Battling the Cultural Wars in the Classroom

CHAPTER 21 – Battling the Cultural Wars I: in the Classroom

The spirit of the St John’s came from the Marist priests. The Marist spirituality consisted in the virtue of humility and devotion to Our Lady – a priest was to work in the background as a mother, serving Our Lord. These priests had a vocation to sacrifice their time, their lives, their souls to the service of the boys. Lay teachers on the staff were tolerated only because they filled gaps in the teaching curriculum which temporarily could not be provided by the priests.

The seminary training of these priests gave them a deep grounding in all the humanities: languages, literature, history, philosophy, and a wide-sweeping general knowledge of the world, its politics and its evils. The few scientists among them were experts in the field of mathematics and chemistry. Wherever they met with the secular teachers at teacher conferences or at inter-school competitions, these priests were noted for their brilliant understanding of the issues of the world. Hidden from the world indeed but once uncovered, they glowed.

They had little time for the foibles of educational theory, politics, and careerism. The salvation of the boys through virtue, faith and sacrament was all encompassing.

By 1983, things were changing at St Johns. The Church and State launched the integrated system forcing state “professionalism” onto the culture of our schools. But with far more serious effect was the determination by the religious orders to pull out of education. Priests who had given up their whole lives in sacrifice for the boys, were now pensioned off or put into contrived learning roles in parishes, running “focus groups”. The few rectors who remained had to deal with a staff of laymen, most of whom were either non-Catholics or non-practising. No number of “focus group” work could make up for the example of men who were willing to die for love of their students.

The ICEL Modern Mass

Our new bishop of Palmerston North, Peter Cullinane, was state-school bred, and one of the most influential bishops in the world leading the Church of New Directions. His influence on the English-speaking Catholic world was enormous. It was Bishop Peter who guided the new International Committee on the English Liturgical (ICEL) translation of the Mass for USA, the UK, South Africa and Australia and New Zealand. In 1975 and onwards he was partly responsible for creating all the English texts of prayers, of all the Sacraments, of the bible and of the psalms. The translations were to reflect contemporary speech, and contemporary ideologies. Paternalism was attacked by reducing the number of references to the word “Father” and replace it with “God”. Numerous words which had especial sacred meaning were all replaced with common words: for instance “blessed” became “happy”. New revisions were planned for implementation for the late 1980s, of gender neutral words, at the request of the feminists.

I cannot stress the impact of his work: all the other main non-Catholic churches in the English-speaking world followed the leadership of this committee: Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. But by the late 1990s, Pope John Paul II and the Vatican officials refused to accept or sign off on Bishop Peter’s work. He and the other members of his committee were replaced and given much more solid directions of the kind of language required: the results of this new direction are only now in 2011 being implemented!

“Maoist” Re-education Focus Groups

At home Bishop Peter set out to take Catholics out of the ghetto. He closed Tenison and so Aubynne lost her job. He proposed that extra-curricular Catholic student education be given by lay people of the parishes. But, all lay people would eventually have to be vetted for suitability. Of course, those parents or teachers who were passionate about Catholic education for their young men and women, were the first to be chopped – the very people who had the drive, the energy to help. They were too passionate, too doctrinal, too old-fashioned. All would need retraining, even priests. And so, from now on, to this day, priests and religious, laymen and women, are vetted and re-educated, by now, highly-developed directors at cleverly-contrived courses aimed at ensuring that all traditional Catholic belief and practice to be given a modern reinterpretation.

All Catholics supposedly believe in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But, the new diocesan school textbooks cleverly de-stress the common traditional “miraculous” understanding of this belief. We talk about “the Apostles believed”, or “We now have new hope in a resurrected life.” Or “This is our story. (among other stories?)” Some would say that this belief in a “miraculous” resurrection is unimportant to the life of a Christian. It is more important that we believe in the victory of hope in a future life.

Again, the doctrinal beliefs about the nature of Jesus were underplayed. It is believed that the old doctrinal statements like Jesus being the God-Man, the Infinite Person of the Son of God, uniting two natures, are just a cultural expression of the past – musn’t get fixated on these expressions. So, students are not presented with these so-called complications, “mysteries” which are fundamental to the Catholic Faith.

Mary – a Real Mother or Abstract Virtue?

And how sad it was to see the Marist Order’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary reinterpreted. A long time ago, in the 1840s, a group of young men assembled in Lyons, France, around the pilgrim site of the Virgin’s apparitions, and fell in love with her. They were caught up with a passion to bring all young men to discover devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, and through her to bring them to love of her Son, God Himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ. This highly personal and intimate love of Our Lady inspired men from all over France, and eventually New Zealand to sacrifice their lives for her honour. The Marist Order founded much of the culture of New Zealand with this passion for the Queen of Heaven.

But from the late 1980s we were to hear from one Marist after another, and from the “focus group” sessions, how devotion to the Blessed Virgin is no more than giving honour to Jesus’ mother, that she is an prime example of humility, and that she is a good instructive moral lesson to us all “to do as He says.” Though, He gave us another command: “Woman this is your son.” He wants her to be our Mother and us to be her sons. What mother wants to be turned into an abstract virtue of “Motherhood.” Just imagine putting a picture on the wall of your mother and labelling it “Humility” or “Motherhood”. In other words, let us not get caught up in a passionate devotional life to Our Lady by actually constantly seeking her intercession as the bridegroom did. Devotional practices of the Rosary, the Miraculous Medallions, the Immaculate Heart, etc., had now been replaced by focussing on moral commandments and the moral example she sets: Catholicism to become a philosophical ethical religion fitting well with the new bodiless spirituality of calm meditation, devoid of the physical actuality of the Resurrected Body of Jesus and His mother, assumed bodily into heaven.

And so… there were no more priests left at St John’s. And very few staff who cared about the Faith. By the mid-1990s, a great problem for the direction of the college emerged: how to maintain the Marist spirit and the survival of the college with a decreasing roll.

Problem of Catholic School Identity

The practise of increasing contraception and abortion reduced the number of boys in local Catholic parishes. School enrollments started to decline. The Spirit of Vatican II and its forced inculturation led to a loss of Catholic identity and a drastic decline in the number of both Marist and diocesan priests: the great and local Marist seminary closed. The majority of Catholic Baby Boomers and Generation X ceased practising the Faith. The Faith had now become a cultural expression, a moral stance rather than a sacramental religion. And so, the Marist spirit of St John’s became exactly that: a cultural expression of a particular set of ethical and religious beliefs. Furthermore, the supply of Catholic lay teachers dried up. The school was forced to increasingly employ non-Catholic and non-religious staff to the point that the ratios of Catholic to non-Catholic staff – 10% – were reversed over those 30 years.

New directions were forged in the 1990s by the last Rector of the college, Father Barry O’Connor. The college had to increase its roll and match the facilities and curriculum offered by State schools. A roll restricted to Catholic parents was opened to any boy with a Catholic connection. The “bricks and mortar” thrust of new workshops, computer facilities, gym, new labs, food technology rooms, etc., attracted different kinds of students.

These new directions coincided with a growing need by parents to find a safe haven for their boys in the increasing social breakdown of discipline and family life. St John’s offered that smaller, gentler, more intimate, school environment, promising, at least, some vestige of moral standards.

Catholic Schools – A refuge from chaos.

And so, by the late 1990s, new problems arose: a school with a growing roll of classrooms filled with an overwhelming majority of non-practising Catholic boys, whose parents had little understanding of the Faith, and whose teachers were non-Catholic and mostly non-religious. Disciplinary issues grew at the same time as society withdrew the traditional measures to deal with those issues. Suspension was frowned upon by the State; corporal punishment banned; behavioural psychological methods and bargaining boys into good behaviour became a constant topic of staffroom training. Discovery learning replaced content. Teachers were urged to entertain their students. The disciplining of the boys was passed along a chain of agents: from teacher to dean to Discipline Master, back to dean and back to the teacher to the boy and then back up the chain again. And then another staff meeting about another, new discipline system!

Catholic Tokenism

The Faith? the Marist spirit? depended on four or five Catholic teachers, the intercession of Saint John himself, to which the whole college prayed, and to the willingness of the non-Catholic staff to cooperate with expressions by Catholics of a vague religiosity about the mission of the school. In the first week of each year a Marist priest would train us all, but especially the non-Catholic staff, in the meaning of the mission. Values clarification exercises were designed to explore what the Catholic Faith meant: love the poor and the sinner, and be wary of any judgemental behaviour. That summed up 2000 years of Catholicism. Catholic tokenism prevailed: college prayers, mass, anthem, religious symbols of St John and Our Lady, and compulsory religious education, became a bewildering assortment of ersatz rituals from which to gather what the Faith was or meant.

Yet, the Faith survived and grew at St John’s College. By the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s that Catholic tokenism bore fruit. With the outstandingly courageous and stabilising efforts of the new Principal, Neal Swindells, the Director of Religious Education, Dave Sullivan, and his small number of faithful Catholics in the RE staff, the Catholic spirit of the college survived and flourished. The number of boys seeking baptism grew. Ritual experimentation and minimalism decreased, and a sense of Catholic tradition – a new St John’s tradition grew out of the wreakage of the post-Vatican II world. A small number of devout Tongan families also grew and supplied the college with strong Catholic student leaders.

Religious Education by the Rosary

I had at first thought that one way I could help was to become more active by teaching Religious Education. I took up the challenge of teaching the Faith to boys who knew nothing, cared less, and among religious education staff who were either confused about their own Faith, or who saw themselves as part of the revolution, or who dared not challenge the revolutionary textbooks and hidden assumptions in the curriculum, and wider educational aims of the school.

But religious education as a way of communicating the Faith seemed useless, even if one taught orthodox doctrine. Once upon a time it would have served the purpose of strengthening the intellectual grounding of the Faith among devout Catholic young men when sent out into a world which would challenge the doctrines of the Faith. But now… the boys need the heart of the Faith, they need immersing into the life of the Faith like little children. And little children learn by rote: in the past they learnt by heart the traditional prayers, and prayed by heart the traditional devotions.

And so I taught the boys to learn by heart the Apostles Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory be. And these prayers would be said in verse and response so that the rhythm of the prayers of a group became second nature. And then the big step: the Rosary. It was the Rosary which created the most significant reaction among the boys, their parents and some of the staff. Having a whole class say a decade of the Rosary before starting a religious education lesson, became an embarrassment to some of the boys, and invited negative reactions among some Catholic parents – “We are passed all of that!”. And yet, taking the boys to the chapel just to kneel before a statue of Our Lady and say the whole Rosary struck at the very heart of the revolution and at the same time united us all as brothers needing the solace of her intercession.

This story about St John’s has been repeated all over the Western Catholic world – there is really nothing new here. But, the revolution is dying out, leaving a smaller Church with a laity thirsting for substance. Traditionally-minded priests from traditionally-minded families are and will become the source of Catholic hope of the future. There is already a noticeable change in the awareness of the bishops that the Spirit of Vatican II was largely false and with this change has come a deeper understanding of the need to reinforce the identity of Catholics with a return to tradition. The liturgy will gradually imitate that of the old Mass, and with that change, the boys and their parents will gradually imbibe the clearer Catholic thoughts and feelings of what holiness means expressed so clearly in the old ritual. Holiness rather than social change and moralism.

Leave a Reply