Our schools (State, Church and independent) may still, in many ways, be considered to be Catholic. Teaching of the Catholic religion is obligatory. Religious activities, such as Masses, religious celebrations, Lenten talks and retreats are common practices. A regulated set-up providing religious counselors and spiritual directors is an integral part of school structures. This is even truer, as is to be expected, of Church schools, whose very mission is to give a Faith-based education.
For those who believe that Religion is in itself a positive and beneficial reality for any society, this is excellent news. For a traditionally Catholic country like Malta, this may also give a sense of comfort bordering on complacency.
We need, however, to look more closely at this seemingly rosy picture. It takes little effort to realise that the reality on the ground offers a daunting challenge. What is the real outcome and impact of this enormous investment in religiosity in schools on the lives, character, values and life choices of young school-leavers?
Studies and statistics as well as our day-to-day experience offer mixed and challenging answers to some painful questions. In terms of religious practice, are more or fewer young people practising religion? In terms of values, are young people becoming more or less committed, honest, faithful, trustful, self-sacrificing, respectful, reliable, and so on?
In terms of inner well-being and personal integrity, is there greater or lesser brokenness among young people, more or less teenage alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, cases or self-harm, teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, sexual permissiveness, personality imbalances, mental disturbances or disorders, and so forth?
We have just celebrated Christmas – the birth of the God-child among us. But are children meeting Him in a personal way? Schools are a prime place and time for this appointment. We may be pleased that Catholic Christianity is present in them. But this is only a starting point. Our schools need to become Godly schools, schools where God Himself dwells among staff and students.
God is love, God is truth, God is life. This is what the little Child of Bethlehem came to show us. If we want our children to meet God in schools we need to do more than instruct them about what love, truth and life are. We need to help them experience a true love that gives life.
Let us be thankful for all the dedication, love and personal care that so many educators are offering to thousands of children in our schools. This is truly a Godly experience for them. Yet we need to do more.
Without minimising the importance of religious education or practices in schools, we urgently need to give children the chance to experience God directly, personally and intimately. We call this prayer, not of the verbal or ritual type, but the deep, inner experience of prayer that helps children meet God and themselves as a living-reality.
Schools are fast becoming a second home, or even the only home, for many of our children and thus the place where children can meet their God. If our God is Emmanuel, God with us, the only place where we can meet Him is within us and among us. Schools can help children keep the appointment.
Seminars on creating prayer spaces in schools
A series of seminars on the theme of creating Prayer Spaces in Schools (www.prayerspacesinschools.com) will be held from January 16 to 18 between 9am and 1pm at St Joseph’s retreat house, Rabat, in an effort to explore better how this can be done in a practical and child-friendly way. A British team that started this very successful initiative will share their experience and give practical training to participants.
All those interested in the spiritual formation of children and young people are invited to the seminars, which are being organised by the Secretariat for Catholic Education in conjunction with the Delegate for Religious Counselors in State Schools and the Diocesan Youth Commission (KDZ).
For more information, visit the Facebook page: Prayer Spaces in Schools seminar – Helping God and the young meet each other. For bookings, visit: http://goo.gl/SjMbrO, or e-mail Fr Paul Chetcuti.
Fr Paul Chetcuti is a member of the Society of Jesus.