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A generation misses out on religious orders

I was taught by the Jesuits. My mother went to the Mercy nuns, as did my wife. My father was a Jesuit product and my sister is a product of the Notre Dame sisters.

Beyond that, if we were not actually taught by members of the orders themselves, it was almost certain that the Roman Catholic teachers who did teach us were themselves products of the orders, through having been taught by priests, brothers or sisters during school education and teacher training.

That was the normal state of affairs in Glasgow up until very recently, and no one can underestimate the impact of the religious orders on the Catholic education system.

Today, it has all but gone, with a few Jesuits left in Glasgow's St Aloysius' College and the odd sister here and there, teaching on her own in primary or secondary. To my own family, the very idea of a cleric teaching them is totally alien, and they marvel at the lunacies of a by-gone age when my wife tells them tales of being made to kneel in front of the statue for hours by "Sister" in the mid-1960s because the regulation convent school skirt had been hitched up to emulate the fashionable length of the time.

Yet I cannot help thinking that this generation is missing out on what was an essential part of the educational development of the Catholic community.

Members of orders were not the sort of people that you argued with about the Catholicity, or otherwise, of a school: they simply embodied it and looked the part. All of them, whether Jesuit, Notre Dame, Mercy, Marist or Franciscan demanded, and got, a level of religious observance within their schools which would amaze the average secular religious education principal teacher of today.

That is not to say some members of these orders did not go over the top. Of course they did. Today, in a less authoritarian society, their methods would have been long consigned to the educational dustbin along with corporal punishment, in which not a few of them took rather too much pleasure.

But there is also no doubt that they did come theologically equipped and motivated in a faith-sharing sense at a level that very few lay religious education specialists can reach. Priests and members of orders, were religious education in action, and I can state definitely that the enlightened RE teaching I received in my sixth year, back in 1968, was ahead of anything that I have come across since.

What has happened is that religious orders have worked themselves out of a job in education. They used to run Catholic teacher training, but today there is but one sister left on the staff at St Andrew's College of Education in Bearsden, and the Catholic lay community depends on itself to provide not just its teachers from its own ranks, but the teachers of the teachers, too.

Educationally, that no doubt shows that the Catholic community has come of age. But people of my age, in their mid-40s, harbour a nagging doubt that their own children have missed out on benefits bestowed by clergy in the classroom. Whether people like to admit it or not, these have left their mark in adult life.

This is no criticism of the religious education my own children have received at school.

I have watched my older boys going off on retreat with the school, accompanied by school chaplain, who is secular rather than a member of an order. Young people become much more involved in practical social action than we were.

It is of course impossible to compare like for like, but the work of the religious orders of 30 years ago did play a vital role in shaping the outlook of a generation, many of whom have gone into Catholic education themselves, taking with them some of the attitudes and values of the orders.

Someone would have to do an academic study of the changes, including comparative rates of adherence to the faith after school, to find out if the orders did really benefit Catholic schools and pupils. But as in so much more in education, the heart can rule rather than the head, or is it the spirit (?), so that I cannot help regretting the absence of members of orders that now characterises almost all of Catholic education in Scotland.

Hugh Dougherty is a local government official. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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