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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 6 
The Pope laying even greater emphasis than John Paul II on both doctrine and authority of the Church

Preschools to spread the faith
Jill Rowbotham, Religious affairs writer

THE Catholic Church is on a mission to revive its fortunes, considering setting up preschools and reinforcing spiritual culture by emphasizing the need for crucifixes and pictures of the Virgin Mary on its school walls.

The plan is in a new education strategy, released yesterday, which has implications for Catholic school students, teachers and trainee teachers.

The policy spells out the elements of a "genuinely Catholic" school, featuring "a Catholic visual culture including crucifixes and pictures of the Virgin Mary and the saints".

It recommends that disciplines other than religious education "consider the Catholic dimension of their subject areas" and that teachers be "solidly committed" to the Catholic identity of the school.

Progress would be measured by indicators including an increase in the proportion of staff and students who are Catholic, more mass attendance, deeper involvement in the life of the local church, and the promotion of "Catholic religious literacy".

Measures such as "vocations to priesthood, religious life and Christian marriage" would be actively promoted in the schools.

On the curriculum, it recommends that any subject with a Catholic dimension should be included.

Releasing Catholic Schools at the Crossroads, a pastoral letter for NSW and the ACT, the chairman of the regional Catholic Education Commission, Bishop David Walker, said preschools provided "an opportunity to relate to Catholic families a little bit earlier than we do now".

If the plan went ahead, children attending the schools would receive religious instruction appropriate to their age, which the document refers to as a "crucial stage in faith formation".

The document is signed by the bishops of NSW and the ACT, including Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, and is being distributed for consultation among Catholics in the area.

The thrust of the plan is to maximize opportunities to develop Catholic commitment in students through the church's large schools network, and through them, to involve families in schools and parishes.

Although Catholics still represent the biggest denomination in the country, with 5.1 million followers according to the 2006 census, mass attendance has been on the decline.

"One of the realizations we have had is that many of the children in our schools who are Catholic do not have a home where Catholicism is practiced or given primacy," Bishop Walker said yesterday. "The Catholic community is a wide spectrum of people, and we need to re-engage the parents. I think the world is having more influence on our young people than we are having, and we would like to reassert our role and our influence."

The document says the bishops had to decide between "resisting the high demand for Catholic schooling and downsize to accommodate only those who are committed to the faith, or embrace the changing enrolment patterns as signs of the times and a new mission for Catholic schools". They clearly chose the latter.

There were 239,405 students and 15,526 teachers in the 585 Catholic schools in NSW last year. In the 10 years to 2006, the proportion of non-Catholic students increased from 14per cent to 20 per cent.

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