...brand-new book, just off the press: Fr Matthew Pittam's Building the Kingdom in the Classroom. It's a fascinating diary of a school chaplain, and is full of human interest, some touching stories, and practical ideas for evangelisation... and in a down-to-earth way has a message of hope. I put the book in my bag with a vague idea of reading it on the train but frankly not expecting to find it particularly interesting, opened it only when I had finished with the newspaper and had nothing else at hand...and found it really gripping!
Fr Matthew shows how much of what was once a standard line on Catholic schools no longer applies. As one obvious, but often ignored, fact: for many pupils today, school can be a place of structure and stability in a disordered world and often a disordered family. In the case of a Catholic school, it can be a place where prayer can be experienced, and where the spiritual life is recognised in a way that simply doesn't happen at home. And this isn't achieved by vague offers of a friendly chat. much less by superficial gimmicks, but by what the Church truly offers: the sacraments, structured prayer, the Rosary, the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. Fr Matthew describes how praying the Rosary has proved popular and helped to nourish young people's faith, bring hope and consolation, and forge bonds of community and friendship. Friendship, kindness and availability of a chaplain also matter a great deal: he cannot be a remote figure and he must be seen around the school.
A major problem in today's Catholic schools is the large number of teachers who are either lapsed Catholics or are agnostic or openly atheistic. Another problem is the general sub-culture of modern Britain, which marginalises the whole idea of Christianity, and makes it easy for teenagers who are interested in the Faith to be made to feel they are stupid, bigoted or just weird.
Fr Matthew's diary format makes the book very readable. There are some touching descriptions of pupils arriving for early Mass before school, taking part in quiet adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, or enthusiastically becoming altar servers and proud to wear their new robes. But there are also strange paradoxes: a boy who is a loyal altar-server at school but doesn't go to Mass on Sundays - either because of family pressures or because the nearest parish seems dreary and unattractive...
This is a book that will open up many aspects of modern British school life to the reader, and is much recommended.