilst giving a dignity to the celebration that made one feel proud and 'special' to be a Catholic. After all only Catholics understood Latin. Only Catholics had the Mass where everyone believed in the Real Presence of Christ on the altar and in Communion. Only Catholics followed the tradition of faith that had come down to them through the apostles, Saint Peter and all the Popes.
How different from the Mass nowadays which has become so dependent on the personality of the priest and the presentation of the liturgy as a themed package for children, teenagers, youth or 'older folk'. Where Father has his back to The Blessed Sacrament from the beginning until the consecration and then again after Communion. Where he (the priest) can move about the sanctuary and intersperse his own personal words into the English vernacular as desired. And where the 'we believe' is recited, as opposed to the 'I believe' (credo) of yesteryear, although it is commonly understood that we Catholics no longer share a common belief in the twelve articles of faith as contained therein.
The mystery and majesty of the preconciliar Mass was enhanced by the congregation's practice of saying prayers before and after Holy Communion, and the singing of doctrinally rich hymns such as Soul of my Saviour or hymns of spontaneous love such as Sweet Heart of Jesus. In great part, these are replaced by the banal and often doctrinally flawed lyrics of the modern hymns penned by composers vying in the commercial market of the sung liturgy. Silence and adoration at the modern day Mass is too often replaced by a compulsion to sing at all times, especially during and after Holy Communion when many still want a period of silent thanksgiving. Well-intentioned guitarists and musicians lead the congregation in sometimes unknown songs that fill the church with sound and admiration for the musicianship displayed, but not with a sense of reverence and awe for the Son of God before Whom all should keel.
Rosary and Catechism
In primary school we learned the faith by listening to teachers who reinforced the belief in God the Father and Creator and His Son, Our Saviour, Jesus, that we had already heard about at home. At that time there was no distraction from messages of faith, through television and other media intrusion. This fundamental belief was enhanced by a simple approach to the learning of doctrine through reference to the abbreviated catechism, whereby every aspect of faith was examined in a question and answer approach that seemed to fix in the memory with considerable success.
Stories from the Old Testament - Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Moses leading the Israelite to freedom - were recounted alongside accounts of the parables and miracles of Jesus, the events of His boyhood life, His suffering and death on the cross and His resurrection and appearances after rising. Together with stories of St Paul and the early Church and various 'lives of the Saints' we were able to assume sufficient knowledge to be able to talk about our faith with interest, understanding and commitment.
True Catholic Ethos
The supervision of religious education in schools rested very much with the commitment and integrity of the headteacher and staff. Of course there was a considerable influence in this from the teaching orders of priests, brothers and sisters. A priest representative of the bishops would visit annually and, as it were, 'inspect the books' so as to ensure that Catholicism was being taught faithfully and rigorously to the children on behalf of their parents who, at no small cost, had provided substantial sums of money for either the initial building or subsequent maintenance of the schools. As a result, whilst no one would pretend that Sunday Mass attendance was one hundred per cent at that time, it was certainly high and parents recognised their duties in supporting the faith life of their children, their parish and their school.
The teaching and practice of Catholicism was recognised by all involved in Catholic education as the fundamental reason for the existence of Catholic schools. Whilst there may have been an atmosphere of 'over deference' to the clergy in human terms (an attitude that did not assist many priests in their pastoral development), Catholic education essentially consisted of a large group of committed and practising Catholic teachers transmitting the Faith to an increasingly very large group of practising Catholic parents and pupils.
Belief in creation suddenly was portrayed as being naïve - fit only for the ignorant mindset of those misled by religious beliefs. The new (though not really new) intellectuals of the day believed in evolution not as theory but as fact according to Darwin and other scientists, biologists and academics. The Old Testament was really nothing more than a collection of myths. Adam and Eve and the serpent were symbolic. The notion of Original Sin was suspect and sin itself began to be seen as relative and subjective. Surely a loving God would not allow anyone to go to Hell. Did Christ really have to redeem us from a sin notionally committed by two people who existed only symbolically? Was Christ really the Son of God Who needed to die to redeem mankind, or was He not just an extraordinary historical figure along the lines of Martin Luther King? And if we were evolved from other primates and species wasn't the existence of a Creator God called into question?
The arrival of The Second Vatican Council was heralded by many, not least Pope John XXIII, as a much needed watershed in the rejuvenation of Christ's Church on earth. That the outcomes of the Council could be manipulated deviously in ways which have since emerged were not envisaged by the ordinary Catholic in the street, though it was not long before many felt able to collude with the obfuscations of doctrine and tradition that the manipulators were able to engineer.
In short, the magisterial teaching authority of the Church, in terms of biblical study, tradition, doctrine and catechism and the teaching of the Popes, was called into question on all sides. The concept of 'conscience' was heightened to suggest that there was, suddenly, an inner flexibility of the aspects of Catholic belief that permitted varying degrees of acceptance - or rejection - of any particular teaching. After all, some said, if the language (Latin) of the Church which has stood for hundreds of years could be changed (many said "ended"), and if rules about fasting before Holy Communion could be changed, and if the altar could be moved in church for the priest to stand behind and face his 'audience,' and if anyone could now hold the host on their hand just like an ordained priest - then suddenly lots of other things could also be changed.
The catechism approach was quickly ditched in favour of thematic and inter-curricular approaches which began to embrace science, history and geography. The new approach was creative, interpretative and allowed for the fresh wind of change supposedly blowing from Vatican II to permit teachers and pupils to explore and voice their own opinions about the various doctrines that had once been infallible.
Catechetical experts, both clergy and lay, began to spring up in offices across the dioceses and bishops handed over the supervsion of religious education to them even when it became clear that they were spreading apostasy amongst the staff and pupils in their charge. The same catechetical experts in league with publishing houses began to produce colourful and detailed schemes of work for religious instruction in schools and these schemes competed commercially across the country for sales in schools. Consequently, the traditional catechism was increasingly marginalised. Most, if not all of the new schemes omitted substantial sections of doctrine, thereby denying both staff and pupils knowledge of the fullness of faith. The Trinity, Sin, Creation, Angels, Purgatory, Transubstantion, The Real Presence - all became victims of the post-Vatican II teaching approaches.
Living and Believing, Veritas and Here I Am are examples of how teachers like myself were conned into giving our pupils substandard Catholicism or, perhaps, more honestly, we didn't have the intellectual courage to challenge those who had contrived outcomes of the Council in order to take a lead in the promotion of their own 'brand' of Catholicism in Catholic schools.
A few years ago, I sat in a meeting where a priest catechetical 'expert' - since promoted to a seminary - said that we should not teach the children that they should go to Mass every Sunday. Neither did he know whether or not religious education should be taught in a Catholic school by a practising Catholic. He was in good company because in a recent conversation with an Archbishop I was told, to my amazement, that he (the Archbishop) was not sure either whether it was necessary for RE in a Catholic school to be taught by a practising Catholic! Even classes where children were being prepared for the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation!!
Demise of Teacher
Now headteachers of Catholic schools have to ferret for information about perspective newly qualified teachers like agents for MI5. Do you practise the Faith? Are you cohabiting? Do you believe the Faith that I may ask you to teach the children in this school? These are just some of the questions running through the minds of headteachers - but perhaps less so as they become more accepting of the new age of Catholic secularisation.
This brings to mind a visit some years ago to Trinity and All Saints College, notionally Catholic, in Leeds, where the gentlemen's washroom was resplendent with a shining row of condom machines.
While in the pre-sixties/Vatican II days school governors were automatically known to be stalwart Catholic parishioners, nothing like that can be taken for granted now. Even school governors have their opinions about how the Faith should be practised and, no doubt, in some schools the teaching of the Pope is definitely not required.
Gospel of Life Rejected
If we believed that life was a gift from God and not a man-made commodity, then we could not destroy life through the abortifacient effects of pills or devices. If we did fall to the temptation to contracept or abort we had to confess and change our ways: to educate and form our consciences with the mind of Christ. Moreover it was our duty to educate our children accordingly, through Church teaching engaged with parental responsibility and not through immoral sex-education programmes devised by those outside the Church.
Tragically, the rejection of the Gospel of Life has been ongoing from that first fateful moment in the late sixties when the apostates and heretics within the Church fed a willing Catholic public with the line that "you can contracept or not according to your own conscience and not according to your conscience informed by the truth of Christ's Church." The horrendous damage of this apostasy has infected - and continues to infect - the Church with all the disastrous results that can be seen today and, in turn, it has had a cancerous effect within Catholic schools.
For many years, the hierarchy has abdicated its responsibility to uphold and proclaim this teaching. One bishop known to me has actively promoted contraception in the schools of his diocese. Substantial numbers of clergy remain disloyal to the Pope and refuse to preach against contraception, while other priests, nominally Catholic, actually obstruct the efforts of Catholics working for the pro-life cause. Headteachers, governors and school staffs, supposedly the intellectual wing of the Church Militant, have consistently refused to address the life issue in schools or in the wider Church community and, by implication, have adopted an ambivalent view towards this fundamental doctrine. This ambivalence, replicated at all levels of the Church from the hierarchy down to the man or woman in the pew, is, in my view, a scandalous act of disloyalty and cowardice that will continue to reap a most dreadful reward in terms of the future fruitfulness of the Church in our country. Poisoned fruit can only rot and no good can be made of it, however hard we may try to dress it up when presenting it to our children or to our own secularised consciences.
So what can be made of this Catholic dinosaur's potted Church history - anecdotes and all - reviewed and analysed from the past forty years? And how can such an analysis inform those responsible for Catholic education in the immediate years to come?
Platform for Renewal
The Next Generation
I have worked hard
but in many ways, over a long period of time, I have failed. I sincerely
believe that by addressing the list of issues indicated at the end
of my analysis, the distinctive quality of Catholic education could
be regained. And more importantly, the love of Our Lord and the teachings
of His Church could be renewed in a new generation of young people.
Mr Caffrey also expressed his views on this subject in a recent talk delivered in London, which is now available on audio cassette. For details, contact Pro Fide Forum at firstname.lastname@example.org .