The Catholic school and the vocation of the worker

A Catholic school functions as an ecclesial body and as a civic institution. Focusing on the first function, it has to be acknowledged that attendance at a Catholic school does not seem to exert an influence on religious practice. Based on figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), over the two hundred years that Catholic schools have operated in Australia, the number of Catholics in Australia has been between 20 to 25% of the population. However, the number of Catholics who demonstrate a strong affiliation with the Church has declined to the point where only around 10% of Catholics go to Mass regularly in their parishes. There is a disconnect between the mission of the Church and the lives of most of its members. 

Seventy-five years ago, Cardijn alluded to this disconnect in the second of his Godinne series of lectures given in 1948. Titled “The Church and the workers,” Cardijn presents the theology of the mission of the worker, which he prefaces with a statement from Pope Pius XII: 

‘The first time I saw the Holy Father after the war, he said to me: “The greatest danger facing the Church is not Communism or Socialism. It is the fact that the working class knows nothing about the Church’s teaching on the workers’ mission.”’

Once regarded as a Christian country, with over 90% of the population belonging to a Christian denomination, Australians now live in a pluralist society; people make their own minds up about the place religion plays in their lives, both in terms of what beliefs they hold and their religious practices. The moral authority of the Christian Church has been eroded and the majority of Australians vest authority in themselves and not in others, such as priests, or bishops. 

What Pius XII saw in 1948, holds true for today, except that “Communism or Socialism” have been taken over by materialism and consumerism and in general by all the “-isms” that put individuals in the place once inhabited by God in the prevailing worldviews that shaped nations and peoples. 

The process of change like this is referred to as “detraditionalisation,” which is the process of erosion of tradition in religion and society. The breakdown of tradition has been associated with postmodernism, which was born out of the disillusionment experienced by societies and individuals globally with the perversion of the promises of the Enlightenment. 

Cardijn was on about “retraditionalisation.” He was a young man when he committed his life to God and to overcoming the soul-destroying effects of industrialisation. While still a teenager and studying for the priesthood, he had witnessed the impact of work on his peers, who had turned away from the Church. More than forty years later, in his lecture on the Church and the workers, he begins: ‘Today we are living in an hour decisive for the Church. Will the Church succeed in the re-conquest of these millions of workers? She will, because the Church without the working class is not the Church of Our Lord Jesus.’

The return to being prayerful, going to Mass, receiving Holy Communion and practising mortification, all of which many Australian Catholics have abandoned (and the majority are workers), is not enough, according to Cardijn. His process of “retraditionalisation” involves coming to understand that the world needs workers who recognise and accept God into their lives, and that each worker ‘has a divine vocation, a mission that no one else can fulfil. Without that mission, the work of Creation and Redemption cannot be completed.’ Moreover, the workers need to come together to form a movement that has as its goal the fulfilment of this mission. Finally, says Cardijn, the movement needs leaders 

‘for, and from, the workers, working class apostles, missionaries, who, acting from within the working class will help it to know and fulfil its mission, and to organise and direct this workers’ movement.’

Jesus formed such a movement with workers. His twelve disciples, who were his leaders, became the first bishops of the Christian Church. Somewhere along the way, the Church (a movement of workers, for workers) lost sight of its origin. 

Catholic schools in Australia today are in the hands of the workers. There are very few priests and religious still involved in the day-to-day running of Catholic schools. For many years now, lay people have been exercising the responsible management of the formation of young people in the tradition of the Catholic Church. So what has gone astray that has led to the weakening of the ecclesial function and influence of the Catholic school in the life of our nation?


Pat Branson

Read more 

The hour of the working class – Lecture 2 – The Church and the workers 

2 Replies to “The Catholic school and the vocation of the worker”

  1. A good read Pat. Now the next is what needs to be done. What are the practical steps needed to bring the mission to life in our Catholic schools.?

  2. Thanks, Gemma. Perhaps we could organise a dialogue around the matter of promoting reflection on the mission of the Catholic school in a pluralist society.

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