Catholic Schools and The Sacrament of Reconciliation – A Bridge Too Far?

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Best I can tell there are only two ways to make alpha male students cry. One is to guide them to winning a Grand Final in any sport that involves pounding their opposition into submission. After all, high-level sport is the only culturally sanctioned place where men can cry. The other way is to work in a deeply Catholic school where the sacrament of reconciliation is taken seriously by serious Catholic educators.

Let’s be clear. Crying is not the goal, either of a sporting event or of a sacrament. What is interesting though is what can happen to students on the affective and spiritual plane when they are both suitably prepared and then given an opportunity to encounter the sacrament of reconciliation by staffs that take it seriously themselves.

When you deliver live seminars to over a quarter of a million students, staff and parents you see the best and the worst of what Catholic education can do. You encounter some Catholic schools so compromised by post-modern ideologies that they are simply holding pens for disgruntled and cynical young people who never had a chance to encounter the beauty of faith. You also encounter many fine schools doing great work in gently and faithfully advancing the Church’s mission and once in a while you find a truly great Catholic school doing truly great things.

St. Bede’s College in Christchurch is such a place. I have been there now on several occasions and every visit has been memorable. It demonstrates the very best of what a Catholic school can do, for the purposes of this article, in the lives of young men.

The recent earthquakes in many ways have marked it. Students have lost family members; some buildings were closed for a long time. The marks of the damage were evident on my last visit. Strangely enough, there has been one positive, at least for the boys. A nearby girl’s school was seriously damaged so the Rector at St. Bede’s, Justin Boyle invited the entire school to share his campus. In the space of a few days, an entire Catholic girl’s school took up residence, sharing the facilities in shifts with the young men attending the school from 7.45am and the young women starting later. The boys seemed to bear up under the intrusion manfully!

What is striking about St. Bede’s is that it is one of the few schools that create a culture where young men can play elite rugby but be as equally validated for their openness to God, prayer and sacrament. The emasculation of male spirituality has not happened here and, paradoxically, it has been led in many ways by gifted and committed Catholic woman, Rachel Pitcaithly.

Rachel is the best of what Catholic education produces. Her care for young men is incredibly evident in each conversation, each casual interaction. What is most evident however is her love for God and her desire that young men at least have a chance to experience the possibilities of that relationship. It is from Rachel that I learned what is possible with young men when Catholic educators are formed and committed to the full possibility of their vocations.

The sacrament of reconciliation has come to be a crucial part of the work that Rachel and her team undertake each year at the retreat for senior students. It is here that many young men have come to experience a genuine encounter with Christ and some have been moved to tears. She prepares them in depth and works closely with good priests to create a powerful environment where boys find it much easier to take the leap of faith and courage to meet the Father always awaiting the return of the prodigal.

 Rachel’s Story

Below is the text of the email Rachel recently sent me about the St. Bede’s experience of reconciliation:

Preparation is so important – getting the students to understand that this is a joyful sacrament not a scary telling off enjoy purgatory sort of encounter; making them aware that this is a one on one chat with God – it doesn’t get any better than that, how could it!

I do a lot of build up telling them that they are all good- created in God’s image good and that God’s plan for us is about our happiness, He wants us to be happy. How can we be happy if something is holding us back, weighing us down, robbing us of our future?

We can’t so we need to get rid of the baggage, the dead weight. That’s where reconciliation comes in. However, we need to be prepared to move on. Once we have handed the rubbish over to God, we must be prepared to move on. We have given it to Him, rejoice on that.

I think it’s also important to point out that we are all different so things that upset us or worry us may not be the same for others.

We chat too about the language of the body – that the priest laying his hands on us is making God’s love visible to us in a very physical and real way; a beautiful healing way.

We talk about reconciliation in just about every lesson in TOB (Theology of The Body) and I think it is important that we do this, so that reconciliation is seen as a normal part of life, not something to be feared. We now offer reconciliation three time a week at school and many many boys and staff make the most of this.

When we have reconciliation on retreat we always do rite 2 and have the priests spread around the room so students can actually see their peers experiencing this beautiful sacrament. I think that at times they are amazed at who goes up to the priest and they get a sense that everyone has rubbish to get rid of. I’ve found that some boys, who have not had reconciliation for quite some time start to think they are the worst people on earth, that no one else could possibly be as bad as them.

 To witness peers and staff approaching a priest can alleviate this worry. Sometimes we combine adoration with reconciliation all in the same room  . . the Blessed Sacrament exposed adds a real sense of calm and the boys respect this and, even if some don’t fully realise what is happening, they know something special is.

Also with everyone in the same room – normally spread out or lying on the ground, the boys get to see the priests faces – they joy with which they welcome each boy, their looks of love and concern, their laughter – and that is all about inner beauty and they need to see it. Then of course they see their peers – when they have been reconciled – and see that the worry has drained away, they appear about 6 inches taller and they bounce back to their seats. Beautiful!

An 83yr old priest said to me not so long ago ‘ Rachel, your boys seem to have added a new element to reconciliation’. I replied,(a little nervously) “Really Fr, what would that be?” and he said ‘At the end of reconciliation after I have absolved them of their sins, they stick their hand out and say ”Put it there Father”’ and he walked away chuckling aloud. And his laugh was a beautiful sound.


Many years ago I remember reading a comment by Fr. Ranierio Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household where he made a very interesting point that when the faithful abandon a sacrament it does not disappear but rather it remerges in our cultures in another form. Think of the self-help and therapeutic movements of the last three decades or more. Think of the cringe-worthy self-disclosure of most TV chat shows like Oprah. Think of fallen politicians and their statements of guilt and absolution, “I take full responsibility.”We are all so deeply affected by Freud’s theories of repression and guilt that we assume guilt is a purely toxic emotion. In fact, shame is toxic but guilt is psychologically healthy.

Without guilt we descend into sociopathy, the complete inability to perceive the impact of our selfishness and weakness upon both ourselves and others.In truth, the human need for reconciliation, to admit failure and worse and to seek healing, closure and a new start are not ‘accidents’ of culture or signs of Freudian pathology. They are part of our ontological essence, a longing for home as we return from another far off land where we have squandered our inheritance.In a school like St. Bede’s, leaders like Rachel Pitcaithly and Justin Boyle have decided to go looking for the lost and at the very least pointing a way home. Sadly, for many Catholic schools it seems a bridge too far.

What has been your experience?

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  • John Thomas

    I couldn’t agree more. I am teaching in a Cath Ed High school and we have spent some time exploring the idea of a “Lay Charism”. Not really having a religious community to look to we have looked at the idea of a “sacramental community”. We have worked very hard with the celebration of the Mass – in a variety of contexts. Students are responding well – now is the time to begin to more actively “engage” them in what is really happening. At our recent retreat for Year 11 where we spent considerable time exploring different forms of prayer we had a focus on the sacrament of reconciliation. We were able to get 3 local priests to join us and were able to prepare for the sacrament and offer the sacrament. All students (only 90 of them) went to a priest – and they could choose to receive the sacrament of they had a some questions to discuss. A very prayerful time!

    • Jonathan Doyle

      Thanks John…what a great post. It is brilliant to discovers teachers like you who are out there at the coalface serving God, young people and the Church. Your post highlights the fact that the challenge we have is not the sacrament or the students, it’s us! When educators are personally evangelised then they tend to create all around them mini ‘kingdoms’ where in big ways and small the Kingdom of God is made real. Keep up your great work.

  • John Hicks

    Well done Jonathan, you have identified educators such as Rachel Pitcaithly and Justin Boyle at St Bedes. A parent’s and a teacher’s role is to prepare their charges for life. Giving their students a true appreciation of the sacrament of reconciliation is an excellent start to life and a great counter to depression and subsequent suicide.Knowing that no failure is too great, no sin is too big is a great counter to the misfortunes of life. “Though your sins are as scarlet I will wash them as white as snow”.
    A healthy appreciation of sin leading to a realisation of the need to offer reparation coupled with a real sense of the need for divine worship are the precursers to a need for regular Sunday Mass.Instilling these basic long term survival convictions into young men guarantees well adjusted families into the future.
    Sadly, despite their best endeavours, many schools are failing dismally. I have seen quoted attrition rates on Mass attendance as high as 95% within 12 months of leaving school. In our parish it is 100%, and they don’t return later except maybe on their wedding day, never to be seen again until death they do part!
    Keep up the good work, extol successful systems in the hope that curriculum organisers will catch on and learn from a system that works, because as sure as HELL the present system isn’t.

  • Shannon

    In my school each year 8 homeroom is visited by a local priest to hear their confessions – normally done in two sessions for each class. The greatest difficulty – beyond finding an available priest – is that so few of the kids grasp that sin is real and has consequences.

    We all grant that we make mistakes, but the sense of sin (especially personal sin) among the kids is very low. Even among those few kids who are churched. After all, very few homilies address sin as a topic and even fewer exhort us to visit the sacrament.

  • Alan Wedd

    Thanks, Jonathan, another thought-provoking article on your website. I’m thinking of using this in one of my classes of tertiary students studying a ‘Catholic Studies’ elective (at a public university) as they either wish to gain accreditation to teach in a Catholic school or wish just to learn something more about the unit’s content. There’s a mix of motivations and a mix of backgrounds.

    Just yesterday, one commented about the ‘niceness’ of the RE classes she experienced at school but how quickly they became repetitious, which she identified as happening because their focus was always on our relationships with each other – and not our relationship with God.

    So, since this unit is entitled ‘The Bible in Religious Education’, when we come to the parables, I think I’ll take some time to look at those three in Luke 15 and follow this up with your article and ask, ‘Well, what do you think?’

    Several of these students are studying to be secondary teachers with RE as their minor. Slowly, slowly, there’s a turn in the tide.

    I don’t despair of our Catholic schools and their future. There’s just more work our generation has still to do.

  • Ian

    This is a very uplifting article Jonathan. If this can be done in one Catholic school there is a chance it can be done in others. I also agree with your comment to John Thomas, that there is nothing wrong with the sacrament, ‘its us’. And good luck to Al Wedd and his efforts.

  • Reconciliation builds Men of Courage so lacking in this world today. It’s so wonderful to hear that there are still good teachers at Catholic schools! I hear so much horror and suppression of Truth in our so-called Catholic schools. Thank you to all the courageous teachers who actually see themselves as teachers and not “facilitators”. May God bless you abundantly.

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