Faith Matters

'To neglect religious education, is to neglect ourselves'

Religious education is sorely needed in our religiously illiterate society, argues Diarmuid Pepper

A Catholic priest was unable to deliver the Last Rites to Sir David Amess after he was stabbed at a constituency surgery at Belfairs Methodist Church, pictured, Essex last month. The episode has prompted a debate over religious literacy as well as whether clergy should have the right to enter crime scenes in such circumstances. Picture by Yui Mok/PA Wire
Diarmuid Pepper

WHEN Fr Jeffrey Woolnough heard reports that Conservative MP Sir David Amess has been stabbed, he rushed to the scene.

The MP had been holding his weekly constituency surgery in Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-On-Sea when the fatal attack happened last month.

Fr Woolnough tried to deliver the Last Rites to Mr Amess, but was denied access by the police on the basis that the area was a crime scene.

In the end, he prayed the Rosary outside the police cordon with a parishioner.

He told the PA news agency that "for reasons only the police know, I wasn't allowed in".

He added that "a Catholic, when they're dying, would want a priest there".

Such is the level of religious illiteracy that exists these days, it is no longer possible to assume that a police officer would know that the Last Rites are so important for Catholics.

The episode led to calls for an 'Amess amendment' that would guarantee priests access at crime scenes to administer the Last Rites.

According to a 2019 Eurostat survey, 13 per cent of the UK population is Catholic. Essex police say "access to the scene is at the discretion of investigating officers", but it's staggering that there is no national policy for an end-of-life sacrament of such important to more than 1 in 10 of the population.

Religious illiteracy, of course, isn't an issue that only affects Catholics.

On September 15 2001, Frank Silva Roque wanted to "shoot some towel-heads" as a means of supposed retaliation for 9/11.

He ran into Balbir Singh Sodhi outside the gas station that Singh Sodhi ran in Arizona.

Singh Sodhi was a Sikh, which is the world's fifth largest religion.

Silva Roque mistook him to be Muslim and murdered him; Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first hate-crime murder victim post 9/11.

Due to wearing turbans, Sikhs are often mistakenly targeted in Islamophobic attacks. In a recent study, only two per cent of Americans were able to identify Sikh men.

Islamophobia is something we know about only too well here. A 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that 47 per cent of people wouldn't accept a Muslim as a close friend and 29 per cent wouldn't accept a Muslim as a resident in their local area.

Sometimes, these sentiments turn into violent action. And often, Islamophobia can reveal dark underbellies of Ireland that we never knew existed - such as when, in 2018, a dozen or so people marched outside an Islamic Centre in Newtownards dressed in full Ku Klux Klan attire.

When religious illiteracy leads to people being denied incredibly important sacraments and to hate crimes, it's odd to hear such ardent support in some quarters to abolish religious education in the classroom.

Religious education in its current format, both north and south, needs amended but a substantive and holistic religious education is sorely needed in our society.

For example, if our society had a working knowledge of Islam, we would realise the premium Islam puts on the personal spiritual struggle to overcome evils such as anger, greed, pride and hatred; the need to be forgiving to those who hurt us; the need to work for social justice.

Religious education often has to fight to validate its inclusion on the curriculum, but when done right, it is the single most important subject we can study.

It directly confronts one aspect of development that other subjects neglect, namely life itself; what it means to lead a moral and fulfilling life, what it means to create a society wherein life is easier and fairer for all in it, what is needed to create and cultivate real and meaningful relationships.

When done right, it critically discusses issues like abortion and euthanasia, war and peace, punishment and forgiveness, how we came to be and what comes after this life.

To neglect religious education, is to neglect ourselves and the future cohesion of a world that is becoming increasingly smaller yet more divided.

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