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How to talk to students

  • 11 December 2008
One 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