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How to talk to students

Golden YearsOne of the features of post-war Catholicism in the English speaking world was the growth of student chaplaincies. It reflected the expansion of universities. In his early comic novels the English writer, David Lodge has traced the path of young Catholics through the chaplaincies into the later years.

A recent book on the Newman Society at the University of Melbourne, Golden Years tells the Australian version of the story. It focuses on the charismatically uncharismatic Jesuit chaplain, Jeremiah Golden, and allows over 70 former members of the Society to reflect on what engagement in the Catholic group meant to them at that time and in later years.

These later years saw the second Vatican Council, the aftermath of the Labor Party split and the Vietnam War, the Papal condemnation of contraception, and the dissolution of the Catholic subculture that nourished the Newman Society.

The rich detail of accounts like this, coming in the aftermath of World Youth Day, raises large questions about how churches might be involved with students and what students and the churches themselves might hope to gain from the exchange.

The Newman Society experience certainly does not encourage the churches to hope that students involved in church programs will carry their commitment smoothly into their adult years. Those who describe their participation in the Newman Society reckon that few of their contemporaries have persisted in any active participation in the Catholic Church.

Although the texture of what it means to be an Australian Catholic has changed drastically over 60 years, the withdrawal of educated Catholics from a strong allegiance remains striking. This would be true, too, of other groups like the Student Christian Movement.

A more elusive but perhaps also more significant thread that runs through this earlier experience is the importance of good conversation. Conversation encourages churches and students to focus on what matters. Students can connect with one another, explore the practices and the content of their faith, and ask what matters to them in the world they are entering.

They can also help their older conversation partners find a language and space to speak of these things. That presupposes, of course, that the conversation is well-informed.

The shape of conversation depends on circumstances. Fifty years ago conversation among Catholic students took place in a favourable environment. The students came out a Catholic sub-culture in which they had predominantly associated with other Catholics. A sizeable number would naturally seek to be connected with other students of a similar background, and be open to exploring the meaning of inherited faith and practices in their adult world.

It was unexceptionable, too, for this conversation to be associated with a deeper involvement in traditional religious practices like weekly Mass and daily Rosary in the university.

The quality of conversation was also shaped by circumstance. The politicisation of Catholic life as a result of the Labor Party split affected student conversation, too. It became tempting to judge the value of conversation by the attitudes and associations of the participants.

Much has changed now. Conversation among young Christians generally cannot assume that the participants have a strong sense of the structure of what may have been taught and practised in church and school. Nor will Catholic groups be a natural form of association for many. Any form of continuing conversation will be affected by the fact that most students work part-time. They will find it harder to find space for demanding reading.

It may be surprising to note how many young Catholic adults are attracted to devotional practices. But the context is very different from 50 years ago. These practices do not link conversation with something familiar. They explore something new and striking. But for many it provides an experiential context for conversation. For many others, the context is provided by their commitments to the poor and marginalised.

An informed conversation that engages young people within churches is now more difficult to encourage. It also remains precarious because from within the churches there is much pressure to politicise it. The value of the conversation is often seen to lie less in the search for truth than in entering and articulating defined positions. Participants will be expected to associate themselves with parties in the church that are recognised as truth-bearing.

Past experience suggests that if the Spirit is in conversation, the paths which it inclines people to take are uncontrollable. So are the benefits the conversation gives churches and young adults.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton SJ is Eureka Street's consulting editor. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, Golden Years, Grounds for Hope, Father Golden, Newman Society



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Existing comments

Thanks Andrew for your insightful comments. I believe that there is tension between the idea that some people insist that they possess the 'Truth' and that anything which is in any way a variation of that truth is somehow not Catholic teaching. I think we need to understand that young people today are loking for an outlet for their spirituality and many find it in speaking out against poor government policies which in many cases impact aginst the marginalised in our communities. The travesty of the past government's policies on asylum seekers is a case in point. I believe there is great faith amongst our young people looking for authentic role models in true Christian outreach.

Paul Rummery | 11 December 2008  

My 17 year old daughter has been asked to prepare a reflection for her year 12 Retreat at the beginning of next year. She said to me last night that she intends to say a few things about the faith that they have never heard at school 'because the staff are too scared of offending people without faith.' (This despite the fact that we have paid for 13 years of Catholic education!)

Joan Clements | 11 December 2008  

A great article! and something of which to take heed. With the demise of we babyboomers and WW2 babies, the catholic church as we know it,is ending. The young do not want our catholicity. An insistence on committing to doctrinal positions as the raison d'etre of catholicity must seem to outsiders to be generally what's offered now. As you suggest Andrew, offering open conversation to young catholics would open the door to their ways of expressing spirituality and an opportunity to make links to Catholicism in a community.

Pat Osborne | 11 December 2008  

thanks for your article. The same criticism can be layed at our Anglican experience. how many children and young people who went through Church School or Sunday School ended up by being active participants in a local christian community?

john ozanne | 11 December 2008  

Thank you Andrew. I found this interesting. As a younger Catholic, I can't help but thinking that the weak, wishy-washy post-Vatican II RE classes in Catholic schools are partly to blame. The quality of RE in Catholic schools was not great in NSW in my schooling in the 1990s. Many fell away but they didn't have anything to hold onto. Cardinal Pell has been a great improvement. I wish I had WYD when I was at school.

David Webb | 11 December 2008  

About 2 months ago, about a score of 50 somethings who met each other at Newman Society functions between 1969 and 1972 gathered for a chat over coffee. By the early 1970s there were outlets a plenty for social action on campus so the Newman Society at the University of Melbourne moved to meeting a mixture of social, spiritual and personal needs of its members. Chaplains, Frs Jack Lanigan (no longer with us) and Brendan Donohue (may he live forever!), provided the glue that kept us all together. Connected then and connected now. Andrew - thank you for your articles on this topic.

Vin | 11 December 2008  

Very helpful article. I was on the U of Adelaide campus 1965-69, in the days of Fr J Golden and Fr Mike Kennedy. Fr (later Bishop) Phil Kennedy was at Flinders. And Fr Brian Bainbridge was national chaplain.

I was very active in the Methodist and later Uniting Church, but was very ecumenical, and was involved in the Student Christian Movement.I learned a lot from Catholics who were involved in both Catholic societies and SCM.

Now a Catholic, I get very angry at denominational tribalism, especially in Catholic schools - are non-Catholics there only to make up the numbers? Religion teachers do not seem to be prepared for an ecumenical world - it is already upon us!

To me "the world is my parish" (Wesley) - the territory - not the people who attend Mass (get "the magic done") each week - that's a congregation whose field of mission is in the territory.

Catholicism seems very stuck in denominational tribalism. Priests in their homilies seem to assume the assent of "the faithful" to their pronouncements on social issues - no teach-ins, no discussion.

I'm not against rigour in doctrine etc - but against any 'my sh** doesn't stink because I'm a Catholic' attitude.

Frank Bremner | 12 December 2008  

Thank you for the review.

I attended the launch (opening) of "The Golden Years" book, and was cast back 46 years to those good days. I was not involved with the series of recent seminars which created the book, but I read it from cover to cover to catch up with the story of what happened since.

I was reminded of many things, the ideals and hopes we had and the subsequent falling short of them, the struggles, regrets and the seeing things through that many experienced.

I very much benefited from the Newman Society, especially its concern with Incarnation and the reality of the world we live in. This, by the way, is the grounding point for my faith; otherwise, nothing makes sense.

You comment "the withdrawal of educated Catholics from a strong allegiance is striking", but how does it compare with the withdrawal of all Catholics? I would be surprised if it were very different, because allegiance has little to do with education. The Church should not seek allegiance, but support the Incarnation in the world today, by accepting the world as it is and as you suggest, conversing with it. That way lies the Spirit.

Peter Horan | 12 December 2008  

Andew, you were obviously not around when my (female) group of students, in 1959, were told "You don't need to know more - just obey." That galled this seeker of truth and probably led to my continuing to seek - through to doing post graduate study of theology, so that - woman as I am - I may "converse" with men who have been educated to believe that being male, they are the keepers of the "knowledge".

Too many female theologians are still struggling to be taken seriously in the Catholic Church - but, where else do we go, when we believe that the Church is not at fault - but that some men who are in leadership positions have failed to appreciate that sometimes their approach, their covert behaviour and their attitude are exclusive!!

We will be in short supply of GOOD teachers of Religion in Catholic schools until it is well known that the whole Church hierarchy has ceased condescending to and excluding the intellectual work of women.

(In my small circle of Catholic colleagues my intelligence and my work are highly respected - you are not reading the word of a "sad has been". I react to what I observe in the wider Chaurch in relation to women more highly qualified than I.)

Jean | 08 January 2009  

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