All News . . .
Building the Kingdom in the Classroom: A School Chaplain's Diary
Canon John Twisteton wrote the following review for Premier Christian Media
Evangelisation of young people isn't for the uncertain or timid and needs a lot of love. It's not the exclusive preserve of Evangelicals. There are Catholics bringing young people into personal knowledge of Jesus Christ not least through the Church's involvement in education and such evangelism is chronicled in this deep and readable book. It's published by former Anglican now Ordinariate priest, Fr Matthew Pittam, who works as a school chaplain as well as in parish ministry within the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
It's a priest's sort of book going through the Church's Year chronicling pastoral, liturgical and apologetical matters that arise in engaging young people with the Gospel. The writer is modest yet his accomplishments shine out even from dark depths he finds himself in at times. He's a writer in his own right, dramatist, plays the guitar and has the bottle to participate in a staff-student swimming competition! Fr Matthew is married with a young daughter which makes his evident hard work in both school and parish the more extraordinary.
Working for Christian formation in Church schools isn't for the faint hearted. The author is matter of fact about the difficulties he finds in raising collaborators among staff who, though appointed on the basis of being sympathetic to Christianity, are often far from committed. Fr Pittam describes the struggle to create a holistic approach as opposed to a hole in the corner approach to God. He takes all comers, inevitably ministering primarily to those who seek the sacraments, yet seeks to permeate the whole life of the school with Gospel values. He sees neglect of being chaplain to everyone as a trap he readily falls into given the natural propensity to be involved with students who show an interest in the Faith.
What particularly heartened me about this book was its hopeful conviction about what's true allied to sympathetic understanding of people who're some way from that conviction. 'If we get into the mentality whereby we feel we need to defend our religion we are actually making God appear to be smaller than he actually is. God does not require us in our fallibility to defend Him. Catholic truth should be proclaimed in a Catholic school but this proclamation should never become defensive and narrow. It is difficult as in school much of our dialogue with staff and students is apologetic and so naturally provides a defence and promotion of the Catholic faith. Achieving unity does require risk-taking. Recognising that God is larger than our divisions can become a starting point for us letting go of our need to become entrenched, otherwise our feelings can contribute to the development a siege mentality'.
I liked a story he tells about his suggestion to students of trying non- Eucharistic worship and how taken aback he was by their response along the lines they found reassurance in the familiarity of the liturgy once they'd memorised the responses. 'Many students come from hectic backgrounds... the Mass for them was something which was consistent and stable. Predictability, which often is considered to be something negative, has actually become a gift that has given comfort'. As the book continues through the predictable church seasons it chronicles how so often the readings of the day speak serendipitously into pastoral situations. 'Without the Church's year I think I would be more inclined to portray the Gospel in my own image and not in God's. As St Augustine said, 'If you take what you like from the Gospel and add what you like, it is not the Gospel, it is yourself.' I always need to heed this warning'.
Matthew Pittam is a gifted apologist. I liked his reflection on how atheists 'challenge a view of God who is Ens Summum (the Highest Being) but we don't see God in this way and so the arguments are meaningless. St Thomas Aquinas speaks of a God who is Ipsum esse Subsistens (the very act of being itself ). This is important because we don't see God as the biggest, the greatest, the best, the strongest, or even the oldest being.Rather he is everything and in everything'. Such deep thinking is heartening for those of us who engage with young people's questioning and work in formal or informal chaplaincy listening to where people are coming from and speaking carefully of God when appropriate. The author's enthusiasm and sympathy win him requests for prayer, counsel and confession. Some of the issues discussed include self harm and the sexualisation of youth and how the Chaplain engages with pastoral issues in a context where good practice in safeguarding is pivotal. 'One student asked whether I had any inner conflicts. This was a really difficult question because the answer, if truthful, demonstrates the vulnerability which all Christians experience. I said that at times I feel hypocritical. I preach ideals which I myself don't always live up to. The difficulty of priesthood is that all of us are called to a ministry which we are not worthy of. We are all a work in progress and for clergy the proclamation of seemingly unobtainable truths is central to our vocation. We have to preach the ideal but we don't always practise what we preach because we are human. I hope that I answered honestly and clearly'.
Building the Kingdom in the Classroom is a powerful read in its chronicling of the ups and downs, joys and frustrations of working with young people in schools. There is a repeated emphasis on openness to and dependence upon God's mercy as being the greatest resource in Christian ministry. 'Most forms of therapeutic work require a level of self-awareness in order to be effective.. Examination of conscience with the assurance of the forgiveness of sins is incredibly therapeutic and offers something which is found in no other professional discipline. It is is a unique gift that we have to offer.' The lastline of the book summarised the tonic and uplift I felt in reading it given the challenge it deals with: 'Faith-filled people can make a great difference and we need them more than ever'.
Canon John Twisleton 28th October 2017