July 13th 2019

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COVER STORY Transgender birth certificates: No sex, please, we're Victorian

EDITORIAL Laws, sporting bodies, the AHRC: Abolishing women's rights in sport

CANBERRA OBSERVED Did Turnbull attempt the constitutional gambit?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS China kills prisoners on an industrial scale to obtain transplant organs

NATIONAL AFFAIRS A Q&A to clarify issues in Cardinal Pell's appeal

REFLECTION ON GENDER Male and female He created them: A teaching moment

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 5: The cosmos in the New Testament

CULTURE OF DEATH Melinda Gates and other wealthy lemmings lead the race to dusty death

EUTHANASIA Death comes to the Garden State: A blunt view

ASIAN HISTORY Dien Bien Phu: Curtain raiser to bigger conflict

HISTORY AND RELIGION Faith in reason alone gives more heat than light

BOOK REVIEW Roadmap to the law and transgenderism

HUMOUR The last act is bloody ...

MUSIC Dull Tune? Arrangements can be made

CINEMA Tolkien: Captures the storyteller but not the man

BOOK REVIEW We have nothing to fear but fear itself

BOOK REVIEW The days of calm before the storm

NATIONAL AFFAIRS High power prices lead to more deaths of elderly

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The days of calm before the storm

News Weekly, July 13, 2019

ANGELS, INCENSE AND REVOLUTION: Catholic Schooldays of the 1960s

by Wanda Skowronska

(Foreword by Jim Franklin)
Connor Court, Redland Bay
Paperback: 224 pages
Price: AUD$29.95

Reviewed by Michael Gilchrist

As the old saying goes, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. However, those in control of Catholic religious education forgot that wise maxim in the years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

While the Council mandated reforms where needed, it by no means commanded a revolution, whether in liturgy, education or anywhere else. However, for assorted reasons, many responsible people in Catholic education offices, liturgy committees, seminaries and religious orders invoked the “spirit of Vatican II” as giving a green light to ongoing radical changes, not least in the content and method of religious education.

The fallout from this for the Church in Western countries like Australia, at least in part, is evident today as we witness minuscule and declining Mass attendance rates, ignorance of the content and practice of the faith, and a general dumbing down of liturgies. “Kneeling before the world” seems to have taken over.

Angels, Incense and Revolution provides a fascinating bird’s eye view of the Catholic classroom prior to, during and following Vatican II. The author, with an uncanny memory for detail, outlines her experiences through primary and secondary school and her growing awareness of a creeping revolution as it gradually impacted on various sectors of the Church.

Skowronska contrasts today’s situation with the 1960s, when Catholic schools were predominantly staffed by nuns, brothers and priests, where there was a clearly communicated sense of purpose and Catholic identity, where prayer, the supernatural and all that pertained to the Catholic faith permeated each school day and the yearly liturgical calendar.

As the author observes: “There was something truly extraordinary about it and the ‘ordinary’ days of half a century ago” (Chapter 1); how an entire Catholic legacy was passed on to new generations, notably its practices, beliefs and worldview, adding up, as the author quips, to “a Church Almost Triumphant in Australia”.

Adding to the book’s appeal is the writer’s affectionate account of the wider cultural context for her 1960s schooldays: the final years of the long Menzies reign, Vincent’s powders, double-decker buses, “cowboys and Injuns” on TV, Johnny O’Keefe, Little Patty and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, sometimes read as one ate the contents. Along the way there are humorous anecdotes to accompany the defining memorabilia (generously illustrated) of the period.

Among the familiar Anglo-Irish names at roll call, typically Delaney, Doolan, Hanrahan, Murphy, O’Brien, Quirk and Curran, were increasing numbers of foreign sounding names like Skowronska, De Lorenze, Guiffre, Yee, and Szeto. But all were readily accommodated within the inclusive universe of a Catholic school’s culture, both religious and secular.

The book includes some historical background to pre-Vatican II Catholicism, especially the pivotal role of the 19th-century missionary nuns (as well as priests and brothers) sent – mainly from Ireland – to educate Catholic children down under.

We learn too how the Catholic school atmosphere impacted on the author as a child of Eastern European refugees, where the predominantly Irish flavour intermingled with her Polish and Latvian heritage. Soon she could sing When Irish Eyes are Smiling and Faith of Our Fathers, along with Polish songs taught her by her grandmother, who had survived the Ravensbruck Concentration camp.

Memories of past World War II horrors, transmitted by Skowronska’s family, were eased by the calm order of an Australian Catholic school’s routines, with the passing events of each day underpinned not only by a solid educational framework but by a psychological and spiritual one as well. Each child, of whatever background, was helped to accept that supernatural realities were vital foundations for their future lives and happiness.

The author recalls that the revolutionary aspects of the later 1960s were slow to infiltrate her school, but eventually the pervasive Catholic atmosphere and memorabilia, hitherto the norms and taken for granted, would succumb bit by bit to the alien influences that seeped in almost undetected.

Skowronska writes: “Little could I, or anyone at Brigidine [her school in Sydney], imagine in the slightest the coming persecution of Christians in the West within a few decades, initially by insidious infiltration, and later by the increasing coercion of political correctness where one could be vilified simply for [stating once obvious truths] like ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ and the touchstone of progressive correctness would be support for abortion” (Chapter 19).

Her Eastern European background under the shadow of the Soviet Union no doubt better equipped her at the time to question the progressive agenda: “For a reffo child, whose parents had lost their countries and families because of ‘social justice’, communist utopias based on Marx and Lenin, this approaching post-Conciliar focus on earthly justice alone wore a suspicious mask” (Chapter 19).

As the author completed the final year of her Catholic education and prepared to enter the ‘world’, she became increasingly aware of the onset of what she termed cultural Marxism and a self-focused psychology that would soon help unravel a once stable Catholic culture. It was “a toxic brew” that would gradually permeate Western nations like Australia from the late 1960s onwards.

As Skowronska observes: “The cultural ground was giving way and we were virtually final witnesses to an era where the Judeo-Christian worldview, which had held some sway among Australians, was about to be attacked on all sides” (Chapter 20).

Angels, Incense and Revolution is a welcome book, both for its vivid portrait of a lost past and for the author’s probing analysis of how the “old” Church was transformed into the “new”. Even those who may disagree with Skowronska’s analysis will find much of the book’s account resonating with them, especially if they attended Catholic schools during the 1960s.

As someone who taught in Catholic schools throughout the period covered in this book, I can vouch for the overall accuracy and authenticity of the author’s recollections and observations. Angels, Incense and Revolution is highly recommended as a fascinating, thought-provoking page-turner.

Michael Gilchrist taught in Catholic secondary schools during the 1960s and 1970s and later lectured in education at campuses of what is now Australian Catholic University. He has written several books on the Catholic Church and is currently working for a book publisher.

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