James McDevitt (Head Teacher, Holy Cross Primary School, Edinburgh)
The damaging effects of school closures from March to June 2020 have been well documented. Chief among these have been concerns about the disruption to children’s education, the impact on general attainment levels and especially on those of the most disadvantaged, and the damage to overall health and wellbeing. For Catholic schools, there is an added negative impact: the devastating effect on the spiritual life of our learners.
It is worth looking at this in more detail by asking a couple of simple questions. Firstly, how many school masses have children missed since March 2020? Secondly, how many Sunday Masses have been missed?
To answer the first question it helps to look at just how integral Mass is to the life of a school. As a Head Teacher, I have always planned the school session around the liturgical calendar. The whole school attends Mass on Holy days of Obligation, the school’s Feast day, and once each during Advent, Lent and Eastertide. We would also normally arrange a Mass at both the start and at the end of a school session. During Lent, individual classes from P4-P7 would be timetabled to attend Mass once at the local parish church. Children in sacramental classes would also normally visit the parish church for Mass a week or two before the actual celebration of the sacrament.
Based on the above programme, I would estimate that our children have missed seven school Masses since March 2020. However, the situation is even more worrying when this is added to the impact of the closure of churches since March 2020. The churches were closed on Thursday 19 March and were not allowed to reopen until Wednesday 15 July. This meant that Sunday Mass was unavailable to Catholic families for 17 weeks.
This is concerning enough in itself. However, the situation was made even worse by the stringent conditions imposed on the churches to allow them to reopen, especially regarding stewarding, reduced capacity and cleaning arrangements. Most churches had to introduce a booking system to manage the reduced capacity and comply with the requirements of test and trace. Many parents also continued to have fears about exposing themselves or their children to infection, meaning that they simply opted not to return to church even when permitted to do so.
School and church closures, reduced capacity, safety worries- of all these factors have combined to mean that very few of our children will have attended Mass at all since March 2020.
Two aspects of this which are of particular concern. The first is the most obvious, simply that the vast majority of our children have been unable to attend Mass for almost ten months. Those who were in the habit of regular attendance have now lost it and may struggle to re-establish it in future. The second aspect regards the damage to our spiritual welfare. Our Catholic faith is sacramental. All Catholics, but especially our children, need the Eucharist and the sacramental encounter with the Lord for both our spiritual wellbeing and ultimate salvation.
I therefore make an appeal to all Catholics involved in the spiritual formation of our young people. When it is safe to do so, let’s make attendance at Mass our top priority for our children. Let’s commit ourselves to repairing some of the spiritual damage caused by the closures of schools and churches. Let’s take the children to Mass at every reasonable opportunity and make regular attendance at Mass a vital part of any school recovery plan which we are asked to write.
In our efforts to repair the damage to our children’s education and health and wellbeing, let’s make sure we strive to support their spiritual wellbeing too.