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From the Sacristy to the School: the Challenge of Religious Education in Hungary

I remember myself as a young boy going every Tuesday evening to the sacristy of the so called “Convent Church” in my little home town in Hungary. It was the mid-80s, when the country was still under communist rule. Religious education (RE) at school seemed only a dream – a dream no one thought would turn into reality one day. I remember the faces of my fellow students, who I knew from serving together at the altar and some other familiar faces from school. We all felt the exceptional character of these RE classes. We knew that it was a privilege.

Now, more than three decades later, the situation has changed enormously. Religious education is not just a tolerated option for a privileged, or rather deprived minority, but is a right for every student in Hungary, a compulsory elective lesson for students aged 6-14. It’s part of normal school life.

Was something lost by making RE a compulsory subject? For my generation, attending RE classes at the sacristy in the mid-80s communist Hungary gave a sense of heroism and belonging. Heroism, since we felt that religion was not something supported by the system, but required a certain rebellious attitude. It also gave us a sense of belonging, since there were only a handful of students at these RE classes, and this fact made us feel that we belonged to a special community, sharing a life beyond the boundaries of the average life of Hungarians in the communist system. Today RE classes hardly give this very special sense of heroism or belonging.

Still, despite of these losses, I’m glad that socialism in Hungary is over, and also that today’s generation of students have the option to participate in RE within the framework of the Hungarian school system. I don’t think that we should strive for a situation where religion is persecuted or at best tolerated.

In times of socialism religion was deprived of being a source for shaping society. The church was forced to act solely within its own walls and without any influence on the development of social processes. Today the state does not just tolerate the involvement of religious communities in public life, but looks for their contribution to the development of society. This is understandable, since religious communities are still the biggest NGOs in the country, who are able to organize and shape social processes in a value based fashion. Beyond that, religious communities carry a higher level of vitality on both the institutional and the individual level. This was probably one reason why RE was accepted as part of the national curriculum in 2013.

But with this educational change, religious communities found themselves under a new kind of pressure. Now vitality is not enough. What is urgently required is a process of professionalization. RE teachers now compete with teachers of ethics, and they need to justify their presence in schools through high quality teaching. They also need to create new links to their religious communities, since many students attending RE do not have a living connection with them. It’s mostly restricted to church attendance, if it exists at all.

Many church representatives see this pressure posed by integration of RE into the curriculum as a threat to church life. They bemoan that RE classes at parishes are less and less well attended. I can understand them, since most of my religious education also took place within the walls of our local church.

What most people, however, do not see is that this pressure is not (just) a treat, but also a chance. It challenges churches on the institutional level to train RE teachers, who can perform on the same level as teachers of other subjects. It challenges schools to integrate RE into their system. Finally, it challenges every individual RE teacher to open up and make religion part of school life again. Certainly it needs creativity, courage, and stamina, but there is an unquestionable vitality at the fundament of our religious communities and a demand for spirituality on the side of students, which can serve as the fundament of this paradigm shift.

Back in the 80s, I remember my first RE teacher talking about The Last Supper by using a small table with tiny chairs, serving grape juice and unconsecrated wafer. He used all the tools he had beyond the walls of the sacristy and gave us a lifelong experience of religion. Now, that the doors of schools are open for RE, why don’t we use the same source of creativity and vitality to shape the spiritual dimension of these schools and most of all the life of our students?

Socialist times and religious oppression are over in Hungary. They have been for 30 years. It is time to reevaluate the chances of the good news beyond the walls of the sacristy.