Historical perspective on the conduct of Retreats
in Australian Catholic Schools in the 1950s and 1960s -- From silent to communitarian retreats

This short review looks at the significant change in style as the old 'silent retreats' in Catholic schools in the 1950s and early 1960s gave way to the communitarian retreats that are now mainstream. The discussion raises issues about the process and effectiveness of retreats.

The style of school retreats for secondary students in the 1950s and early 1960s

School retreats at this time were modelled on the traditional silent retreats for members of religious orders. As a general rule, silence prevailed for the duration of the retreat. Lectures were given by priests on various topics. Confessions, Stations of the Cross, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and the celebration of Mass were integral components.

No doubt these retreats were helpful to the spiritual lives of the students -- particularly when they involved living in at some retreat centre or monastery. There was also a community building dimension. However, questions can be raised about their general appropriateness and effectiveness, particularly when four or five year levels of students were on retreat in the school grounds at the same time. The memories of retreats from those times were not as positive as they are today.

For the periods of silence outside the formal activities, students would be given CTS pamphlets (Catholic Truth Society, published in Melbourne) to read on a range of topics -- some of which may not have had much to do with the sort of reflection and prayer that was expected. There was a significant lack of spiritual reading suitable for adolescents' retreats. Functionally, the reading of pamphlets was an aid to keeping the silence. At live-in retreats there was also reading from the lives of the saints or from other spiritual books during meal times.

Some priests ran a 'question box' program where students were able to put questions they wanted to ask in writing. These were answered in a general session where perhaps some further questions might be asked verbally. (Sometimes the questions had more to do with trying to score points in front of an audience than with searching for a spiritual life. For example: "How long did a kiss have to last to become a mortal sin?) The role of the teachers was to keep 'on patrol' and maintain the silence ready to pick up any student who was talking or not taking the retreat seriously.

Many of these old-style retreats were conducted over a day at school. The context was not different from that of the normal school day. In some instances, particularly for students in the senior classes (Year 11 and especially Year 12) the retreat might be conducted away from the school at some live-in camp site perhaps a convent by the sea, or something equivalent. On this type of retreat, there was usually a period of recreation for talking and walking (or perhaps for football training) during the afternoons. Other elements in the retreat might include the showing of a film that could be related to the retreat theme.

For the religious priests who conducted the retreats and the members of religious orders who supervised them, there was generally not a perceived link between 'a successful retreat' and the 'students' having a good time'. However, it was common for the students to link the idea of a 'good retreat' with 'having a good time'.

This description of the style silent retreats sounds negative. It tends to remember the problems rather than the successes -- an indication that the judgments of the older retreats are now made in the light of what is expected on contemporary school retreats. Nevertheless, it gives a picture of the context and spirituality within which school retreats were conducted at the time. As regards discipline, the problems which teachers may have had in detecting contraband cigarettes (and perhaps alcohol) and of small scale escapades during the night were probably little different from comparable problems that teachers have today with teenagers on retreat.

The key features of these traditional retreats up to the 1960s were silence, student reflection, lectures from the retreat master, confession and mass. The atmosphere of silence, which was intended to express seriousness and reflection was regarded as fundamental to the success of retreats. For this reason, activities which were 'fun', 'community', 'discussion' oriented or even 'experientially oriented' were not thought of as being conducive to a successful retreat.

Two items were central to the retreat:- the celebration of Eucharist; and individual confession -- the latter often including some spiritual direction or counselling from the retreat priest. This was also used as an opportunity for raising questions about a religious vocation to the priesthood or religious life. The retreat priest could be advised by the religious teachers as to which young people might be interested in the idea of a religious vocation. This would be followed up by 'postulators' (or recruit specialists) from the religious orders or the diocesan clergy who visited the schools annually to talk with senior students about religious or priestly vocations. While there were good numbers who joined the priesthood and religious life at the time, there were also others who considered such a vocation during retreat times, even though they were unlikely to follow it through.

There was a distinctive style of spirituality underlying the conduct of retreats in those days which was noticeably different from what is common today. While it was intended to be relevant to the spiritual lives of students, it was a derivative of the pre Vatican II spirituality of religious orders.

The new style communitarian retreats which began in Adelaide in 1967

By about 1968 the new style communitarian retreats were making an initial impact in Catholic secondary schools. In Sydney, pioneering work in this field was done by the De La Salle Brothers, the Passionist community and the Sisters of St Joseph. The guitar playing Br Bill Firman FSC (in an earlier incarnation!) became a principal figure in the new movement when it started in Sydney. 'Br Bill's songbook' was an icon of the dramatic change in retreat style. There were a number of gatherings of retreat teams to reflect on and develop this ministry.

While earlier, having a good time, euphoria and expression of emotion were felt to be the contrary to the serious aims of the retreat, these elements were now regarded as important for success. The communitarian dimension, the fun dimension (singing and games) and the emphasis on small group discussion were key elements in the new format -- they were understood to be not inimical to, but rather catalysts for, prayer and personal reflection on a spiritual dimension to life. The small group discussions could be a stimulus to personal reflection because, perhaps for the first time, young people were able to see that there were others their age who were also searching for spiritual and prayerful elements for their lives.

Activities like 'getting to know you' games, one to one discussions, group painting, simulation games and a variety of other activities, emphasised the experiential dimension to the new style retreats. This in turn helped develop a community spirit. These emphases on the experiential and community did not necessarily detract from the more reflective elements. Community, enjoyment and fun were not incompatible with periods of silence and reflection.

Fundamental to the success of these retreats was the social dynamic -- young men and women from different senior schools meeting in an enjoyable social setting. The friendly climate in which the retreats were conducted, the informality of the camp sites, the more relaxed relationship with staff etc., resulted in situations where it was easier for teenagers of the opposite sex to learn how to communicate with each other and enjoy themselves without the negative dictates of the behavioural stereotypes which operated in other situations such as dances and parties or even at school. It became evident to many of the students that they would be more likely to enjoy a weekend retreat than a holiday weekend. At inter-school retreats, the 'acquaintance process' was used to great advantage; where the students were all from one school this dynamic was not so relevant.

Other factors also influenced the success of the retreats, especially for senior school students. They were often held on weekends, usually with travel away to a camp site in the mountains or near the sea. Attendance was voluntary -- the opportunity for boys and girls from separate sex schools to socialise was always an important drawcard. Gradually, from their beginnings in small voluntary retreats involving students from a groups of schools, the new style spread to class and year level retreats, replacing the silent retreats of former years, becoming mainstream. Eventually this led to the variety of retreats that are now common in Catholic schools.

Given this sort of mix in the new style retreats, particularly by contrast with what happened in the more traditional retreats, it is not surprising that senior school students enjoyed the experiences immensely. The retreat was often called a 'camp', a term which still survives in some schools. While the retreat was often euphoric, the return to earth at school the next day occasionally brought with it a degree of post-euphoric depression on return to the valley of ordinary experience after having been to the 'mountain top'! These were referred to as 're-entry problems'. Efforts were made to address the difficulties. Sometimes the re-entry affected parents, teachers who had not been on the retreat and other students at school.

The communitarian and experiential dimensions added greatly to the celebration of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Reconciliation became part of a celebration of forgiveness and often included individual confessions. While there were some 'marathon' and over-emotional excesses in these liturgies, in general the celebration of Reconciliation and Eucharist was very important for the young people.

For the religious personnel who changed overnight from supervising silent retreats to being participants in communitarian retreats it represented a major turn around in their experience which then had to be translated into a changed understanding of retreat dynamics.

Relationship with the classroom religion curriculum

It was not surprising that the perceived success of the retreats impacted on teachers' thinking about the classroom religion curriculum. What a number of the participants said about the spiritual value of the retreats was encouraging. Religious educators quickly realised that in retreats they had discovered a very effective spiritual activity which contrasted with the dissatisfaction and apparent lack of effectiveness of much that was happening in classroom religious education at the time. Impressed with the newfound importance and popularity of retreats, some were more content with the current ambivalence about classroom religious education curriculum -- if the retreats were good, then the current confusion about what to do in the classroom did not seem to matter so much.

Hence, what was learned from the retreats did not always enhance classroom religious education even though it was expected that the two areas should have complementary roles in the school's overall religious education. For some, the classroom was regarded as inferior because it could not attain to the same 'spiritual intensity' and 'personalism' that were ascribed to the retreats. Some tried to convert their classroom religious education into retreat format -- there was some logic to the idea that if particular activities worked well on retreat, why not in the classroom? The approach described by one student as 'sitting on bean bags and listening to Jonathan Livingstone Seagull music' and other innovations like the use of informal religion discussion rooms, and having retreat days in place of a few weeks of religion lessons, were all tried. However, the retreat formula for classroom religious education was not a success.

At this time, after the collapse of the old catechism style instruction, there was a long period of uncertainty and experimentation with the nature and purposes of classroom religious education; there was a great emphasis on 'personalism', 'relevance' and 'the experiential'. But it would take more time for a gradual clarification of the theory and practice of classroom religious education in Catholic schools. Despite the current degree of general practical consensus about how religion should be taught as a subject in the classroom, there still remains a level of ambiguity about how a spiritual and personal dimension actually figures in the teaching processes of Catholic religious education.

From our current historical perspective the problem can be much better understood now than was possible then. Initially, as educators tried to respond to the calls within new thinking about religious education to be personal, experiential and relevant, their retreats were the first successful response. It was in classroom religious education where a confusion of purposes would take longer to resolve. In a way, the success of personalism within the new retreats stimulated the quest for personalism in the classroom. But this quest was often counter-productive; it was both inappropriate and unrealistic to expect the classroom to function like a retreat. This also neglected the most distinctive thing that the classroom could contribute to an overall religious education an open, inquiring, informative study of religion.

The early history of the communitarian retreats

The popularity of the new retreats was soon spread by word of mouth. More and more schools were trying out the new approaches. And, as is common when some aspects of religious education seem to be going well, there were individuals who were quick to find fault and to check on excesses. There was some concern amongst the clergy in Sydney about the euphoria on the retreats and about liberties that were thought to the taken in the celebration of the Eucharist. As a result of this concern, the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney called for a meeting between clergy and those variously involved in the new style retreats or 'camps'. His memorable letter noted that one of the aims of the meeting was to "put the camp movement on a proper basis". This was 1970; if a newspaper had access to this letter at the time, the Archbishop might have acquired an unintended reformist reputation. The Camp Committee, set up after the meeting to keep a check on retreats, did not have much influence and was unable to have its recommendations to purchase camp sites followed through.

Since the early 1970s, the new style retreats became one of the most significant success stories for the overall religious education and ministry within Catholic schools. The types of retreat which were conducted varied in style and emphasis. The range evolved considerably to include the complete spectrum from what might be called a community building holiday camp (with some religious activities), to a year level orientation camp, to communitarian retreats, to more reflective relatively silent retreats, to directed retreats somewhat similar to the directed retreats conducted for members of religious communities. Of special note are the retreats conducted by members of voluntary youth groups like Young Christian Students where the retreat team was a core of students; the dynamics in this situation were quite distinctive.

The success of some of the communitarian retreats in the early 1970s encouraged a number of schools to arrange for similar types of retreats for adults. Some groups of schools ran retreats for adults collectively for many years. The development of the retreat movement in the Catholic school system was paralleled by similar development in retreats and other retreat like activities for adults. The adult retreats complemented what was being done in the light of Christian initiation of adults (RCIA programs), as well as numerous other adult religious education programs in theology, scripture and spirituality which now go to make up a richer range of adult catechesis and religious education programs for Catholics than was ever the case before the Second Vatican Council.

The relevance of group psychology and counselling to the conduct of retreats

There is no doubt that in the 1970s the experience gained by religious personnel in group dynamics and in counselling proved to be valuable for the new style retreats. It was no longer the retreat conducted by the priest, but rather the retreat or religious camp conducted by a 'retreat team'. In some instances, retreat teams put in special time together precisely to build up a sense of teamwork and rapport.

Being involved in retreat teams proved to be an important personal and spiritual experience for religious personnel particularly, and for lay teachers. This was happening at the end of the Second Vatican Council when there were significant winds of change in spirituality; religious personnel became much more interested in theology, scripture, psychology and counselling. The movement of humanistic psychology (Rogers, Maslow, May, Allport, Erikson, Fromm and others) was widely embraced and a more psychologically focused Catholic spirituality emerged -- this was to be an enduring change which widened the personal relevance of Catholic spirituality. The increased psychological skills improved the sensitivity with which group discussions and affirmations were conducted on retreats.

The work also had other implications for the retreat team members. In this new atmosphere, they felt encouraged to explore the significance of personal relationships for their own personal and spiritual development. Previously, the prevailing, official climate in religious orders did more to inhibit than encourage personal relationships because they were felt to be inappropriate for the spirituality of the time (so called 'particular friendships' were frowned upon; there was also an underlying and usually unspoken fear of homosexuality). Concern about the danger in friendships applied particularly to religious or lay people of the opposite sex. However, the community style school retreat scene soon became an important arena for personal relationships between retreat team members. For some, this new personalism came not only from relating to other retreat team members, but also to the teenage students, particularly those of the opposite sex. Along with the healthy human development fostered by such relationships there were some problems just as there are today.

For some religious personnel the satisfaction in these new found relationships sowed the seeds for change that would eventually lead them to withdraw from their religious community and eventually marry. However, the experience was just as important for those who were finding a new meaning for their life and ministry as celibate members of a religious community. These experiences contributed to significant change in the culture, lifestyle and spirituality of the teaching religious orders. The retreat scene not only affected the students, it energised a wave of personalism through the spirituality of many Catholic school teachers.

These changes in spirituality were reflected in the celebration of the Eucharist. Previously, the prevailing spirituality required that the faithful 'attend' at the divine and mysterious sacrifice of the Mass and that they look on in awe and wonder, or pray silently as the liturgy is enacted on their behalf by the priest at the altar. The use of the Latin language reinforced this mystique. However, gradually since the Second Vatican Council, three new emphases became very prominent in the Eucharist the importance of celebration (the participants are there to celebrate the memory of the Risen Christ in their midst), to communicate (the readings, the prayers and the homily were to be opportunities for communicating the word of God and reflecting on it, for evangelising the faithful and stimulating them to more spiritual, justice-oriented lives) and participation (it was no longer to be silent attendance at the Mass but participation in the action through symbols, through movement, through prayers and through the communion occasionally in small groups, participation included dialogue during the homily). These aspects came through strongly in the liturgies held at the communitarian retreats.

Elsewhere, some attention has been given to the important place of emotionality in the new style retreat movement (Word in Life, 1997 Volume 45,1.). While there were problems, and while there will continue to be similar problems, overall the personal and the emotional dimensions within the new style retreats, both for students and retreat team leaders, proved to be of great value for the personal and spiritual development of all concerned.


Retreats of various types continue to be of fundamental importance in Catholic school religious education right across the spectrum from primary to senior secondary levels. Retreats are not always a great success. Neither are they always easy to run. There remain difficulties and problems with the conduct of retreats and with their integration within the overall religious education and ministry within Catholic schools. A number of these issues were discussed in the special section on retreats in Word in Life in 1997. A number of courses are conducted for teachers to help them become more familiar with the approaches and activities used in retreats.

What has been written here by way of historical perspective and the other material that looks at issues in the conduct of retreats can contribute to the ongoing need within Catholic education to review, evaluate, correct problems and enhance the effectiveness of retreats activities which are likely to remain as one of the most distinctive features of Catholic school religious education in Australia.

The following are key references for looking at the contemporary live-in retreats in Catholic schools.

Tullio, R. & Rossiter, G. 2009. Critical issues for the future of senior class retreats in Australian Catholic schools: Part 1. Major theoretical and educational issues. Journal of Religious Education . 57 , 4, 57-70.

Tullio, R. & Rossiter, G. 2010. Securing the future of live-in retreats in Australian Catholic secondary schools: Part 2. Psychological and spiritual issues related to the nature, purposes and conduct of retreats. Journal of Religious Education . 58 , 2, 65-74.

Tullio, R. & Rossiter, G. 2010. Contextual factors affecting the conduct and the future of live-in retreats in Australian Catholic secondary schools. Journal of Catholic School Studies . 82 , 1, 43-58.

Rossiter, G. (2016). Research on Retreats. Sydney: Australian Catholic University School of Education NSW.

Rachele Tullio and Graham Rossiter have written 3 articles resulting from her doctoral research on teachers' understandings of the nature and function of retreats and perceptions of the skills required for their effective conduct. Click here for the first one on the overall educational significance of retreats in Journal of Religious Education.

Click for second article in Journal of Religious Education; Click for third article in Journal of Catholic School Studies 2010.

Return to Section text