Dr Graham English has been a Catholic teacher for 45 years. Now lecturing RE teachers at the Australian Catholic University he reflects on the challenges that young people face today in having a sense of "belonging" to the Catholic Church.
Some etymology to get things started…
I want to begin by looking at the word 'belonging'.
In contemporary English belong means 'to go along with: to pertain to: to be the property of: to be part of or an appendage of, or in any way connected with: to be a native or inhabitant, or member of.'
Belong comes from the Middle English be-longen. Be- means 'around, all around, on all sides, in all ways'. Longen means 'be appropriate to, be connected with'. Depending which etymological dictionary you look at, the Oxford or Partridge, the Old English source of the word is langian which means 'connected circumstances' or 'relations', or gelang which means 'dependent'.
Difficulty comes from the Latin and means 'not easy'.
Looking back to a time when it was easy to belong…
In the earlier years of my life it was very easy to belong.
I knew early that I was part of my family. It was not one of those Big Fat Greek Wedding families but I soon knew who were Englishes, Carmodys, McInerneys or Woodbridges. I knew where they fitted in because my mother was very good at knowing all that. I knew their stories, usually in censored form fit for children though occasionally I heard things that were not meant for me and once or twice betrayed my knowledge by asking questions or making statements that embarrassed or surprised my relations. Until I started school and long after, the important people in my life were my parents, my brother and sister, my aunts, uncles or cousins. Then there were the Limbo boys, as I later came to call the still-births and miscarriages, four all together, when I realized how much they influenced my life.
I also learnt quickly that I was a Catholic and being in a very religious family, rosary every night and all that, I was steeped in the Labor-voting, working class Catholic sub-culture of the 1950s until I felt that I had belonged in it for centuries. We did not sing, 'I am a little Catholic', at our school. There was no need. We knew who and what we were and I could not imagine being anything else.
And, though six of my great grandparents were Irish and two English I never felt nor was invited to feel anything but Australian. I belonged here. Not just in Australia but on the south west slopes of NSW where my parents, and their grandparents, and some of their parents are now buried and where I spent my childhood.
Later my work centred on belonging. When I began teaching I tried to accomplish what one of my mentors in teachers' college, Br Finian Markwell, had said. He told us, 'Prepare your religion lessons first. That is what you are there for. Make your religion lessons the best lessons you give.' My aim in being prepared and being as lively and interesting as possible in my teaching was that I belonged and I wanted to have others belong.
And for seventeen years, from the age of fifteen I belonged to a religious order of Brothers. I belonged so deeply, having been profoundly socialised into their ideology and way of life, that leaving them cost me more pain than anything else in my life so far.
Since then several places where I have had strong formative experiences, St Edmunds College Canberra where I taught for most of my twenties, Mt St Mary Strathfield where I was a brother and where I now work, and Eastwood where we live, seem also to belong to me, or I to them.
For much of my life it has been as if I have had 'Belonging' tattooed on my forehead.
So what is this 'difficulty of belonging'?
When I look back on the definitions of belonging I began with, each describes aspects of my belonging to family, Church, my work, Australia and the things I believe.
The difficulty for me is that now there is so much in my early belonging that I no longer go along with or relate to. I was once the property of beliefs, institutions and ideologies that I no longer am part of. I can no longer be an appendage to my family or to the Church. There are places I no longer inhabit. There are societies I am not now a member of.
Some of this is not by choice. For example, the world I grew up in has evaporated.
We are all migrants…
Many of my students are physical migrants. They or their parents came to Australia from Lebanon, Italy, China, India or Vietnam. I understand how they feel. I am a spiritual migrant. I grew up in the 1950s and was a young teacher in the 1960s. The place I grew up in is further away than Lebanon because twenty hours or even one hundred hours in a plane cannot get you there. Of course Lebanon and Vietnam are not there either. Not the Lebanon or the Vietnam their parents knew. If you have migrated here from somewhere else and gone back later to visit your memories you know exactly what I mean. We are all migrants really.
And many of my family have died or grown old. I have grown fairly old. A student whom I came to know quite well told me that when she arrived at my first lecture a few years ago she said to her friend, 'I wonder what this old guy has to say'. There are people in my family and among my students much younger than I who do not know the stories and are both poorer for it and richer. Poorer because there are some great stories. Richer for not being caught in the deceit. Surely they could not be as badly taught about sexuality as my parents' or my generation of Catholics were, for example. Or so frightened into behaving themselves.
And the Church changed. I wanted this change. I agree with my Uncle Joe who lived with us when I was a child. He used say, 'The Good Old Days? Bugger the Good Old Days!' Like him I prefer now but these days I am uneasy in the Church. I often feel I do not belong even though I have worked for the Church for forty five years. It is something to do with Vatican II.
The excitement and hope of Vatican II…
Around the Vatican council there was great hope. I lived in a monastery where the liturgy made Sunday exciting, where getting up each day, exhausted as I sometimes was, was made worthwhile because we were learning to say the Holy Office. I read the Vatican II documents and experienced then what William Wordsworth wrote about the French Revolution: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!"
Wordsworth later decided that the French Revolution was a mistake but I have never lost my enthusiasm for Vatican II. It was not a mistake. It is gift from God that gives me something to hold onto. Sadly though the promise of it has not yet been realized. We members of the Church have got in the way of God's gift. We have gone backwards in leaps and bounds.
A few years ago on the CathNews discussion board there was a conversation about an American psychologist visiting Sydney who believed that gay people can be 'cured' and then live ordinary heterosexual lives. A person called Margaret wrote this:
Today I am sad - very sad. I heard a news bulletin this morning with a report of the Courage meeting in Sydney last night. I'm sad that the church, despite all the assurances, and all the apologies, and all its professed compassion for all people, is still determinedly pushing something that, in realistic terms, is a nonsense. I object to church funds being used in this way, and I object to the agenda which refuses to acknowledge the current state of knowledge in the sciences — medical and social.
I am sorry, and extend my personal apology to all gay people for the way they are derided and for the ways in which they are negated and denied the fullness of their being. It always hurts to see Michael B Kelly in this forum having to put up with the sarcasm and self-righteousness which he invariably cops every time he propounds the Christian message.
Being a Catholic these days is for me much like being an Australian: I know it's the best place for me, and I don't know where else I would go if I ever left it, but I am filled with sorrow and shame for some of the things that happen.
Yes, I'm sad.
It is the last few lines that most struck me. 'Being a Catholic these days is for me much like being an Australian: I know it's the best place for me, and I don't know where else I would go if I ever left it, but I am filled with sorrow and shame for some of the things that happen.'
Whatever about gay people being cured (and I can only say that each of the gay men and women that I know closely has come to accept who they are through pain and uncertainty and I believe that for some reason God calls them to be gay as she called me to be heterosexual) I know what Margaret means. And it is not just about how gay people are treated. It is about how divorced people are treated. It is about bad liturgy in so many churches. It is about the deep confusion I feel when I read the Broken Rites Newsletter and see the list of priests and brothers convicted of sexual abuse and see how many of them I know or have come across in my work. It is about how ordinary folk want the third rite of Reconciliation and the official Church refuses to listen to their need. It is about many other things.
For me this feeling of not belonging is heightened by my observations at work. I love my work. I teach Religious Education to people who will mostly teach in Catholic schools, or who do already. I often see young people grow in understanding or acceptance as the result of the religious education they experience at university. I see them fired up with social justice or determined to live searching committed lives. It is a delight to see young, awkward, sometimes disillusioned or angry people come in first year and, via their reading, experience and teaching practice become young adults who will be fine teachers of young Australians.
At the same time I am aware that I have taught Religious Education in primary school, secondary, and at university for forty five years over a time when Catholic Sunday mass going has declined from maybe sixty percent attending each week to less than fifteen percent. The generations I have taught religion to now stay away in droves. For many of the young people I meet Catholicism is like American baseball is to me. I am not against baseball. I am slightly interested. I know who Babe Ruth and Casey Stengle were and I have heard of the New York Yankees. But if American baseball stopped tomorrow I might feel a slight sense of loss that something that was important to many people had gone but I would be pretty much untouched in the important parts of my life.
Lots of the young that I meet have that attitude to the Church.
There are also, of course, young people who really want to belong to the Church. Unfortunately some of them are fundamentalist: biblically, doctrinally or in their model of church. But to the non-fundamentalist majority (and it is a big majority) we who belong to the Church seem to have little to offer. We are irrelevant.
Now 'relevant' is a tricky word because conservative people use it as a synonym for 'trendy' and employ it as a swear word but I think it is a rich word and my experience is that so much of what we, the official Church, do is irrelevant to the young. That is, it does not engage them. They feel they can live happily or even better off without it.
That is serious.
The American philosopher John Dewey points out that unless a group can have the young enthusiastic about what we believe and do then the group will die out. This applies as much to the Church as to any other institution. We could die out. After all Iraq was for six centuries a vibrant centre of Christianity.
When I was young there seemed little chance then we would die out. Then it was easy to belong to the Church because there was nowhere else to go. The Catholic sub-culture provided such a strong support that even if you wanted to go it was very hard to get out.
Well the walls have fallen down! For us who were once behind the walls and for the young who have no knowledge there were ever walls there are a million choices out there. And if we do not give them all the information they will find it on the net.
Full of hope…
Some of that must sound as if I am a pessimist or that I have lost the enthusiasm I started out with as a young teacher of religious education. But I am not a pessimist. I am full of hope. I am enthusiastic. I want to have my students know that God finds them delightful and that nothing they do can stop that. I want them to find in the Gospels and the rest of Scripture the message that they are able to be reconciled with God because the whole point of the Incarnation is that God takes creation so seriously as to take on its limitations. Jesus is God limited by the everyday mess of being human. The whole point is that these molecules I am made up of somehow reveal God. That's what I want my students to know, rejoice in and to pass on.
But I can never really belong again in the old way. In my feeling of lack of belonging or great difficulty of belonging I keep going back to that fourth century genius St Augustine. Augustine says that our hearts are restless and they shall never rest until they rest in God. Part of the trouble with my childhood, and the childish part of me later, was that I mistook something for belonging that was not really belonging at all.
And all about me I see people making the same mistake and some of them are bishops!
The problem of trying to belong to something
Part of the tension in the Church at present is caused by folk who want to belong to something that doesn't and can't really exist. Some of the young people I meet who want to return to the Church as it was actually want to go to a church that never existed. I was there and I know (but they won't believe me). They want certainty. Worse they want me to belong to what they want to belong to. They feel uncertain so they want me to conform for them. This is the false belonging that occurs when religion becomes ideology. I've been there and it gets you nowhere in the long run. St Augustine knew that.
Sometimes it helps to muck around with words to see what they sound like and what other meanings pop up. Belonging might mean to be longing.
Remember how as a child you longed for your birthday, or for Christmas? A friend who is an only child tells me that she longed for a sister and now as a mature woman still does sometimes even though she knows from her friends that sisters (and brothers) can be a mixed blessing. Some of the psalms are about what it is to be longing. Psalm 38 says, 'All my longing is to know you'. Psalm 42 has those lovely lines, 'As a deer yearns for running steams so my heart longs for you O God'. Psalm 84 says, 'My soul longs indeed faints for the courts of the Lord.' And Psalm 119 says, 'My soul is consumed with longing'.
Taking a lead from St Augustine I think that to be longing is as much belonging as I can manage these days. I am content to long, to be restless until I rest in God. As a teacher I see my task as being to help my students feel content not to belong. And to be happy to be longing.
Longing is as difficult as belonging. It is more difficult I suppose. But it is far more likely to lead us somewhere worth going.
What are your thoughts on Dr English's commentary?
©2008 Dr Graham English