June 2018

High school prophets

Despite how scandal-ridden the Church is in Australia and throughout the Western world, Beth Doherty sees signs of hope from unexpected sources. But will we listen to them, she asks.

BY Beth Doherty

Occasionally as teachers there are tasks in the curriculum that really make us think. Currently, we have an assignment for Year 10 Church History class where students are invited to write a plan for the pope’s next encyclical. They’ve studied Laudato Si’ and Rerum Novarum, so they have some ideas, many of them with social justice themes.

Potentially, through this task, we are letting 16-year-olds redesign the future of the Church. I think it’s kind of genius.

My little darlings have no idea of the privilege. They are, shall we say, a particularly difficult class. If they’re not jumping out of windows, leaving class to “charge their laptops” or “fill their drink bottles” on the regular, they’re seeking extensions and managing a significant phenomenon of bladder issues. One boy manages to go to the toilet three times every lesson.

Not surprisingly, they are usually at their wildest when the more-experienced head of English walks past and looks pointedly into the classroom to see how I’m managing my little angels.

While I’m waxing lyrical about Catholic Social Teaching and quoting Pope Francis at them, they’re snap-chatting memes and falling over desks to attack each other with pencils.

I proclaimed loudly the other day: “When I give to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”. (For those who don’t know, these are the words of Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.) I was met with blank stares and questions of: “Miss, what’s a communist?”

I also read them an article about the Australian Catholic Church’s Plenary Council that will take place in 2020. They chatted throughout, and it was only when I mentioned the “bishop of bling” (a German bishop who was removed by Pope Francis after rumours of a $20,000 gold-plated bathtub was installed in his house) that their ears perked up.

They have been starting to learn about the Church hierarchy you see, and their knowledge is still in its infancy. They’d had a monsignor, whom we call “Woodsy”, one of the best, come to speak to them just that week. They were more impressed at his street cred as chaplain to the Canberra Raiders than his religious pedigree, but they had listened attentively as he shared his testimony.

I asked them the next day if they’d enjoyed the presentation from the priest. Some cheeky boys said: “Well, he didn’t enjoy us”.

And there it was.

Most of the kids in our schools, while not understanding religion, do know a few things. And they know the things we might rather they don’t know. It’s only snippets from the news, granted, but they know enough to realise that while they are at a Catholic school and receiving a good-quality education, the Church itself is wracked by scandal.

Recently, I have chosen a topic for a book that I hope someone will publish. The book looks at the argument for sticking with faith, even when we know how scandal-ridden our Church is in this country, and throughout the Western world. Many say that it is the sleeping lion in the rest of the world, and only time will uncover the brokenness that pervades this institution internationally.

How can we write of beauty now? Is there an apology that will ever be enough?

And yet, there are signs of hope that come from unexpected sources – like a Year 10 class.

One girl, quite anxious to do well on this assignment, wants to turn our cathedrals into soup kitchens. Unusually (even in a Catholic school) she is a church-goer. She’s a shining star academically, on the sporting field and in creative arenas too. Her parents happen to want their child in a Catholic school and work extensively in the archdiocese.

Another boy has dyslexia and is surrounded by difficult peers. Yet his idea has some stark relevance. He wants to make church less boring. Kid has a point. I’ve been to Mass almost every Sunday of my life and if I didn’t have some theological insight and a sense of gratitude for the Eucharist, I would agree that it’s getting old. We’re complacent. I’ve given him some quotes and resources. There’s surprisingly more than one book available on Mass being boring and there’s a definite need to lift our socks up and get creative with our worship.

These are in fact the voices we need to listen to if we are to rebuild this house. It’s no irony that a 13th century monk called Francis of Assisi heard the voice of God to rebuild the Church. He had nothing, gave away even the clothes on his back.

It’s perhaps precisely those who have very little to offer in terms of theology degrees and material possessions that will be the game-changers I suspect, should the Plenary Council allow those voices to be heard.

We need to listen far more attentively to those who live in poor communities, rather, if I may say it, than archbishops. We need to seek out the voices of those who’ve been abused or marginalised. We need to speak to those who come to our soup kitchens and our counselling services, those who teach and learn in our schools.

These will be the prophets. They will, if allowed to speak, dismantle the Church that to some resembles Hogwarts, and rebuild it with loaves of bread, tenderness and love for the most fragile among us.

They will sell the gold and replace it with bowls of steaming soup and companionship, transforming the Church, as Isaiah said, into “a crown of beauty for ashes” (61:3).

Beth Doherty

Beth Doherty is a journalist and school teacher living in Canberra. She likes to make and create things, including CDs, books, art, photos. Most of her career has been in Catholic media and education, and she has a passion for justice. She has spent some time living in Asia and South America with social justice organisations. She blogs at www.ijoyfullysing.com

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