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!