20th anniversary of the return of religious instruction to schools
Archbishop Jozef Michalik
‘Religion is the answer to the ultimate questions of man’
Abraham Joshua Heschel
On 3 August 2010 we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the return of religious instruction to schools. Perhaps summer does not incline us to think about the anniversary but it will be good to say a few words about this matter.
After the Church had been refused to be present in public life, and especially eliminated from the places of children’s and young people’s education, it managed to work out, with much effort and facing the opposition of the communists, its own way to proclaim the Gospel by building catechetical halls. Twenty years ago they already functioned on a certain level. However, in big cities with numerous schools it was ‘technically’ impossible to provide religious instruction to all children and teenagers. It was hard to organise lessons after school and there were not enough priests to teach religious instruction.
When we saw the possibility to introduce religious instruction to schools again the Bishops’ Conference analysed the situation of religious lessons before the war. Then religion was an obligatory subject and was taught in schools. It was Bishop Albin Malysiak that gave us valuable advice concerning this matter and he provided statistical calculations to justify the chances and possibilities to teach religious formation to young people. To have a complete picture it is worth saying that the issue returned during our meetings with the Holy Father. There was a proposal of a referendum. Such an idea was conceived then. The Holy Father opposed that idea stating briefly that the baptism certificate was the most distinct form of referendum. Every baptised person has the obligation to deepen his faith and one way to do it is catechesis.
At last religious instruction returned to schools although the authorities refused to pay the teachers of religion. The bishops’ decision was univocal – the essential matters were contact with youth, formation of faith and priests would teach religion without being paid for that. We knew that the decision of the authorities was made on purpose but we did not want to inflame the matter. After the wave of aggression, fuelled by the liberal newspaper, which has also been known today, stopped the teachers of religion were granted the right to pay in accordance with the labour code. Today no one is questioning the legal aspects of the presence of religious instruction in schools but there have been critical opinions blaming the return of religion to schools for the crisis of faith: absence of young people at church. Sometimes these critical views are stated by clergymen.
Suddenly, people forget the real crisis of the family and the great devastation of communism as well as the big efforts of contemporary neo-liberal environments, using refined ways to destroy religiosity and faith. The perverseness of the young generations of the communist times, recognised as religiosity, lulled the family environments, which dispensed themselves from family catechisation and daily prayer. The tendency to seek community as a place to recover Christian identity, which had lasted for several years, was not used. The last publication of all the volumes of ‘Dzienniki’ by Maria Dabrowska shows clearly the mechanism to push religion to the underground. The authorities and artists whispered about God and the Church in their homes. It is true that the words about the horrible years of Stalinism were uttered with fear but at the same time people participated openly in the manifestations promoting communism and they praised the atheistic establishment and even quarrelled when some did not receive invitations to take part in those rallies. Consequently, when and where was the religious elite to be educated?
The problem of contemporary catechisation is not its place, i.e. school. The problem it to restore the inner power to the Polish families, universal deepening of faith, readership of Catholic press, etc. And here there is a great appeal for priestly and apostolic zeal of Christians and creativity to rebuild the atmosphere of enthusiasm towards religious instruction in schools. I do not know where from the former catechists had the means and time to dedicate them to children and youth after their lessons in spite of the fact that they taught 30-35 hours a week!
Another important condition of effective formation is the family catechisation and in it – in my opinion – the first step is confidence in the efforts of teachers of religion. If the only effort of the parents of children preparing for the First Communion is often the argument concenring the number of film cameras and cost of the decoration, we should be concerned about the future of religious formation. A few years ago in one of the parishes I know, after nine months from the First Communion the priest who taught religion gave small diplomas to the children who participated in the nine first Fridays of the month. Out of 70 children only 6 regularly attended the services. Then the situation gets worse. Children whose prayers are neglected, without participation in the Sunday Eucharist with their parents, experience spiritual havoc when they go through the hard years of gymnasium and they become a big problem and concern for their teachers of religion. On this occasion one must say that the return of religious instruction to schools testified about the ‘normalisation’ of the relationship between the Church and the school and about breaking the mental ‘ghetto’ in the matters concerning the relationship between faith and reason, which cannot be omitted in the contemporary culture.
Ending this reflection I want to thank all those thanks to whom religious instruction returned to schools and to all contemporary teachers of religion. I also answer the question I was asked once: yes, I am deeply convinced that if religious instruction had been taught in parish buildings the church attendance of children and young people would not have been higher and it might have been smaller in some parts of Poland.