More people than ever before do not identify with any of the main Christian faiths. In the just released. census data, it shows that more than ever before people are turning away from Christianity and in particular the Catholic faith. This is despite many of them still believe in a higher being and life after death, the very bedrock principles of Christian religions.
Why have people moved away from the church so quickly over the past 50 years? After world war two Christian religions still had a stranglehold on the faith many within our community believed in. If you grew up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s there was fair chance you had to attend church each Sunday and on holy public holidays such as Easter and Christmas. There was also a fair chance you attended Christian schools and were regularly exposed to Christian Dogma.
Growing up as a Roman Catholic in a family of ten kids with a dedicated Roman Catholic mother, I was certainly made abundantly aware of my faith, my responsibilities, and the Church’s teachings. I attended church every week, went to four different Catholic schools and was taught by priests, nuns, and brothers. At those schools, discipline was a major factor and I received my fair share of the strap and cane at those schools, and if I am honest barring one or two occasions I probably deserved that discipline. Looking back while I wasn’t particularly fond of that discipline but it certainly instilled in me an understanding of what was right and wrong the values of respect and accountability. Surely things that are more than relevant to today’s generations and those of the future.
In my family and at my schools we had many debates about faith, God, Jesus and how could a higher entity allow the evils of this world to occur if he loved us all so much. Sex before marriage was frowned upon and God help you if you made a girl pregnant. God help that girl!
Abortion was definitely out of bounds and you were off to hell for any impure thoughts or actions. In fact, as a sports mad youngster, it seemed everything I enjoyed was out of bounds. Give me the Sunday footy show and footy replays any day over going to church. It was so boring!
I didn’t have too many problems with what was being taught and preached through the church service, I just had issues with how it was being preached. If I was going to miss my football or sport for this, couldn’t the service be jazzed up a bit? Nearly every priest who took a service preached in such a boring monotone, I just found myself wanting to throw up some days. What I wouldn’t do to have a priest come into one service and go off his rocker, bring in some entertainment and gain our attention! Alas while some were definitely better than others none came even close to the level I was hoping for.
In years 8 to 10, I attended what had to be one of the toughest public schools in Australia. Murray River Secondary College in Queenstown Tasmania. Considering my previous school was a private Catholic all-boys college in De La Salle in Malvern, this was quite a change of scenery and as far as faith goes proved to be both thought provoking and a revelation. From what I could gather most kids attending this school had very little time for anything approaching religion let alone Christianity. The school was co-ed, where girls attended with the highest of skirts leaving little to the imagination. So going from an all-boys school to a school with this environment was always going to challenge my Christian upbringing. All of a sudden I had all those pubescent feelings rising in my body and discipline in regards to temptation was sorely tested.
It was also different being at a school with no prayers before class, with not a nun, priest or brother in sight, no crucifixes in the classroom and paintings of Jesus or pictures of the Pope. It was nearly religion free except for home where Mum, God bless her heart, always ensured we were aware of our Christian heritage and upbringing. Every Sunday Mum and Dad dragged us off to Church, every Sunday we complained bitterly, especially my little brother and I as all we wanted to do was kick the football in the winter and bowl and bat on our cricket pitch in the gravel driveway in the summer.
None of our mates went to church, why did we have to?
As Mum got older the more committed to her faith she became, she went to church every day, she volunteered whatever assistance she could offer her local parish or priest and she was always at me about becoming an altar boy or priest.
That was simply never going to happen!
Mum, however, managed to get my little brother to become an altar boy and I thought this was hilarious and it certainly got Mum off my back about it all.
Looking back on those times I realised a number of things. Firstly those years going through the Catholic education system were some of the best of my life. I know there are fellow Catholics, who unfortunately endured many hardships and horrors through a similar era, but I was fortunate enough to have enjoyed a terrific experience and I am sure there are tens of thousands of others who would have similar experiences of affection and happiness from their Catholic upbringing.
My heart goes out to the victims of child abuse at the hands of predators within the church, their lives have been ruined and their faith in the Church, God and Christ have been sorely tested, broken and in most, if not all instances been lost altogether. What I do know is that there is a special place in hell reserved for those predators, but the whole Catholic Church and all the good it has accomplished and continues to accomplish should not be overshadowed by the actions of these evil people as abhorrent as their acts may be.
Every organisation or group is a reflection of society, just as society has some people of extremely low ethical and moral character so will the church. Unfortunately for the church due to the high standards it sets itself through Christ’s teaching in the Bible, it sets itself up for attacks from its enemies and it has its fair share. This despite the Church preaching love, forgiveness and compassion, qualities that you would think would make it a hard organisation to hate.
The church is the victim of much of its own ineptitude but many in the fourth estate (news media) especially, seem to take great joy in attacking the church at every opportunity. This has, in my opinion, increased steadily since the sixties and the great sexual revolution that in so many areas flouted what had been the norm through Christian teaching. The church had always insisted on magnanimous relationships through marriage in God’s name, was against sex before marriage, was anti-abortion, anti-gay and it seemed in the sixties anti-fun.
The sixties generation challenged the church and its teaching and many of that generation rejected the church and Christ’s message altogether. Instead, they identified with what was seen as more “trendy” religions and faiths that would enable and justify the way they wanted to live their lives. Many just gave up on faith in any form or some took advantage to push their atheist ideology onto others. Again just look at the latest census data where 30% of Australians identify as atheist.
Despite all the turbulence and controversy the church has continued and adjusted, as it has done throughout its history. Even its most ardent critics would have to respect its durability. So are the church and its teaching still relevant to us and our future generations?
My answer is an emphatic yes!
The main purpose of the church is to spread and deliver the word of Christ through the writings and teaching of the New Testament. When I was in my last year of Christian education in year eleven at Nagle College in Bairnsdale, I had an enlightening class with our Vice-Principal, Aiden Burns.
One day our regular home room teacher, Sister Julian couldn’t attend our Religious Education class, so Mr Burns filled in and turned what most of us considered our most boring class of the week, into the most fascinating religious session I ever attended. He did it by beginning the class with criticism of the church and our confirmation ritual that we go through in Primary school. All of a sudden a class full of teenagers who looked forward to our RE classes as much as a root canal session at the dentist were sitting bolt upright in our chairs hanging on his every word.
My Burns began by asking us if we remembered our confirmation to which we all, of course, replied in the affirmative. He then asked if we remembered why we went through our confirmations and what we were actually confirming. To our astonishment, he told us that we shouldn’t have gone through our confirmations at such a young age and we shouldn’t confirm our faith in God and Christ until we had more life experience. In doing so, our confirmations would be more relevant, more powerful and would enshrine our faith in the church, and more importantly in our faith in Christ and his teachings.
At the completion of that class Mr Burn’s advice was that when we were ready and when we needed to in our lives, we should reach out to Christ by reading the new testament and deciding for ourselves at an appropriate age whether we should commit to our faith and Christ’s teachings. My mum also taught us something similar. Her guidance was that in our hardest times we could find comfort in Christ’s teachings. I wonder whether Mr Burns realised the impact he had on me and others in that class as he walked out of the classroom that day. It certainly resonated with me and his teaching and advice in that class did stay with me when I actually needed it years later. For that, he has always had my gratitude as it affected my life greatly and all from 45 minutes of teaching.
I had a wonderful life until I was 27, playing football and cricket with my mates, working in the Commonwealth Bank, enjoying a social life that only young adults can. It was the best time of my life, but throughout it, there was something missing. It was at this point that Mr Burns class and my Mum’s influence came to the fore and I decided that if I was going to be a Christian I should at least stop having people preach to me about Christianity and study it myself. What was mind blowing to me was I suddenly realised despite having gone to Church every Sunday until I was 18 and then in a haphazard fashion thereafter and despite attending four different Catholic schools I had never even read the new testament, let alone the Bible. So I decided if I was going to be a Christian, at a minimum I had to read the new testament. I didn’t see much point in the old testament as I wanted to get to where the action was and to me, Christianity was all about Christ and his teaching about life and how to live it. The New Testament it was!
I initially approached it with some apprehension as I wasn’t much of a book reader let alone the bible that had nearly sent me to sleep in multiple school classes and church services. To my surprise once I began reading I became heavily engaged and the reason was quite simple, the more I read the new testament the more I realised how relevant it was to me and the life I was leading. All from a carpenter, who lived two thousand years ago.
Now at this point, you can relax as I am not going to get onto my pulpit and start lecturing you with passages from the bible. One of the most empowering things I came to understand is that I was having my own conversation with God and Christ through reading the New Testament and I also realised that every person would have a different conversation with God through their own reading of it.
Just as we all have different, height, hair colour, skin colour, etc, we would also have a different conversation with God and through that conversation, a different accountability towards their lives through God. What was also empowering to me was that it was obvious that God gives every individual the ability to choose to believe in him or not to. We have that choice, hence why it is referred to as “faith”. You can choose to have faith in Christ’s teachings or not to, the choice is yours; again empowering.
The more and more I read, the more and more I found relevance towards my life and not only my life but to events surrounding me both in Australia and internationally. It took me 27 years to come to realise this, it has taken me another 27 years to realise that having faith is one thing but to pass on the gift that Mr Burns gave me back in 1980 is even more important.
As the years have progressed the church and Christ’s message has increasingly come under attack. While this may have been justified towards individuals in the church and its administration I could never equate it with the linked attacks on the Church in general and the relevance of Christ’s teachings. It is my opinion that society and the world, in particular, need Christ’s teachings now more than ever, the compassion, the forgiveness, the love of your neighbour and turning the other cheek to just name a few of Christ’s teachings are sorely needed by a world tearing itself asunder.
Through this online paper/blog we will be publishing articles that will link events from our state, our country and from around the world that will demonstrate the relevance of Christ’s teachings, the message of the New Testament and the tireless and committed efforts of the Catholic Church and other Christian faiths to enhance, spread and live that message.
Thanks for the Inspiration Mr Burns; I hope you get to read this article.