Our nation’s Catholic schools don’t, let us be honest here, always get the best of press. Secularists like to depict them, absurdly enough, as state-subsidised finishing schools for the sharp-elbowed middle classes. Meanwhile, among certain Catholics, the entire sector is roundly dismissed as having abandoned any meaningful commitment to “Catholic identity”.
As to the first point, my Benedict XVI Centre colleagues and I have already said a great deal this week. I won’t add anything here, other than to repeat the BBC’s paraphrase of our main findings: “Counting the proportion of pupils taking free school meals” – a stick with which Catholic schools are often beaten – “is an increasingly unreliable way of measuring poverty and the fairness of admissions policies”. (Though by all means see the full report here.)
It is the second point, however, that I’ve been giving most thought to over the past several months. For our eldest daughter started at our parish’s Catholic primary school – let us call it “St Gemma Galgani’s” – in September. I can honestly say that, Catholicity-wise (and indeed, in other ways too), I’ve been hugely impressed.
Prayer is a significant, but wholly ordinary, part of the school day, right from the register: “Good morning, Bernard, and God bless you”; “Good morning, Mrs X, and God bless you”. In fact, early into her time there, I asked our daughter if they prayed much. Not much at all, she told me – just in the mornings, at Mass, before lunch, and at home time.
Mass is a regular occurrence, either at the school itself (outside in the Marian prayer garden, if weather permits), or in the parish church. The latter option, incidentally, poses significant logistical issues in getting over 200 kids across town in a safe and timely fashion. But they do it extremely often. (The Year 6 pupils each hold hands with one of the little ones to walk over: a charming witness to the town community in itself). I’ve heard more sung Latin at one of these school Masses than I dare say some parishes have heard in a good forty years.
Most impressive about St Gemma Galgani’s, though, is the catechesis that the children receive. Last term, for example, our daughter came home to tell me that they’d been asked to draw a picture of God and his children. “And what did you draw?”, I asked. “I drew Jesus, and some children,” came the reply.
Even more strikingly, at bedtime prayers yesterday came “…and we pray that God’s thorns in his head stop hurting him”. No soft-peddling of the Easter story to those four and five-year-olds, evidently. And a pithy account of the christological communicatio idiomatum to make even St Melito of Sardis himself proud, to boot.
Obviously, the teaching staff – and in this case, I think the headteacher especially – play a critical role here, but they are by no means the only ones. Our daughter – a girl not wholly devoid of brook-no-opposition-determination, it must be said – has taken Lent this year with remarkable fortitude. (One not, ahem, wholly characteristic of all family members.)
Taking pity on her stoic refusals of chocolate-y desserts in favour of fruit, the kitchen staff have taken – as if they didn’t have enough to already – to baking her special biscuits on such occasions.
Maybe we’re lucky. Perhaps we have simply hit the Catholic identity jackpot. But I suspect that the phenomenon extends much further than our little, unglamorous corner of north Oxfordshire. So, on this last day of term, do spare a bedtime prayer for our Catholic schools.