Teaching religion in schools did not always have the desired effect!

The controversy on teaching religion in schools got a good airing on both the television and national newspapers recently. As Kilkenny and indeed Ireland as a whole, is now a multi-cultural society with its citizens belonging to many different religions and ethnic groups, it probably does require some change. Those of us fortunate to have lived long enough vividly remember the old church dominated regime.

The controversy on teaching religion in schools got a good airing on both the television and national newspapers recently. As Kilkenny and indeed Ireland as a whole, is now a multi-cultural society with its citizens belonging to many different religions and ethnic groups, it probably does require some change. Those of us fortunate to have lived long enough vividly remember the old church dominated regime.

Many will readily admit that once we became a Republic the dominant Church (Roman Catholic) virtually dictated the way the country had to be run. A poignant example was when Archbishop John Charles McQuaid refused the then Minister for Health, Dr. Noel Browne, permission to introduce the ‘Mother and Child Scheme’ in the late 1940’s. This involved mothers and young children being granted free medical care, which most likely would have saved countless lives. I understand McQuaid’s objection was that the scheme bordered on Communism (sic).

But back to teaching religion in schools – it was rough enough at times when corporal punishment was encouraged. The wooden cane or the thick black leather strap was used regularly by many teachers to beat the love of religion into us. Did it work? Well it did with some . . . because they still attend Mass and are apparently content to work voluntarily for that celestial organisation. But there is another side to the coin -- those who resented getting walloped for not being able to rattle off ‘the seven deadly sins’, ‘the litany of the saints’, the ‘plenary indulgences’, etc.

In my group of friends during primary school years – especially at the time when we were preparing for Confirmation -- we certainly got our share of ‘the leather’. But the unusual aspect of our particular situation is that of the six youngsters who walked to school together in the early ‘50s only one is a practising R. Catholic today. Two of that group are members of the Baha’i faith, (one in particular an absolutely dedicated member, as are his entire family), two are lapsed and claim to be agnostic, while the other ‘dissident’ has been a member of the Church of Ireland for the past 50 odd years.

This group of six is of course not the norm, but ‘playing hardball’ with religious teaching apparently did not work in this particular case. We used to hear the parable of the ‘Good shepherd who left his flock and went back to find the lost sheep’, well by that definition the ‘shepherd’ who drove away a handful of his sheep must surely be a ‘bad shepherd’! It would be untrue to say that the ‘few belts’ dished out for lack of religious knowledge was the only reason for anyone to leave ‘the fold’, but it did not help to foster a love for the Church of their birth either.

The teaching of religion is very important for children, few would deny that, but probably better to do so at ‘Sunday School’ or outside the usual school hours. Perhaps using ‘the carrot instead of the stick’ might also be a better proposition. Nowadays the change in attitudes towards those of different religious persuasions is absolutely marvellous.

It’s not all that long ago when bigotry was rife in Ireland. Protestant teenagers regularly attended their C. of I. parish social dances and it was confined to ‘those who dug with the left foot’. This was forced on the organisers of the dances at the time because if a member of the Protestant faith become involved in a relationship with a Roman Catholic – guess who had to capitulate? Likewise if a member of the Church of Rome attended a funeral or wedding of a neighbour or friend in a Protestant church their sin of participating in that ceremony was so great an ordinary priest did not have the power to forgive them.

I was shocked to hear from an elderly farmer in north Kilkenny that when he mentioned in Confession that he had been to a funeral service of a lifelong Protestant neighbour he was refused absolution. The farmer in question was forced to travel over 16 miles in a pony and cart to beg the bishop for forgiveness. Of course this was many years ago and thankfully those stupid rules do not apply any more. In fact relations between the various churches now appear to be very cordial.

Swopping a pint with a young man who was of the C. of I. persuasion some years ago the subject of religion came up. During our chat he complained that there was too much emphasis on collecting money in the RC church and that the C. of I. was not too far behind on that score either. He continued by saying that as he passed a R. Catholic church in Kilkenny he could read a poster from the road which offered ‘Confessions for two shillings and six pence’ (i.e. old currency). I tried to persuade him that they did not charge for the privilege of going to confession but he was adamant that he saw the sign himself.

The following day I went to investigate his claim, just to satisfy my own curiosity. It was a genuine – and somewhat funny – mistake on my friend’s part. The poster actually read ‘Confessions from 2 to 6’ – which from a distance may have looked like ‘Confessions from 2/6’ – or a half crown as we knew it at the time.

Thankfully we now have two top-class bishops in Kilkenny – Michael Burrows (Anglican) and Seamus Freeman (Roman Catholic) – both far removed from the one-time pompous image of these so-called ‘Princes of the Church’. Gone is that dreadful custom of Catholic people falling on their knees and kissing a bishop’s ring. Gone also is the time when aloof Anglican bishops lived in ‘the Bishop’s Palace’ with even their own clergy in awe of them.