Find time to forge faith, priests told

Catholic school leaders worried by lack of interest from clergy

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Ageing priests who are either overstretched or uninterested are to blame for the Catholic Church's failure to support young people's religious education, headteachers have claimed.

School leaders warned that although there were some "very good priests", a lack of new recruits had left a population of older chaplains who were unable or unwilling to play a significant role in schools.

The complaints were raised last week at the annual conference of the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland (CHAS) in Crieff, in Perth and Kinross. Peter Bollen, headteacher at Trinity High School in Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire, said he thought schools had become "small parishes unto themselves" and urged the church to consider doing more work with children and young people.

He said: "My chaplain is great but he serves two chapels, two primary schools, one secondary and a special needs school. There are good priests who are working very, very hard, but we need to be clear about the direction we are moving in. The church must discern a way ahead which accommodates both the young and the old."

Gerry Lyons, headteacher at St Andrews RC Secondary in Glasgow, warned that although schools continued to work hard to make the faith accessible to pupils, he did not see the same effort in parishes. Citing a recent conversation in church, he said: "The priest said to the depute, `Not a lot of children come to this parish, I think you should do something about that.' At no point did he say what he would do about it."

Another headteacher, who did not want to be named, told TESS: "The position in schools is that everything comes down to chaplaincy. Schools blessed with a strong chaplaincy team are in a stronger position. Often the church is absolutely willing [to support schools] but it has limited and ageing resources."

Audrey May, chair of CHAS, acknowledged that some parishes had problems. She said: "Headteachers in Catholic schools are in regular dialogue with church representatives, both at diocesan and at national level, to address the challenges facing the church and schools and to find sustainable solutions to the varying circumstances which exist across the country."

However, she added that schools continued to work closely with the church and the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES) to ensure that the "development of faith" of young people in Catholic schools was given the "highest priority".

The Right Reverend John Keenan, Bishop of Paisley and a former school chaplain, whose speech at the conference prompted headteachers to raise their concerns, said he was "not surprised" by the complaints. Pledging to take action, he admitted: "Headteachers sense a growing estrangement between schools, parish and home. This will be one of my top priorities and I will ask headteachers to speak to me more about this and give suggestions.We need to decide how much time and resource parishes should spend on schools."

However the SCES said the complaints did not reflect the situation in the majority of Scotland's 366 Catholic schools.

Michael McGrath, SCES director, said: "There's no doubt that, across the Catholic school system, schools and parishes work very well together. There are some excellent examples of priests who are regularly involved in supporting teachers for the benefit of our young people."

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