He does not dictate, he dialogues – being a chaplain in a secondary school in Ireland
As chaplain in Blackrock College, I find myself at the interface of two opposing cultural systems which I have being struggling to reconcile in developing a pastoral approach. The first is the speedy growing culture for young people today and the second is the Church’s slow paced response in carrying them along in her evangelisation ministry.
Alan MacGinty, principal in Blackrock, says,
“We are living in a vast unpredictable world. Our young ones are being confronted by many challenges in society. Materialism and individualism are increasingly predominant among them. Huge cultural shifts are happening. The ‘www. com’ is becoming an integral part of their lives, generating a new connectedness”.
The challenges facing the Church’s evangelisation ministry are neither about improving nor about recovering those glorious past days of the Church. Rather it is about “developing a new strategy in anticipation of a different future” to which the young ones are accustomed.
Faith commitments to God among young people are dwindling. Church attendance continues to decline, vocation to priesthood or religious life is no longer fashionable, and many families are losing their influence to lead young people to Christ. Often young people attend religious celebrations when/ if and only if their Mum and Dad are disposed and have the time to take them.
School ministry is a way to catch young people and offer them the gospel message. School ministry is geared towards offering the precious gift of the gospel –hope and faith in times of trauma and, as they struggle to realise their personal identity, school ministry offers caring, love, friendship, hospitality and a listening ear. A full time professionally trained school chaplain who will accompany young people discovering who they are should be encouraged, supported and sufficiently resourced.
A faith presence
A chaplain by simple definition is a “faith presence”. According to Monahan, this means that a chaplain is “committed to the teaching and values of Christ, acting on behalf of the church and the school community while upholding the teaching and moral standards and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, together with the characteristic spirit and founding intention of the school”. The document Chaplaincy in the Catholic Voluntary School describes a chaplain as “a person of faith who could be a priest, a religious or a layperson of the Catholic faith”.
The word chaplain evokes many responses: a spiritual advisor, confidante, organiser and liturgist, someone who has time for and is close to those in his or her care.
My priorities are to be available and attentive at all times, offering a listening ear to the concerns of students and staff in the Blackrock College school community. Through this I can help students with life challenges and with discovering their full potential, spending time with them, encouraging them where and when it is needed, providing them with opportunities for prayer. My vision as a chaplain is to value and respect the orientation of every student of Blackrock College and John Dewey’s philosophy of education “meeting the students where they are, and assisting them to grow so that they are prepared to cope with the various stages of life,” come to a better understanding of life and their relationship with God.
In an essay, a student wrote,
There is hunger in young people today for more than material
things, but the hardest thing is just to start the inner journey –
the pace of life is so fast and many things keep pulling us away
from giving space to the spiritual in us.
My pastoral care with students is rooted in the good shepherd (John 10:1-18), and I understand pasture as a place where animals can feed and be safe. According to Alastair Campbell a good shepherd “leads, guides, nurtures, heals, seeks out the lost, brings the scattered flock back together, and protects it from harm”. Psalm 23 summarises it well “He lets me rest in the fields of green and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water; he gives new strength; he guides me in the right paths, as he has promised.”
The most fundamental challenges facing secondary school students are building self-identity, deepening their relationship with God, and finding a meaningful place in an adult world. Difficulty with these reveal themselves in self-doubt, deep personal questioning –who am I, and what am I really like? A chaplain’s role stands out clearly in this turbulence and confusion as he listens to students’ stories. A chaplain helps them remain confident and stable.
Working with the young people I have come to realise their faith in God, the choices they make, the value they attach to things, their attitude, mind-set and approach to life are influenced by contemporary culture and thus inclined towards technological advancement in a world that thrives on information and freedom. The combination can be a dangerous mix. Young people are exposed to a wide variety of opinions from an early age. George Boran CSSp, who has years of experience working with young people, says that the speed of change is creating more problems because young people do not have time.
to assimilate, in an organised way, the enormous quantity of information, options and models dropped on them by the electronic media. There is a paralysis of analysis. The youth have so much
coming at them that they become exhausted and stop analysing.
A chaplain plays a vital role, deals with the assortment of information received, the increase in sexual activities, substance abuse, drugs and Internet addictions among them. Sometimes the danger is moral relativity or “whatever is popular is good” and “what is not popular is not good”. Guidance and accompaniment from a person of responsibility helps make sense of the conflicting messages young people receive. A chaplain can help students gain a sense of direction and purpose as they struggle to build individual identity according to Boran, in the “midst of the glittering proposals of modernity and fragmented information”.
A chaplain does not dictate but dialogues. Dialogue requires professionalism, experience, patience, love, understanding, humility and acceptance. Young people are favourably disposed to God especially when they meet someone who can understand their world view. Dermot A Lane says that young people “learn to love by being loved, to trust by being trusted, to value by being valued.”
An effective pastoral response to the questions raised with chaplains by students requires a chaplain to be aware of all kinds of cultural influences –email, internet, mobile phones, MTV, alco-pops, fast food, play stations, money, tattoos, body piercing etc. We need to understand these to be able to welcome some of the values emerging from them.
Chaplains authentically proclaim the Gospel message of Christ not only with our words but also with our lives. Therefore the essence of being a chaplain is at the heart of what Blessed Mother Teresa urges, “that we have Jesus in our hearts and then carry him to the hearts of the others”. Vatican II says, “The future of humanity is in the hands of people who can give future generations reasons for living and hope.”
As a chaplain, I work with students, parents, the local parish and the broader community. There should be a link with the home parishes of the students. Such links with other parishes may also involve social outreach programmes such as the local Vincent de Paul Conference.
Liturgy is at the heart of school chaplaincy. The May 2004 Chaplaincy Document clearly states that the chaplain ensures the “provision of liturgical and para-liturgical celebrations in the school with particular reference to the centrality of the Eucharist”. In this sense the prayer life of the entire school community becomes the chaplain’s responsibility. The chaplain arranges for the sacrament of reconciliation, organises retreats and times for reflection.
Schools like Blackrock College have various groups of students and staff who are from different religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and who are also of different intellectual, physical and emotional needs and abilities. The chaplain has the challenge of welcoming and helping students settle down and feel at home so that every form of social isolation is avoided.
Regardless of what may have led to a death of a beloved one, it can cause shock, great pain, anxiety, distress and is often difficult to accept. At this time the student needs support.
From all indications the types of problem presented to school counsellors are the same as those that come to a chaplain. A student’s right to confidentiality must be respected. The chaplain is bound by confidentiality at all times except when a life is in danger. Then there is need to inform the necessary authorities.
One of the basic values that need to be well thought-out in Christian education today at the post-primary school level is human faith relationship with Christ. I can imagine school may become a new type of parish setting, where students will experience God. This is a new dimension of mission. We need to understand that acquiring intellectual knowledge is not merely the goal of education. The emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions are all parts of education and therefore cannot be neglected or sidelined. Thus chaplains’ work is an essential component in the school structure. It is not an added extra. It is instrumental in helping student cherish and live the values of Christ.
I thank the Holy Ghost Order in Ireland for making chaplaincy in schools a priority work.
A chaplain helps them remain confident and stable.
The youth have so much coming at them that they become exhausted and stop analysing.
…many things keep pulling us away from giving space to the spiritual in us.