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.
In a sense this two-part commentary from Dr Graham English follows on from the last commentary he wrote for Catholica exploring the challenges that young people face today in having a sense of "belonging" to the Catholic Church. Today and tomorrow though the focus is back the other way in exploring the ways in which the institutional Church may have to adapt if it is to have a hope of maintaining relevance to the young people of tomorrow. This commentary is from an address Dr English gave recently to members of the St Vincent de Paul Society.
A nostalgic look at Catholicism in the late 1950s and early 1960s…
I began teaching in 1964 at St Anne's Bondi Beach. My pupils were in year three, I had just turned nineteen and they were about to turn eight. All except one were baptized Catholics; the one who wasn't was Greek Orthodox. Over 60% of them were at Mass almost every Sunday, almost all of their teachers were Brothers or Sisters. There were three priests in the parish, two of them young and active. The poorer kids came down to our school from Paddington. In that class and the one after it in 1965 only two boys had a surname that was not Irish or British. One was the little Greek boy whose parents had a fish shop down near the beach and the other was an Egyptian who already spoke French and Arabic as well as English. I had never met anyone who spoke more than one language before except Billy Hayes, the Chinese man who had a grocer's shop at Young when I was a child.
Those boys are now about fifty two, I am sixty four, and I have taught some of their children at University, both as undergraduates and as mature teachers doing Masters and doctoral studies. Some of my undergraduate students find it hard to believe that their fathers were once in year three and almost impossible to believe that I taught them, and I am still alive.
One of the few constants for me in all the forty five years in between is that I have worked with young people in Catholic education. After that long experience with young people I want to make two points to start.
Two starting points…
Firstly, I am sure that young folk now are just as good as we were. Bernard Shaw noted, 'Youth is wasted on the young', but I think Shaw was just jealous. Young people now, as they have been in all my experience are mostly enthusiastic, they are energetic, they are adventurous, and they have good will, they are as responsible and as irresponsible as we were at their age. All they lack is experience and that will come inevitably if they live to be old. I have no sympathy for all those people, from Plato and other Greek philosophers, and other commentators right through recorded human history who have claimed that the young of their era are not as good at whatever as WE were.
Secondly, when I talk about young people I want to just say, 'They are'. They are a given. They are diverse, as all humans are, but we have to deal with them as they are.
We can't change people; we can only love them and maybe change ourselves!
We all know someone who married a person who was self destructive and when the marriage fails they say, 'I thought I could change him'. On the whole we can't change people; we can only love them and maybe change ourselves. So the question we older people need to ask about young people is, 'If that is how I find them, (or if you like, if that is how they are) how do I relate with them in a loving way?'
I have been a teacher all my adult life and I have no regrets about that. I love teaching and I love watching good teaching and encouraging young student teachers to be very good at what they do. But one of the reasons I became a teacher was that as a child when I looked around at all the adults I knew the only adults I wanted to be like, at least as far as their jobs went, were the Christian Brothers at school and some of the Presentation sisters. And the ones I admired were all teachers. In 1959 I had little choice but be a teacher. Where else could I go?
The enormous choice open to people today…
One of the things that most distinguishes young people now from me aged fifteen in 1959 is that most young people now have enormous choice.
They have almost literally mind-blowing choice about nearly every aspect of their lives. They can travel almost anywhere, they have instant access to information and to almost anything that they want or hear of, they can live together before they are married, they presume that almost any illness or disease or harm can be readily cured, and they can try any number of things, destructive and constructive alike. They are susceptible to great pressure from their peers, from advertising in all its subtlety and its crassness, and from bullies in every institution they are part of; they are at least aware of a whole range of religions and quite often have friends who are from other religions or none. What's more their choices are growing.
I am sometimes a little jealous of their wide choices, but in my wiser moments I am not sure how I would handle such a wide choice. It is much easier to choose when you have very few options.
But choice also leads to greater anxiety…
This time last year I had surgery for prostate cancer (I am of the age where I meet my friends to discuss our symptoms). The surgery was successful. But around the time of the diagnosis I had an anxiety attack. Now while the cancer diagnosis was part of the cause of the anxiety I found the anxiety attack and its aftermath (a continuing anxiety state that I need to manage as well as understand) a much bigger hurdle. The anxiety attack really frightened me.
I tell you that not just to share my symptoms but because I found out that when you get some disease or affliction you suddenly find out all these other people who have it too. All of a sudden other men ask you, 'What is your PSA?' or 'What was your Gleason score?' 'Welcome to the brotherhood', one fellow sufferer said when I asked his advice. With one diagnosis I have joined a new fraternity and can speak a new language.
But more tellingly for me was the number of people who said to me, 'My daughter, or my son has had an anxiety attack'. And they were talking of their fifteen year old or their child who is nineteen, or a thirty year old offspring with a PhD and apparently everything to look forward to who is curled up on the sofa at home unable to move. This is yet another fraternity with yet another language, 'What dose of Zoloft are you on?' or 'Whom are you seeing? I know a really good psychotherapist'.
When I look back over my life I realise that I have always been prone to anxiety but I did not have an anxiety attack when I was fifteen or nineteen or thirty. One of the reasons is, I am pretty sure, that I had such tight structures, such clear directions, so little choice, that I could hold my anxieties in. There were so many retaining walls that I could not see, or see over, let alone imagine myself climbing. The Christian Brothers had trained me well, 'Keep the rule and the rule will keep you'. In those days I imagined that this was a clear instruction and that it was easy to follow.
Young people now don't have the choice of certainty or apparently solid structures, unless they live in a cult or they are in some kind of fundamentalism (of course nor do we older folk), yet they are flooded with other choices. Young people now live in a world of constant change and ever-widening, often bewildering choice. They can choose things that, when we were their age, did not even exist.
The diversity in our culture today…
I teach Religious Education curriculum mostly and in my classes I have Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and at least one who told me he is agnostic. When I was thirty years old there was no such thing as an IVF baby. Now I teach students who are IVF babies, and a few years ago a student in my ethics class was pregnant with an IVF baby. She gave us up to the minute reports of seeing the fertilised egg under an electron microscope, seeing the ultrasound, and so on right up until his baptism photos. I teach students whose parents are in gay relationships and others who themselves are gay. As adults people who are young now will be called on to make ethical decisions we cannot imagine, just as we have had to decide on things our grandparents had never envisaged.
I also teach students with a wide range of religious experience and knowledge, from students with PhDs across to some who want to teach religion but who know almost nothing about it. Some have enrolled in Religious Education curriculum as part of their own search for meaning, and some of these will be among the best RE teachers.
A couple of months ago I had a small article published in Catholica. It was on 'the difficulty of belonging'. In it I said that, as a child I knew that I belonged to my family, to the Catholic Church, to the small town where I grew up, to Australia, to the Christian Brothers because I went to one of their schools, to the Labor party because my family voted Labor and nothing else was an option, to rugby league because it was the only form of football I had ever seen. I also knew who my enemies were; Protestants, people from other towns, Japs and Germans, people who voted Liberal or DLP, and the Marist Brothers.
In my early twenties my work centered on belonging. I joined the Christian Brothers when I was fifteen. I lived an enclosed life with almost no choices. I didn't read the paper, listen to the wireless, watch television or have friends who were outside the Brothers. I had no contact with females. When I began teaching I tried to accomplish what one of my mentors in teachers' college had told us, 'Prepare your religion lessons first. That is what you are there for. Make your religion lessons the best lessons you give'. And so I was prepared and made my lessons as lively and interesting as I could because I belonged and I wanted others to belong.
A constant: everything continues to change…
When I was a child there were societal and cultural pressures that almost guaranteed that Catholics would belong, that they would send their children to Catholic schools, that they would go to Mass each Sunday; we had a culture where fear of mortal sin, of death and its aftermath, peer pressure and the desire of poor people for identity and security made us a community. Catholics could see the social and religious benefits of being Catholic. For Australian Catholics the Church became part of or almost entirely our primary community. Limited choice made choosing easy.
Even in the 1960s this world was under pressure, though I had not noticed. The Labor split in the 1950s and the consequent split among Catholics, the first generation of young Catholics going to university, the first signs of Catholic prosperity, the education of women, the post-war migration of Catholics who were not Irish, were all getting us ready for the social changes of the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Then, the world I grew up in evaporated. In the 1970s almost every advantage we had in maintaining Catholic solidarity and identity disappeared quickly, without anyone, bishops, priests or people being prepared for the changes or having any clear idea let alone consensus about how to deal with them. Ever since the one thing we can rely on being constant is that everything continues to change.
The change to our identity…
One of the biggest changes is our identity.
All of my family was in Australia by 1860; three quarters of them were from Ireland and the others from England but by my time we knew nothing of their language or their accent, or which towns they had come from, or what their stories were. Some of it had been hidden on purpose, mostly though it was because they just got on with being here and doing the best they could.
Now kids in schools are aware of where they came from. 'What are you Sir?' they ask, and if you say Australian they say that of course you are Australian but what else are you? They are Lebanese, or Chinese, or Tongans, or Vietnamese as well as being Australian and they expect me to be something else too. Until a few years ago I had never thought of myself as anything but Australian. Many of my students on the other hand are recent arrivals, they are physical migrants.
Though I have been in Australia all my life and speak only English I understand how they feel.
We are all migrants…
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. A Tardis might but even if it did I am not the Graham English who lived there then. I would see it differently. I would ask different questions. And 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. The places we grew up in no longer exist.
Really we are all migrants.
Continued tomorrow in Part II…
What are your thoughts on Dr English's commentary?
©2008 Dr Graham English