Sunday, 19 October 2008

School Forms and Statistics

Parish priests in England and Wales will be well aware that this is the time of year for school forms to be signed. Those outside this country may not be aware that we have a very large system of Catholic schools in this country, somewhat unusual in the world for the fact that they are not (most of them, any way) private, fee-paying, schools, but, largely, funded from public money. You don't have to pay fees, in other words.

The problem is (problem…??) that they are generally perceived as being better schools than the ordinary non-religious schools. Results are better, discipline is better and children are on average less likely to be sold drugs at a faith school than at a state school. Consequently, parents fall over themselves to demonstrate that they are faithful Catholics at this time of year, when the priest's signature has to be obtained to gain that all-important entry. Mass attendance tends to be better at this time of year than at any other. Last year, Channel 4 made a TV film about parents who pretended to be Catholics to get their daughter into a smart convent school—to find, to their horror, that their daughter actually started to believe the Catholic faith.

From the parents' perspective, I can quite understand why they should want to get their child into the best possible school that they can actually afford. I would, too, in their position. And it isn't all about results and discipline. Many of them are consciously aware of belonging, in however remote a way, to the Catholic 'tribe'.  They may not even be baptized, but they will remember that the only religious member of their family was Grandma, who was a Catholic, and who never missed a Christmas, therefore they too are Catholics, and want to assert that. But not, perhaps, by going to Mass—they wouldn't know what to do, and don't even have the sort of mental and spiritual structures developed to think that religion might actually make them happier.

That's one type. Much more common is the Catholic who would unquestionably think of themselves, and present themselves, as being 'practising', but who comes, perhaps, one Sunday in four. What is a parish priest to think about that?

What has brought this to a head for me is that the forms the priest has to sign have changed. Formerly, we had to write a sentence or two saying what we thought of the religious commitment of a family. I'm not sure that it made much difference as to whether a child was admitted to the school or not, but it was quite hard in some cases to say anything meaningful. Now, this year, for the first time, we have to do something different. The family themselves state how often they attend Mass, and we have to countersign, saying that we have witnessed their signature. We have another box to sign if we have reservations about what they have asserted as their level of practice.

What took me by surprise is the number of people who have ticked the 'one in four Sundays' box. In most of these cases I would have said that I thought I knew these people well, and, had you asked me, I would have said that they came most Sundays, and if they didn't, well, then they were away with relatives or whatever. They certainly present themselves for Communion. In some instances, I added a note to say that I thought they were much more practising than they said. There are inverse cases; on one form, I stated that though I recognized the people concerned, I thought that they didn't come as often as they said. For the last few weeks, to my shame, they have been present every single Sunday. Now, is it because I didn't notice them before, or because they are making a special effort now? In the latter case, it is especially appreciated, for the forms have gone in anyway, and they have nothing to gain. It would seem to be a genuine effort, and I wish I had written something else. I don't think it will affect the child's place, however.

Which is by way of saying; I think that on the ground, fewer people think of practice as being 'every Sunday and holyday of obligation' that did so in the past. The Church has not changed her precept, but the understanding on the ground, has changed, at least here (despite whatever I might have to say about it in homilies and newsletters). 

This morning, at our principal Mass at Shoreham, the church was absolutely packed. Thank God: I'm not complaining! I am told that there were in excess of fifty children at the 'Children's Liturgy of the Word'. If many of these are only one-week-in-four Catholics, then we would frankly not be able to manage if they all came every week. Our church is not big enough; I can't lay on another Mass, for reasons of Canon Law (I already celebrate the maximum permitted). We have a retired priest who is a supportive and wonderful help to me, but I cannot rely on his generosity in making plans for the future.

Which is by way of saying: I wish every Catholic practised his or her faith every Sunday and holyday. But, without more churches and priests, I'm not sure how we'd cope if they did!

12 comments:

gemoftheocean said...

Wow. What a conundrum. Do the parents ever see what you said on the form? To me, "practicing Catholic" means you do your darndest to get to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation (though there has been a few times due to work sched. and Mass "time"[because fewer people are going sometimes they have ONE Mass, and everybody nearby has ONE MAss at that same time...and I was working and couldn't get to it...]UNLESS sick. And you go on when you're away on vacation to, and make a point to find out ahead where and when you can go to Mass should you be on vacation on a Sunday.

I have to say I have been STUNNED in recent years, parents letting the older teens stay home to do homework (on occasion in exam time.) And these are kids that go to Catholic school. Such a thought to me would have been unthinkable. It seems to me two hours is very little a week that God asks of us. [I'm assuming @one hour for Mass, plus "getting ready" and commute back and forth time.

:-D It also means "don't vote for a proabort like Obama" too.

ben said...

I once had a parish priest who was quite convinced that the Sunday obligation had been abolished by Vatican II. He was genuinely surprised when I showed him the relevant passage in the Catechism! I don't think he was unique.

Mac McLernon said...

However, I suspect that if more families actually practiced their faith, the number of vocations would increase...

Flabellum said...

Some popular (and high-achieving) Catholic schools around here demand that baptism should have taken place within the first two months after birth, and ask for evidence of first confession and first communion at the age of seven (the canonical 'age of reason') no excuses accepted.

Andrew said...

Interestingly, when I enrolled my own sons in a Jesuit private school here in Sydney a few years ago, a family interview was required with the deputy principal. During the interview, we were told that attending school Mass was an important part of the curriculum, and essentially told that if we found this in any way objectionable, it was not the right schol for us. Needless to say, no objections were forthcoming, but it struck me as being impressively pragmatic - less concern over (possibly) lapsed parents and more emphasis on moulding the youth. And the outcome has been a very happy one: we are very pleased with the school and the role it has played in developing our sons into "men for others".

gemoftheocean said...

Ben: Double wow.

James Clark said...

If there were a big increase in Mass attendance, the answer would be to build bigger churches (or extend existing ones).

Instead of this, the tndency in most dioceses has been to decrease the capacity of churched through "re-ordering" them.

Victoria said...

Are these 'one Sunday in four' parents given Holy Communion when they bother to front up for Holy Mass?

GOR said...

Yes Father, and this issue brings up a pet peeve of mine about homilies just being 'tied to the Readings'. I have long felt that we should have more preaching on the Catechism and the Commandments of the Church - not to mention the Ten Commandments...

People need to be reminded repeatedly (repetition aids memory!) of what their duties and obligations are as 'practising Catholics'. That any Catholic thinks that "one in four" or "when I feel like it" satisfies the Sunday and Holyday obligation, is lamentable.

And, Mass attendance is just the bare minimum...

Ma Tucker said...

I was never told it was sinful not to go to Mass. I thought it was the good but optional thing to do. I had a convent education complete with nuns. To be fair Father, I think you might be facing a problem of formation. Very few of my generation have much knowledge about the Faith. We were not taught it by those whose responsibility it was to teach it. I know that I too am responsible for the Faith but it's not an obvious search. I looked everywhere for the Truth apart from my Faith because I thought I knew it. This is a big problem for cradle Catholics who have been poorly formed. They naturally reject the silly faith thinking it is Catholicism. Personally, I would love to see priests do a little catechesis during Mass. Especially with this new group of parents. It could make a world of difference.

Regarding the forms. Some people seem to be naturally "invisible". Their presence somehow does not register. I don't know how they do it or what it is that causes this but it happens time and time again. Therefore, unless you are signing people in and out I would say it is very difficult to monitor fairly.

berenike said...

You could do what some Polish parishes do: loudspeakers outside the church. An hour standing and kneeling outside in the British climate won't kill any reasonably healthy and sensibly dressed person.

And before getting to that stage, taking out some pews would make a lot of standing room.

:-)

Anonymous said...

We’re pondering secondary schools for our daughter right now. Here in Kent, we still have the 11+, and the Catholic schools are comprehensive, with GCSE/A level results and university admissions that reflect this. Would it be too much for the church to provide for the academically able? We don’t live in London and wouldn’t want to send our children away to Downside or Ampleforth even if we could afford it.
As for canon law, didn’t Jesus say something about the Sabbath being made for man, not the other way round? I don’t think the pope would send out his hit squad if you said an extra Mass.
And while I’m at it…why do churches in England deliberately schedule daily Mass at a time when working people and students can’t attend? Is it because the pastors are part of a vast conspiracy to destroy the faith, or are priests here too lazy to get out of bed for 7 o’clock? I grew up in the US serving the 7 am and 9 am Masses (the latter was better because you got to miss a bit of school).