Enhancing Religious Education for Senior Students in Catholic Schools: Students Living the Gospel

I was fortunate to be able to attend the Marist biennial conference in Melbourne at the end of July. Even better, I had the opportunity to present about the new senior Religion curriculum in Cairns Diocese, Catholic Faith in Action, for which I have been a member of the working party over the last 18 months, and involved in the design of learning experiences as it has begun to be rolled out in school this year. As I have spent time reflecting on the program this week, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some thoughts. This one’s a little long, so grab a cuppa and make yourself comfortable!

One of the challenges in any Catholic school is how to make learning about religion, faith and spirituality relevant to the lives of the young people we educate. This should never change – as it is in the challenge that we find meaning, in inconvenient but respectful dialogue and journeying together.

Bishop James Foley has been forward-looking in asking the faith and RE curriculum leaders of schools in the diocese to evaluate what works well, and what needs to change, to better serve the needs of our students. He writes “It is my hope that the young people in our colleges will experience faith learning within the reality of their own life and be called to positive action in a way that is reflective of the Catholic social teachings and opportunities experienced in this program.” Moreover, Bishop James also hopes that this program “will enhance their capacity to make meaning in religious education, that they are able to relate it to their own life and positively contribute in building a civilisation of love.”

Likewise, Chief Executive Bill Dixon supports such a move, noting that this curriculum “must be a vessel for personal transformation that fosters an intimate relationship with God, through the exploration of the Scriptures, participation in personal and communal prayer and the living out of Catholic social and moral teaching.”

So let’s talk about the program itself. The aim of the Catholic Faith in Action program is to provide opportunities for students to connect the Gospel to their lives, meeting them where they are at, and giving them the chance to live it out through a series of experiences and activities. However, it is more than that, it is a challenge to live more authentically as witnesses to the Gospel, becoming who one is called to be. It also requires the authentic, credible witness of teachers, to journey with students through the program, being open themselves to spiritual growth.

The program design includes components (Scripture; Catholic anthropology; Catholic Social Teachings and Just Action; Catholic Worldview; Ethics and Morality; Evangelisation and Faith Formation; Other Religious Experiences, Worldviews, and Indigenous Spirituality; Prayer and Worship; and Religious Identity and Culture) which lead into graduate expectations. These expectations, whilst having significant reflective and spiritual elements, are influenced by QCAA’s 21st Century Skills, so there is cohesion across the curriculum.

The program is designed around ‘profound questions’ intended to provoke discussion and dialogue, but not to provide answers. (There are resonances of Tillich’s understanding of theology as ultimate concern.) The questions were formed by asking senior students in the schools what questions they have that they would like to explore more fully. There is an overarching question for each semester, each with sub-questions.

1. Who am I?

2. Who is God?

3. What does it mean to be human?

4. What is truth?

In the first semester, all secondary schools in the diocese came together to launch the program, with a presentation from Fr Richard Leonard as a starting point for the first question. Fr Richard put this question against the backdrop of society today, and encouraged deeper reflection on each person’s place in that. Schools then designed their own learning experiences to meet the needs of students in their context.

Some of the “action” opportunities provided for students at my school in the first semester included:

  • Workshops with charity founders
  • Service rotations: visiting care home, clean up local area picking up litter, working with students in primary school next door, working with Year 9 students in school.
  • Meditation and deep listening with yoga instructors.
  • Service project: investigating needs of the local community and applying Catholic Social Teachings, designing self-directed service, writing a reflection on that.

Alongside the active side of the program, students are taught the faith and tradition basis for the actions, in dialogue with what they bring from their experience. They are also guided through discernment and reflective activities. Students have a journal, with guided questions.

Feedback from students, parents, and the local community has been overwhelmingly positive since the launch of this program. A handful of students have expressed a new purpose, or have found a new calling, and the majority have engaged well and reflected well.

Let me share a small selection of anonymous snippets from students from their guided reflections at the end of the term.

How did the service element impact on you this term?

  • The service element was quite an enlightening experience. It was wonderful to see the effect we were having on others helping them, but in the process we were also extending ourselves as people.
  • The service helped me to give back to the community. It was nice to know I made someone’s day a little better by talking to them.
  • It helped me become more considerate and aware and ultimately gain confidence to do good.

What surprised you this term?

  • The people I met – I thought many people would take what we did for granted, I’m surprised to see people showed they cared.
  • Finding out how we as a community and as an individual can strongly make a difference to the general public and environment. Everybody can have a strong purpose and power to help better our world.
  • The commitment of everyone in the class for the service, the help we provided at the primary school actually helped the children, the happiness of the old people when we met them.

How would you now answer the question ‘Who am I?’?

  • I am someone who wants to continue helping others, who wants to give others someone to talk to, and a much more understanding person of problems in the community.
  • I am happy and determined. I am glad to be who I am. I am a friend to anyone I can.
  • I am more observant of other people and my actions. I am even more willing to help other people when I see a need. I am more focused on what I believe to be my calling in life and how I can work to improve society.

Whilst I have some qualms about not being able to run a traditional ‘academic’ Religion course now in a school with a well-qualified department – after all, how many 16 year old boys are going to choose ‘double religion’ – I can see the huge benefits we have gained from designing a program to meet students where they are and challenge them to live as ‘good Christians and good citizens,’ as St Marcellin wanted from educators.

A pdf copy of the Catholic Faith in Action program can be found here.


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