In passing, let me say that I find these occasions very worthwhile and I’m always impressed by the good sense and good humour of these student leaders. Anyway, I intend to ask whether they did anything special at school for ‘yesterday’. My cunning plan is to assess from the responses the relative impact on a Catholic high school population of yesterday’s concurrent occasions, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. I’m not hopeful, but I may yet be surprised.
Of course, when I was a high-schooler there was no contest, for two very good reasons. First, (Saint) Valentine’s Day didn’t exist. We knew about it from American shows, but it was non-existent in Australia. Those old enough to remember may recall that decimal currency was introduced ‘…on the fourteenth of February nineteen-sixty-six…’ without their, or anyone else’s, ever thinking, ‘Oh, that’s Valentine’s Day.’ It simply wasn’t in our calendar then.
On the other hand, in a Catholic school Ash Wednesday was unavoidable. Very probably there’d been Mass and distribution of ashes at school. (One of the Jesuits who taught me could ash five foreheads in the space of one statement of the formula, “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return” ‒ but he was exceptional in many ways.) Of at least equal significance to schoolboys, however, meat was ‘off’ at the tuckshop. No corned beef and pickle sandwiches were to be had, and even pies and sausage rolls – which, it was rumoured, might contain some meat – were not available. Ash Wednesday had its consequences, though the same conditions applied every Friday in any case. These days, for reasons of developmental health that may, I suppose, be relevant in Upper Volta or somewhere, the laws of fast and abstinence don’t apply to kids under 16, so the school canteens of today have the law largely on their side. Mind you, I’m not sure that the official rules applied to kids back then, either, but they certainly were applied, regardless. You were a Catholic child, you did the Catholic stuff.
Now, I’m no doubt giving the impression that I regret the passing of the old rules. That is not entirely the case. If there’s one thing the church has learnt in my lifetime it is surely that rules are a fairly poor device for teaching values. ‘Fasting and abstinence’ were all about the values of penance and self-denial. But they didn’t actually inculcate those values. At least in Irish-Australian Catholicism, they were just rules you had to keep to avoid going to Hell and to define yourself as ‘Catholic’ in contrast to the surrounding Protestants. The values they represented were rule-keeping and being different, not penance and self-denial. That was apparent as people hoed into their lovely fish dinners on Friday nights, and painfully obvious when the rules were changed. The church said, ‘Now you can choose your own penance’, but the populace largely just said, ‘Whacko. No more “fish on Fridays”’.
So now we’re in Lent. There are virtually no rules to shape this penitential season any more, but the need to impose some restraint on ourselves, as a reminder of our faults, as a discipline to see that we are not just suckers for every passing impulse to self-gratification, as a way to build capacity to be charitable to the poor, these things have not passed away. We just have to find for ourselves the ways we can build those values into our lives. I’ll see what the young leaders think.