Details of Thesis

Title Senior Secondary School Live-in Retreat: A study of the views of a sample of teachers from one metropolitan Catholic diocese about the purpose and practices of retreats, The
Author Tullio, Rachele
Institution Australian Catholic University
Date 2009
Abstract Senior school live-in retreats, which could be described as intensive personal/spiritual development seminars, are a distinctive feature of the religious programs of Australian Catholic secondary schools. While research on the views of young people has confirmed the popularity of retreats with students (Flynn, 1993; Maroney, 2008), there has been no systematic study of how teachers understood the nature, purposes and conduct of retreats, and of what they regarded as ‘successful‘ retreat work. This thesis reports a two part research program on live-in retreats. The first, documentary/historical phase of the study examined the spirituality background to retreats within Catholicism which informed the conduct of school retreats. While not attempting an exhaustive or comprehensive analysis of spirituality, this section identified the roots of ‘retreat spirituality‘ in developments within early Christianity such as ‘desert spirituality‘, in the spirituality of mediaeval monasticism, and in the ‘religious exercises‘ of the active religious orders that emerged since the founding of the Jesuits in the early 16th century. Elements such as ‘going away‘ to an isolated place, solitude, silence, reflection and prayer, review of one‘s life, physical and mental renewal, and spiritual guidance became prominent in the development of retreats for religious personnel and clergy; and this served as the model that informed ‘silent‘ retreats in Catholic schools up to and including the 1960s. The documentary/historical study also explored the origins of live-in, communitarian retreats for senior Catholic school students in Australia which emerged as a grass-roots educational innovation by teachers in Adelaide in 1964. Eventually, the silent retreats in schools were replaced completely by the communitarian retreats where conversation/discussion, singing and fun activities provided a community-building matrix within which the religious parts of the retreats (Mass, Reconciliation, reflection and prayer) were embedded; this represented something of a revolutionary change in the format of school retreats, while retaining many of the their traditional purposes. The literature review examined the limited range of Australian and overseas writings about retreats. To fill in the sketchy picture of the historical development of communitarian retreats, a number of informants were identified and approached for information in the form of oral history. In addition, other areas relevant to the conduct of retreats were examined; prominent areas included the following:-The influence of the Second Vatican Council and of humanistic psychology on the spirituality of those who conducted the first communitarian retreats; Theory about the psychological dynamics of personal change through group methods; Understandings of youth spirituality that informed the work of retreat leaders. The second qualitative, empirical part of the research program collected data from a sample of teachers from four schools in one metropolitan Catholic diocese who were involved in the conduct of retreats. Semi-structured interviews were used to document teachers‘ understandings of the nature, purposes and conduct of retreats. The intention behind the choice of a limited sample was to make a small beginning on research on the views of teachers who were retreat leaders, and to identify issues that could be followed up more systematically through larger scale research across the country. The data collection showed that the following (as well as other items) were regarded by participants as key elements in the successful conduct of retreats:- Time away from school and regular routine; Being with friends and friendship development; Community building and tangible sense of community; Group discussions that were more personal than was the case in classroom religious education. In addition, the data identified key problems with the conduct of retreats which could affect their place in Catholic schools in the future. Among other issues these included:- Excessive reliance on the dynamic of self-disclosure and ‘telling personal stories‘; The place for religious experience within the retreat; The staffing of retreats and the professional development of teachers as retreat leaders; Potential conflict between staff on retreat and those who remained at school to cover classes; Potential problems related to duty of care and child protection policies for educators. In discussing the meaning and significance of these findings, the thesis proposed ways of addressing the issues that could foster the future development of retreats and to secure their valuable place in Catholic school education. This included identifying and acknowledging the significant educational innovation represented by retreats, and their distinctive potential as a special experience within the school‘s overall religious education program for promoting the personal and spiritual development of young people. And it considered that professional development for present and future retreat leaders needed to address a range of relevant topics including the place for personalism and self-disclosure which could be both a valuable aspect of the psychological dynamics of retreats as well as a problem area if not handled sensitively and ethically. The specifically religious dimension of retreats remained a difficult question to interpret. The central concern of retreats is promoting the development of young people‘s spirituality. The thesis concluded with a number of recommendations for Catholic education authorities for promoting the future development of school live-in retreats.
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