The story of the Catholic identity of the school and the 'Angelus Gestapo'

In the Middle Ages in Europe, when the church bells tolled at midday, many would stop and recite the Angelus. This prayer is associated with the Incarnation – God's personal involvement in the world and in the affairs of people through Jesus.

Stopping the daily routine and reciting the Angelus was common in many Australian Catholic schools in the 1950s. In at least one Catholic diocese in Australia, the practice has been revived and mandated.

Rather than have the Angelus said every day, I make the following recommendation for a retention of the Angelus/Incarnation time with modifications. Twice a week at 12 PM (and not every day) the school would stop briefly for reflection time. Occasionally, the traditional old Angelus would be recited. At other times, there would be a variety of prayers, prayer forms and reflections. There could be examples from the Judaeo-Christian tradition – from the Psalms, other parts of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and from the history of prayer in the Christian tradition.

Representatives from all classes in the school could prepare the reflections in turn. In addition to the above mentioned, the reflections could use poems, quotations and readings from literature as well as the students' own compositions. They could include audiovisuals – with flat-screen television monitors now in most classrooms. Reflections could include songs. All the reflections would be brief – no more than a minute or two. The prayer/reflection could be directed in support of specific people and/or it might address contemporary issues – about what is happening locally, nationally and in the world at present.

Just having this practice would be a concrete reminder for students that the Catholic school stands for the importance of prayer and reflection in life. t could also demonstrate its concern for others, particularly those in need, or in difficult situations. he prayer/reflection could also highlight the school's value stance in relation to current issues. Its purpose is not about exhibiting or trying to enhance Catholic identity, but showing how prayer/reflectiveness/stopping-to-think is an important part of a Christian way of life. And the school lives out this belief.

By contrast, reciting the Angelus daily without variation has intentionally been about demonstrating and reinforcing Catholic identity. But this is counter-productive. If the perceptions of students and teachers were surveyed, the results would in all likelihood show that the practice is not taken seriously, especially in the senior classes.

For example: In one school, particularly in the senior classes, little if any attention was given to the Angelus broadcast through the school's PA system. Both students and teachers continued working on their computers or in organising their books and notes etc.

Not happy with this, the school executive started ‘checking up' to see who was and who was not observing the Angelus properly – with the latter being admonished. Soon the message got around “Beware of the Angelus Gestapo”. In some classes, where students at the front-side of the room were in a position to see anyone coming down the corridor, they took on the role of what might be called the ‘Recon Marine' on Angelus point duty. When they saw someone in the corridor who may have been Gestapo, they would cough judiciously and the class would assume an appropriately devout Angelus posture.

This example is hardly a good one to demonstrate how Catholic identity might be required of a Catholic school. Unfortunately, the fact is most students and their parents are not interested in engaging in the Catholic church – apart from its Catholic schools. As long as the children are at a Catholic school, their feelings about the church may remain benign. But their predominant view is one of disinterest.

I think that a valuable opportunity to educate students in prayer/reflectiveness is being missed – referring to the proposed variation above.

And each day in a school when the Angelus starts at 12 pm, it is not a re-affirming of Catholic identity or a conscious celebration of the Incarnation. Rather it is the daily public reminder for many students of the irrelevance of the Catholic church – to them it seems like an outdated Medieval practice rather than a call to prayer. For some it may even sound like the catchcry ‘Make the Catholic church great again'.

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