[box type=”info”] This paper was presented not long before the time when – belatedly, and after at least a generation of neglect – the Bishops of NSW and the ACT issued their pastoral letter Catholic Schools at the Crossroads (8 August 2007). Much of what the author here addresses is implicitly or explicitly recognised in the bishops’ letter. A fundamental point, however, is lacking: the pivotal role of the Parish Priest in catechesis and evangelisation. The bishops’ pastoral letter speaks often about “parishes” but not about “parish priests”. The uncanonical perspective that Catholic Education Offices (CEOs), schools, and other agencies such as CCD exercise a primary function –rather than a supporting function – in faith formation prevails. Bishops of course need to be pro-active (rather than “rubber stampiing”) CEO, CCD, and school-based programs and practices. But Father Walter’s emphasis on priests as the key persons in faith formation remains timely, as also is recognition of the canonical fact that catechetical rights and responsibilities rest, not with bureaucratic organisations or schools, but with priests, and particularly with Parish Priests. (Editor)[/box]

Last year, the Sydney Catholic Education Office produced an overview of Catholic education by Brother Kelvin Canavan fms, Executive Director of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Sydney. I refer to Bulletin 88 from the CEO, Sydney, entitled “the changing face of catholic schools in australia” (note use of the politically correct lower case). In a broadranging resume with explicit reference to the Archdiocese of Sydney, Brother Kelvin proudly, and indeed justifiably, tables a range of advances in Catholic education in the state of New South Wales over the past 40 years. There is, however, one striking omission: total silence on religious education outcomes over that same period.

Undoubtedly, the enormous institutional growth of Catholic education across Australia has indeed been commendable and Catholic education’s ability to satisfy secular standards by delivering secular outcomes has been truly exceptional. Catholic education systems have responded magnificently to society’s demands for desired outcomes and ever since the advent of state aid in the early 1960s, have been rewarded handsomely by state and federal governments.

But we are entitled to ask what has become of Catholic education’s raison d’être; in other words, why Catholic education came into existence in the first place. We are at risk of forgetting its purpose: to so form young Catholics in their faith as to mature to live in the world the life of practising Catholics.

However great Catholic education’s success in achieving secular outcomes the failure rate in religious formation and subsequent practice has been truly abysmal. This must constitute the toughest pastoral conundrum facing the Church in this country. A fuller understanding of the actual dimensions of this colossal lacuna requires attention also be directed to the multitude of other factors contributing to this huge pastoral problem.

Over my 45 year’s experience as a parish pastor, I have become increasingly uneasy about what can only be described as an “automatic admission” of children to the ongoing sacraments of initiation. This unease was the incentive for seeking to devise a more appropriate pastoral tactic in favour of the faith while maintaining and balancing respect for individual rights and responsibilities.

Prime among the sad realities pressing for a more effective pastoral tactic is the strong indication that, by the time of graduation from high school, barely 5% of our Catholic school students are practising Catholics in the traditional sense of regular Sunday Mass attendance. This disastrous trend was first indicated some years ago for eastern Australia by the late Brother Marcellin Flynn fms and, more recently, was substantially corroborated in Western Australia by Brother Luke Saker fms. Dismal supporting statistics point to a widespread jettisoning of Catholic belief and practice by Catholic high school students, a deeply entrenched spiritual crisis emerges. The glib to over-optimistic response: “They will come back later” is not much supported in my own pastoral experience. Add to this the distraught voices of rank and file faithful expressing deepening distress at the local Church’s apparent failure to graduate practising Catholics from our Catholic school systems, and we are presented with an authentic crie de coeur.

Moving goal posts

Catholic education’s outstanding success in teaching the secular curricula has prompted more and more non-Catholics to knock on the doors for entry into our Catholic schools; so much so that shortly before his retirement the former Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn, Francis Carroll, removed all limitations on the number of non-Catholics enrolling in his Catholic schools. Some hailed this as a generous ecumenical gesture. Nonetheless, a deeply disconcerting question remains unresolved: was this more than a gesture: was it sought and obtained to ensure the continued flow of government funding, to assure continuing employment for teachers, despite growing lack of Catholic interest in Catholic school enrolment? If so, the goal posts of Catholic education have indeed more than moved.

Religious educators have customarily sheeted home the blame for poor observance on such external factors as the secularisation of society, the breakdown of family life and the ruinous inroads of a paganised value system, hostile to such fundamental faith issues as the Christian virtues. Without denying the pernicious influence of all these factors, we must also acknowledge that these days, nominal Catholics are not motivated by religious reasons for sending their children to Catholic schools. On the other hand, among the remnant faithful to the practice of the faith, there is genuine fear that their children will lose their baptismal faith when immersed in a Catholic high school environment. But we must resist the temptation to engage here in a blame game by labelling a scapegoat.

The Spirit of Generation Y

A team led by Rev Dr Michael Mason, CSsR, of Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, published a research report on persons born between 1976 and 1990 entitled, The Spirit of Generation Y (John Garrett Publishing, Mulgrave, 2007) that shows:

Catholics make up about 21 per cent of “Gen Y”, while about 20 per cent of former Catholics indicate that they now had no denominational identification. On nearly all measures of belief and practice, respondent Catholics were positioned between Anglican and Other Christian – although closer to the former. Only on belief in life after death did the proportion of Catholics accepting the doctrine approach respondents classified as “Other Christians”. On the belief and practice scales, Catholics scored significantly lower than “Other Christians” surveyed in the study.

This report confirms what experienced pastors already knew only too well. Disastrous as it was that the Australia-wide sample of young Catholics surveyed over the three-year period of The Spirit of Generation Y study had largely ceased practising the faith of their baptism, far more alarming was the revelation that about a quarter of sampled Catholics had also come to disown personal affiliation with the Catholic Church. Commonly, this was occurring over the period following completion of primary school. Without mincing words, these youngsters were effectively apostatising from the Catholic faith while receiving a Catholic education.

The May 2006 Sunday Mass attendance census, conducted just before the Australian National Census of August 2006, indicate reductions in Mass attendance by diocese ranging from 14% to 35% over the five years since the previous census.

First, a lesson from the past

A good thirty years ago, while involved in state school catechesis in a large, outer Sydney parish, I discovered that the Year 8 Catholic children were not only non-practising, they were functionally illiterate. I asked the deputy principal, who incidentally happened to be a Catholic and also a former religious, just how they were expected to fare later on. With some embarrassment he confessed that the few who were teachable were taught, but the high school staff were in no position to devote the time necessary to remedy the profound illiteracy of the others. All through primary school these youngsters had been processed through a major defect in the state educational system and had failed to achieve basic literacy. It was now too late. Despite this, the high school persisted with the inappropriate policy of routinely graduating them.

In a desperate attempt to be positive, the deputy principal added that many of these youngsters would excel on the sporting field. Some even stayed on for an extra year or two – or three, particularly if they gained a mark on the sporting field. This High School had gained a solid reputation for producing first grade Rugby League footballers, but equally, it was notorious for lack of academic achievement.

I was naturally appalled at the lop-sided nature of this educational policy. Hamstrung by their illiteracy, how could these deprived youngsters ever manage to make a job application after graduation? They were incapable of reading job advertisements, let alone capable of filling in the employment office application forms. Worse still, further down the track what hope had they to function co-operatively with others in society? In reply, the deputy principal limply shrugged his shoulders and stated that they would somehow have to resolve that problem for themselves later on. Quite bluntly, even if regretfully, he reiterated that remedying their illiteracy was no concern of the high school.

The utter futility of this tragic conclusion has come back to me in sharp relief, now some thirty years later, as I tried to decipher the complex mix of ingredients creating this pastoral conundrum. One thing stands out: the more this pastoral hurdle cries out to be surmounted, the more our continuance of a “business as usual” approach is pastorally indefensible.

The pastoral dimension

Our Catholic faith proclaims and reveres a compassionate, yet just, God. The virtue of hope assures us of the constant availability of God’s mercy, it is, nonetheless, mightily presumptuous to ignore the objective reality of his justice. The case I will be making for pastoral change in admission to the on-going sacraments of initiation is, above all, not designed to be unmerciful to the innocent, to penalise them. Rather, it is specifically aimed at doing genuine justice both to the children and to the faith in which they have been baptised. The Church sometimes achieves a bad record for applying justice externally but not taking it internally.

We Australians have developed an inordinate taste for catchy slogans, such as “we are an inclusive Church” and “the faith is caught rather than taught”. These otherwise praiseworthy catch-cries have all too often been employed to veil, if not to condone, abandonment of practice of the faith. Such glib sloganeering together with our propensity for short-cut tactics should not be allowed to supplant the persevering, face-to-face, hard work which is essential if the faith is to be handed on in its entirety and integrity.

With the passage of time more and more Catholic children, be they products of Catholic or state schools, come from lax, unchurched and broken families. Nonetheless, we have persisted with the practice of processing these innocents more or less automatically through the ongoing sacraments of initiation.

I am old enough to know that this policy is a survivor from earlier times when the general level of religious practice was much higher. Sadly, while the times have vastly changed, our pastoral practice seems bogged down in the dimming afterglow of former successes. This strengthened my conviction that routine promotion of children through the ongoing sacraments of initiation, Confirmation and First Eucharist, in the face of moral certainty of their continued non-practice of the faith, is no kindness either to them or to the faith that so many will, as has been statistically shown, cease to profess.

Historical background

In years gone by, when religious orders were flourishing, dedicated religious teachers conscientiously shouldered what had been, until then, an integral duty of the local clergy. In those days dedicated religious brothers and sisters who prepared children for the ongoing sacraments of initiation in congregational and parochial Catholic schools had remarkable success. Parish priests gratefully acknowledged their expertise and all were edified by their personal example of a lived faith. Pastors were happy to accept without quibble the sacramental candidates they prepared.

I was a product of such formation in the 1940s and 1950s. By far the majority of my schoolmates and their families were then regular in their religious duties. What is more, among those few from careless families, many attended the Children’s Sunday Mass, afterwards making a thanksgiving led by a religious brother or sister. We may have been poorer in terms of the things of this world, but we learned early on that regular Sunday Mass was the touchstone to the practice of the faith. Earlier in the 20th century still, Augustine Birrill, Protestant Secretary for Ireland, cannily observed that for Catholics “it is the Mass that matters” .

Now, fifty to sixty years on, the scene is much changed. For many Catholic parents the Mass no longer matters, except as a convenient public platform for their children to put on show their acquired skill in dramatic performance or for their elders to applaud their progress in the substitute secular gospel of self-esteem. For such parents no performance means no presence! As a result Vatican II’s call for actuosa participatio (“actual participation”) in the Church’s liturgical worship has been far more than misinterpreted. It has been downgraded to limelighting on centre stage. No wonder we priests are often now forced to endure inappropriate eulogies and officiate at the graveside of a valued parishioner where the only one answering the funeral prayers or the Rosary is the funeral director.

From the very outset, state education in Australia has been secular, but ever since the state aid issue was politically settled in the early 1960s the inroads of bureaucratic secularisation have increasingly challenged the local Church. Nor has Catholic education always succeeded in resisting the assault – sometimes, far from it – especially on occasions when parameters of due process have overshadowed the fundamental importance of personal dedication to a lived Catholic faith. All too often, one major criterion of teacher engagement – to satisfy labour relations – has come to heavily outweigh the central importance of engaging practising Catholics as teachers.

Transition to religious illiteracy

Like the state high school illiterates in my earlier example, the innocent children from unchurched Catholic families are certainly not responsible for their plight or, to put it in moral terms, formal sinners; but I for one – and some others are coming around to this way of thinking – believe our current pastoral practice/tactic, if not actually sinning against them, is, at the very least, no longer promoting the good of their souls. The end result is that, by the time these youngsters take their place in the world, the much vaunted Catholic ethos, so long the loud and proud boast of our extensive Catholic school system, has all too often proven ethereal indeed!

One thing is certainly true. Throughout their schooling there has been strong emphasis on hands-on practice in the broad range of secular subjects now available in the curriculum. In addition, Australia’s reputation for dedication to sporting excellence, founded on guided practice and the example of outstanding role models, underwrites this proud aspect of our national boast. Yet there remains a reluctance to confess to a grave deficiency in promoting the practice of the Faith. The responsibility for this grave shortcoming needs to be shouldered in due proportion by Catholic parents, by Catholic school teachers and by us, Catholic clergy.

With hardly any Religious now teaching in our Catholic schools, an educational bureaucracy has taken their place. In most dioceses our lay-staffed schools are managed from a central Catholic Education Office. Such centralisation can easily weaken the link between school and parish. One consequence of state aid – and this is certainly true in NSW high schools – is that the course of (generally eclectic) religious studies is dictated by government bureaucrats. Although Catholic high school students often score very well in such religious studies, that doesn’t mean they practise their Faith.

The pastoral objective

So much for underscoring the abundant evidence that our current pastoral practice has proven so counter-productive that it is making little impression on and may even be directly contributing to, the ever-increasing percentage of young Catholics growing up largely indistinguishable from their pagan peers. My prime objective now is to discern and urge application of wiser, and practically effective, remedial tactics to counteract accelerating departure from the faith.

In the first place, our current pastoral practice or tactic has overwhelmingly omitted even to challenge nominal Catholic families to return to the practice of the Faith. These families continue to be as little interested in bringing up their children in the practice of the Faith as parents from the Baby Boomer generation.

Some of today’s young Catholics may eventually bring their children to be baptised (all too often, merely to obtain a priority ticket of entry into a Catholic school). Many may even expect them to make their First (and oftentimes, next to last) Holy Communion and to be confirmed (whatever that may actually mean to them!) when the bishop comes round on visitation. However all these major sacramental events impress such Catholics as mere “rites of passage” – something akin to a deeply secularised Jewish bar mitzvah with superficial Catholic overtones, serving only to reassert and reinforce the nominalism of their Catholicism. As a corollary, the sociological label, “cultural Catholic”, is hardly appropriate to describe a faith so utterly devoid of personal commitment. Rather, we should realistically admit what it has actually become: a vacated shell.

Most of this time, I was as unaware as anyone of an ameliorating policy, let alone a solution to our conundrum. But after six years experience of a different pastoral approach there has been a measure of success in bringing at least some careless Catholics back to practice of the Faith, if only at the level of Sunday Mass attendance. In 2004 I was encouraged to publish my experience in two articles in the periodical, AD2000. Nor have I exercised a high-handed or Pharisaic toughness. as a few highly apprehensive bishops I have spoken to have hastily concluded. Not only is this conclusion unfounded; positive amelioration of this conundrum continues to elude them.

With the personal conviction that this problem has been relegated to the too-hard basket for far too long, I will now unpack for you how acute this crisis has become.

JPII’s “Dutch tackle”

In speaking to Dutch youth in Holland very early in his pontificate, the late servant of God, Pope John Paul II, emphasised how easily the “hard options” of the Gospel message are put aside in favour of the “soft options”. While visiting the Netherlands, he had to confront an even greater problem than religious nominalism. He tackled head-on a scepticism among Catholic youth that heralded a secular, paganised lifestyle of total unbelief which ended in apostasy from the faith. … At least, he tried.

No doubt, maintenance of the status quo can be comfortable. but in this current instance not only is it not working, my contention is that it is demonstrably working against the genuine good of souls, serving only to entrench these unfortunates in the non-practice of the faith. Without intending any offence, it needs to said, however, how easily the taint of something more akin to cowardice can displace caution!

Change demands courage to see something through; and when change is called for we certainly expect courage with resolution from those charged with spiritual leadership. At the risk of upsetting those, who in defence of maintaining the status quo may be inclined to press the charge of elitism, I humbly remind our spiritual leaders, you my fellow priests and some of our bishops too, that, on grounds that the good of souls is the supreme law, to expect of baptised Catholics fidelity to Sunday Mass is not being elitist. A pastoral crisis of such dimensions must be engaged and I believe I am in a position to demonstrate at least one positive direction to take.

A foundational insight

Some five years ago, after much soul searching and having consistently rejected all suggestions simply to bar, as some pastors had been doing, non-practising Catholics from the ongoing sacraments of initiation as too hard line. I was granted an important discernment. Since the problem resided not with the children, who, especially in this matter, are innocents, but with their non-practising families, we must tackle the parents.

My 45 year involvement in catechising children attending Catholic primary schools and in the state school CCD apostolate had taught me one thing: that most children are keen to learn about the Catholic faith. I was impressed that the innocent and otherwise deprived souls of such youngsters could be termed “naturally Christian.” However children have consistently told me that, though they wanted to go to Sunday Mass, “Mum and Dad are too busy (here read ‘lazy’ for ‘busy’) to take me.” In other words, so secularised were their families that they saw no earthly reason for making the effort. What obviously penalised these innocents was the faith deficit in their home upbringing. It is this deficit which cries out to heaven and it is this that we need to tackle … and you may well ask how?

The call to re-evangelisation

Time and again throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul II, stressed the need to re-evangelise, to start afresh. But we should ask ourselves whether we have yet put a proper handle on what a new evangelisation is, let alone honestly explored pastoral tactics appropriate to a secularised society. I am convinced that we must direct our approach primarily to those who are prepared to listen. This was a tough lesson that St Paul came to learn the hard way from his failed experience of preaching in the Areopagus of Athens. Recall also the Lord’s sending out of the Twelve for pastoral experience. He told them not to waste their time with those who would not listen. With children there is no great problem. Our real challenge is how we can get their non-practising parents to listen – perhaps for the first time since they themselves were poorly catechised children.

Transmitting the right message

Just as suddenly, I concluded that however well it had served us in the past, our current pastoral practice was no longer transmitting the right message. I was also acutely aware that the prime reason we and our spiritual leaders were loath to change what had become so ineffectual was the long record of former success.

In all fairness, many bishops and priests could not entertain a change which I myself had consistently rejected – namely, any change which might be construed as penalising the innocent. So once more I focused on what, not so very long ago, had been universally acknowledged as the bare minimum indicator of Catholic practice – regular Sunday Mass – as my attention focussed on finding ways to involve lax families in some regular experience of the Sunday liturgy.

As I have already underscored, I could never bring myself to take the harsher approach – in other words, to bluntly tell parents that unless they came to Mass their children would not be admitted to the further sacraments of initiation. This would be, effectively, to hold a gun at their heads. In such a case compliance does not indicate conviction. Instead, I endeavoured to advance positive and compelling reasons for them to bring their children along to Mass on Sunday through a carefully nuanced, yet unambiguous and firm pastoral approach that was distanced from any hint of an authoritarian insistence that they must attend – or else!

Here the keynote needs to be persuasion, not coercion: by issuance of an invitation, not imposition. This is the way the Lord Himself worked. Seldom is faith rekindled by imposing an ultimatum; a gentler approach is needed to elicit a genuine change of heart. Delivering an ultimatum may achieve a shortterm external conformity but it also engenders the evil fruit of hardened resentment. Our aim should be to induce a spiritually motivated and, hopefully, enduring change of heart.

A head start with Baptism

My regular practice over many years has been never to arrange baptisms at second hand or over the phone, nor at the parish office or the presbytery front door. I request parents to come and see me in person immediately after one of the Sunday Masses. Time and again, I have been asked more than the times of Sunday Mass: I’ve been asked where the church was! And time and time again, careless parents have turned up in person on Sunday to obtain the baptismal information form and make a booking. It wasn’t much but it was a start. For some very few this was sufficient to put them back in touch with the Church and Sunday Mass.

Not so long ago, while engaged in rectifying the invalid union of one such couple who had thus resumed regular attendance at Sunday Mass after the baptism of their twins, they informed me that on the occasion of arranging the baptism they had been touched by the positive atmosphere of welcome. They had now found the courage to ask me to bless their marriage. And how did I know they were invalidly married? Well, one request on my baptismal information form is for church of marriage. The inclusion of this inquiry is far from impertinent. It has proved very pertinent indeed and amply illustrates how ignoring the whole truth is no kindness.

Parental right to nominate

Since the natural parents are the appropriate ones to nominate their children for the sacrament of Baptism, the local pastor is obliged to decline any attempt to ignore or bypass that parental right. However, for the ongoing sacraments of initiation this parental right has fallen into general disuse. It has been illegitimately replaced by an unfounded presumption that reception of these sacraments is somehow automatically harnessed to some predetermined stage of the children’s schooling.

Therefore, although children in the parish were being prepared for the ongoing sacraments of initiation by others, namely, by catechists and Catholic teachers, there was a need to restore the fundamental right and responsibility of parents to nominate their children for these sacraments. So I took positive measures to reintroduce the exercise of this right. Like the booking of a Baptism, this nomination was not to be done by phone, nor at the parish office, nor at the presbytery front door; nor was the application to be dropped in the mail box. It could only be done by parents in writing and in the church after Sunday Mass.

A telling example

The time has come to detail a real-life example from an Australian rural parish which amply illustrates just how this huge pastoral problem has managed to install itself as a self-replicating blight. It perfectly illustrates how much our problem is compounded whenever we apply a “business as usual” approach. As Providence would have it, this situation came to my attention out of the blue when an old friend, a local pastor with teaching experience turned to me for advice. For our present purposes the rural parish and diocese can remain nameless.

Forty-four children were enrolled in his small Primary School. Only half of these children were from Catholic families. My friend informed me that not one of the twenty-two Catholic children nor any family member had attended Mass the previous Christmas. Nor did they ever attend Sunday Mass at any other time either! Despite this, his bishop had been led to expect that five of these children would be admitted to First Eucharist and Confirmation next time he visited the parish.

The bishop reinforced his expectation to the local pastor in words like these: “After all, we have always done this.” What this actually meant was that the local Catholic school had scheduled five children for the ongoing sacraments of initiation at that time. In this diocese, as in most others, diocesan sacramental policy has become synonymous with Catholic Education Office policy. But this policy bypasses not only the right of parents to nominate – it is simply overwritten as part of the Catholic school package – it also bypasses the pastor’s vital role of discernment of the preparedness of prospective candidates. With his pastoral role thus reduced to a rubber stamp, any local pastor could well ask why he was even there. We priests are not functionaries and we are justified in resisting any pressure to be reduced to that.

A matter of conscience

The local pastor was in a bind; and it was a genuine bind of conscience. He had no wish to disobey his bishop but he was also convinced that, as the local pastor, it was he, not his bishop, who before God had the prime duty of determining whether and when the children in his parish should be admitted to the ongoing sacraments of initiation. Just as truly as on that earlier occasion before admitting them to the sacrament of Baptism, it had been, before God, his duty and not his bishop’s, to attain a conscientious degree of moral certainty that the children would be brought up in the practice of the faith. True, the bishop had the power to over-rule him but it was equally true that, for the bishop to disregard his advice without reasonable cause would constitute an abuse of episcopal power.

While the right and duty to nominate and present children for all the sacraments of initiation belongs to parents and so ought be respected, the local pastor’s right and duty to decide whether and when to admit them to these sacraments ought also normally be respected. I consider it a huge pastoral error to devolve this pastoral duty on the school administration, thereby short-circuiting the rights and responsibilities both of parents and pastor.

Good pastoral practice

Whenever a pastor experienced qualms of conscience about proceeding with an individual baptism he could generally find vindication for giving children the benefit of the doubt and baptising them. This justification might come by way of an assurance from the parents, or maybe it was left to a grandparent or a godparent to guarantee that the children would receive a Catholic upbringing. But in time, local pastors were destined to learn that, for the great majority of today’s nominally Catholic families, any notion of a Catholic upbringing will reduce, at most, to sending their children to a Catholic school. How abundantly true this was in the case we are now exploring.

The local pastor knew with moral certainty that for him to admit these children from unchurched families to First Eucharist, even granting the innocence of their tender years, would be to admit them to last Eucharist. Likewise, to admit them to the sacrament of Confirmation would, effectively, be to confirm them in the non-practice of the Faith. As we have seen, the obstacle here resides in the attitude of their parents. For them these sacraments of initiation have become mere ‘rites of passage’, shorn of any transcendental meaning or purpose – and, quite literally, nothing more. For any local pastor to admit children in these circumstances indiscriminately to these sacraments would be to endorse a charade.

Some theological implications

In such cases, the families’ non-practice of the Faith effectively blocks the ex opere operantis channels of grace, resulting in a shadow or spectre – barring a miracle of grace – of what the sacraments are intended to be or to achieve. Operative here is the respected dictum quidquid recipitur, per modum recipientis recipitur (“whatever is received is received according to the capability of the one receiving”). For as long as it remains clear that these children, innocent though they are, belong to families who don’t or won’t practise the Faith, it would be a fiction to admit them to the ongoing sacraments of initiation.

It can be strongly argued that were the pastor prevailed upon to proceed on the bishop’s directive he would be abdicating one of his prime pastoral duties: to ensure the good of souls. He would be endorsing ritualistic admission to full initiation into the Church, subjectively shorn of any connection with the lived faith of the Church. But the Catholic faith is not just a label, to be punctuated by an ongoing series of “rite of passage” ceremonies: the faith is a God-given gift that, unless lived, is radically devalued.

Here there is urgent need to stand steadfast by the faith of the Church that the sacrament of the Eucharist is a personal communication here below of Christ’s risen life as “the bread of everlasting life”. Likewise, the sacrament of Confirmation is directed to strengthening the baptised as members of the communion of those faithful to Christ with the fulness of the gifts of the Spirit so as to build up the Church, his living Body. Neither the sacrament of the Eucharist nor the sacrament of Confirmation should be debased to merely symbolic, let alone vacuous rituals.

The core of the problem

To accuse the local pastor, in obeying his conscience, of arbitrarily refusing the sacraments would be most unjust. Rather, he is conscientiously trying to do his pastoral duty, deferring admission to the further sacraments of initiation until he has some moral certainty that the children are being brought up in the practice of the faith. What is more, he is totally justified in expecting, as a bare minimum yardstick of goodwill, faithful and regular Sunday Mass attendance. To waive this expectation would be to endorse and encourage the very “soft-option” Christianity.

So long as we priests are prepared to accept and bless token membership in the Catholic Church, utterly sundered from personal obligation or participation, espousal of nominal club membership will continue to debilitate the Church. This festering canker lies at the very core of our pastoral problem. It is this that is crying out for remedial action and enactment of a genuine new evangelisation.

More guidelines

While it is paramount that in all this the local pastor must act with prudence and compassion, on the other hand, he must also properly apply the positive implications of the respected dictum sacramenta propter homines (“the sacraments are intended for men”), and not succumb to turning the dictum on its head by endorsing its very opposite. The mindless condoning of various abuses by some “inclusivist clerics” is evidence of this misapplication These have, for instance, invited all present to receive Holy Communion on the occasion of a First Eucharist or at a funeral. In yet another context, it has happened that all present are indiscriminately invited to be anointed with the Holy Oils at a healing Mass.

Another hallowed dictum asserts that “grace builds on nature”. It serves as a reminder that certain natural indicators need to be minimally evident before admission to any of the sacraments. In regard to the sacraments of initiation, this discernment properly belongs to the local pastor, who is charged to make a dispassionate moral judgment of conscience in favour of the ultimate good of each soul in his care.

In the case we have been considering, if the bishop were to go ahead on his next visit to the parish and put aside the conscientious advice of the local pastor and proceed to administer First Eucharist and Confirmation to the five candidates prepared by the school, I believe that the local pastor would be entitled to dissociate himself quietly from this course of action. He would be entitled to request to be honourably excused from co-operation, lest he be judged to condone something that, at least for him, would constitute a grave dereliction of his priestly duty, at the same time praying that his bishop will progress along what could be considered an important and very necessary learning path.

Clearly, this local pastor appreciates far better than his bishop that these innocent children from lax, unchurched families are destined – save a miracle of grace – to grow into adults whose indifference to the practice of the faith will range all the way from ignorance to defiance, from non-practice to deliberate apostasy. One has only to observe the lifestyle of what are now successive generations of nominal Catholic families to uncover compelling evidence in support of the validity of this conclusion.

A defective tactic

It ought thus be clear that the pastoral policy of automatically processing children from nominally Catholic families, innocents though they may be, through the ongoing sacraments of initiation has much in common with the deeply flawed and fruitless educational policy I earlier outlined of processing innocent illiterates through the state high school system. They will be convinced only of one thing: that living the faith has absolutely nothing to do with being a Catholic; just as attendance at high school, if you remained illiterate, had nothing to do with being properly equipped to play one’s part as a citizen. It is this that underlies why so much faith-defective catechesis has proven so unproductive, especially whenever a lived faith is not handed on by parents nor witnessed to by Catholic teachers.

If practice makes perfect in every other area of human activity, there can be no rational excuse why the practice of the faith should continue to be set aside as a non-issue before admission to the ongoing sacraments of initiation. The end result of the present pastoral policy is plainly counter-productive and will continue to perpetuate a nominal Catholic population, made up of those who care little to nothing about living the faith. This substitute “religion of soft options” is, at most, a flaccid pretence for genuine Catholicism, operating as a membership ticket in a nominally “Catholic Club” that for some may only be acknowledged on the national census form every five years and for others, as The Spirit of Generation Y report has exposed, will very soon cease to be acknowledged at all.

Indicative statistics

The latest 2006 Australian National Census seems destined to confirm the indicative conclusions of the report on The Spirit of Generation Y namely, that growing numbers of our Catholic schooled youngsters are choosing not simply to continue in non-practice but also to renounce personal affiliation with the Catholic Church despite reception of the ongoing sacraments of initiation within the context of a supposedly Catholic education.

Bishops, dedicated local pastors and alert, faithful, Catholic Education Office personnel would be well advised to face up to this pastoral crisis immediately and give it priority long before that current preoccupation (at least in some dioceses) with a re-ordering of the ongoing sacraments of initiation. In comparison to our present pastoral crisis the need for such a re-ordering enterprise is hardly pressing.

In many instances – and this is what we are presently experiencing – some educational devotees regard the school, and even the pub, as far more relevant to their world-view of Catholic practice than the parish. Not so very long ago a prominent Catholic educationalist, Professor Denis McLaughlin of the Brisbane campus of the Australian Catholic University, went so far as to declare that the Catholic school has become the “new parish”. What a pity he didn’t alert us to the fact that this “new parish” only operates between 9am and 3pm on five weekdays – school holidays excepted – and for a maximum period of 12-13 years – and never on Sunday!

Need for apologetics

By way of conclusion may I suggest that various firm pastoral initiatives need to be agreed upon before there will be any alleviation of this largely unaddressed crisis. Undeniably, good positive catechesis is necessary and certainly, it is an excellent start. But it is only a beginning. Of itself catechesis alone cannot bring about the change that is needed.

Good catechesis will only take root when backed up by consistent, good example from parents and teachers. This necessitates filial fidelity to the Church’s teaching Magisterium. Surely, we have learned by now that softening the options simply does not work. We have only to look at the result of our reducing the obligation of Holy Days.

To complete the circle, an up to date and pertinent apologetic that clearly demonstrates “the why” of the Catholic faith as much as appropriate catechesis demonstrates “the what” of the faith is needed. Catholic secondary and tertiary students urgently stand in need of discovering why they should live the Catholic faith from a challenging course in apologetics.

Fidelity not only presupposes, it demands consistently good pastoral practice throughout the local church with clergy, parents and teachers co-operating out of love equally for their children and for the faith. All this ultimately hinges on positive and effective action, founded on telling, not hiding, the truth in love, with the bishop and his priests united in the lead.

We must never forget how the Lord himself evangelised. He did so by issuing a direct personal invitation and never by cooption. He was as often disappointed as he was rewarded, and this not only by the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Lawyers, who should have known better. Nor did he ever gratuitously take on board any of those who chose not to respond to his invitation. We have only to recall the case of the rich young man in the Gospel that Pope John Paul II made an object lesson in beginning his magnificently instructive moral encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. The end result was a sad but mutual parting of the ways.

This master class in pastoral tactics from the Gospels merits our frequent and deep meditation. Nor should we ever forget the Lord’s sharp and clear advice to the Twelve when he sent them out to gain pastoral experience: “… And if any place does not welcome you and people refuse to listen to you, as you walk away shake off the dust from under your feet as a sign to them.” (Mark 6:7-13)

The real sticking point

It is vital properly to identify the sticking point in this pastoral conundrum. It is not the children; it is their elders. The common pastoral practice of automatically admitting children of nonpractising families to the ongoing sacraments of initiation has only succeeded in producing generations of non-practising adults. That is why our Catholic schools have become so adept in graduating deserters from the faith.

This alone should be a strong indicator for a change of tactics. It may well be that the fear we are unjustly penalising innocent children has been responsible for making us loath to change. In the face of such criticism it is essential that we hold firmly to the truth that to defer is not to deny. This is no quibble over words. To defer the ongoing sacraments of initiation can indeed be an exercise in justice, especially since the invitation can always be renewed.

The rich young man in Mark’s Gospel, who turned away sad, preferring earthly riches above following the Lord, was not rejected. We would all like to think that he came good later on. Nor can my plea for a change of policy be construed as a matter of justice delayed being justice denied for no one has an absolute right to the sacraments, simply because of its very nature God’s grace is and remains something gratuitous, gratis data.

All the sacraments presuppose appropriate dispositions for their proper reception. An isolated appeal to the innocence of the candidates is so simplistic that it may serve to blind us from doing what will be genuinely for the good of their souls. Not only Catholic children are innocents. After all, in the case we have been examining the twenty-two non-Catholic children at the Catholic school are also innocents. Can we be accused of unjustly excluding them from the ongoing sacraments of initiation!


It is essential for for us priests, as pastors of souls, to bring home to all lax Catholics, children and adults. a positive appreciation that evidence of a lived and living faith is a fundamental condition, or disposition, for admission to the sacraments, and especially, for admission to the Eucharist. If this lesson is the only one learned, we would cease being besieged by unchurched, non-practising Catholics, mindlessly approaching the Eucharist at First Communion Masses, at funerals and at Christmas, often the worse for wear, unshriven and clearly ignorant of what the Eucharist is all about.

St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians clearly shows that, quite early on, the celebration of the Supper of the Lord was being reduced to communitarian party-time. It was never intended to descend to an inclusivist feast, and St Paul, that outstanding apostle to the nations, that former Pharisee of the Pharisees, was not at all interested in dispensing with appropriate dispositions. I rest my case.

Rev John J. Walter, parish priest of Riverwood in the Archdiocese of Sydney, is a founding member of ACCC and a former editor of The Priest.