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Renewing the Catholic school

Perhaps I am wrong, but I think it was in the seventies when the pendulum of permissiveness was slowing down, that an advertisement appeared in Playboy magazine in the United States that raised some eyebrows. The mini cause celbre was an advertisement directed to Catholic young men, reminding them that there was such a thing as a career in religion as a priest, and that fulfilling this in the Trinitarian Order which had inserted the ad was one such option.

I don't know what the take-up was, and to my recollection the Trinitarian Order was founded to buy back Christians who had been sold into slavery, later diverting its energies to alleviating urban poverty. The point is that this was an effort to use modern techniques of persuasion to get recruits for the religious life.

This long forgotten nugget came to mind when I read that the Catholic Church in Scotland intends to send out teams of priests and nuns to its secondary schools, particularly to S4 to S6, to remind them that when it comes to careers, the priesthood should not be dismissed immediately as a non-starter.

This is a new kind of tack to spread out its stall in the market-place in this way, but it is all part of the push to increase awareness among all Catholics of the need for vocations to the priesthood called for by the bishops of Scotland, who have set aside a week in which prayers will be said and services held in churches. The hard sell in secondaries is an effort to stem a decline that has all the appearances of turning into a runaway disaster.

It only seems like yesterday, but is in fact a quarter of a century ago, that Catholic primary schools in Glasgow took parties of primary 7 boys to visit the junior seminary in Langbank, the idea being to sow the seed of an idea that might hopefully germinate in secondary school. The kind of thing that would be considered part and parcel of personal and social development under 5-14 today.

If the idea came to anything, the next step was to proceed to Blairs, the national seminary in Aberdeen, and from there to senior seminary. It was a long process, and not too many rattled successfully through the sieves of selection. The point is that there were reasonable numbers of candidates. With the closure of the junior seminaries by the bishops in the eighties, and the decline in school rolls, the numbers of candidates dropped, with the inevitable result.

While the flying squad initiative has much to commend it, this kind of exercise suggests that with the new millennium just round the corner, the Catholic community needs to reculer pour mieux sauter as far as its schools are concerned. I think we can take it for granted that Catholic schools are here to stay, devolution or not, because they are now rooted deeply in the legally provided structure of Scottish education, regardless of Tam Dalyell's ochones.

What they will carry into the millennium, however, is not any self-centred triumphalism, but rather a slowly growing perception of the expanding range of concerns that the Catholic school system carries in its kitbag. When the party's over, what kind of tabs have to be picked up?

It's not quite anyone's guess, for the signs of the times are flickering like neon lights, some more garish than others. Catholic schools share the prevailing climate of materialism and consumerism, of sexual irresponsibility, of the druggie society, with their non-denominational fellows. They share, too, the general devaluation of religion, and lack of family input. Catholic schools have additional glosses, though.

How they are to come to terms with the positive and specific papal directives for more Catholic involvement with ecumenism; how they are to train their pupils into taking their proper responsibilities and dignity as lay people in the Church; how close involvement with the particular ethos of the Catholic school can or might reverse in the Catholic community the decline in moral standards and values; how they are to deal with pro-life issues. These are real challenges for a new millennium.

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