When all our pupils were boarders we had no difficulty organising times for prayer and various devotions in common. So, for example, the junior dean had morning prayers in the dining room, and the senior dean led night prayer in the college chapel after study. There were prayers at meals, as well as frequent benediction, rosary, confessions and class masses. Pupils were also encouraged to develop a habit of personal prayer, and many of them were greatly helped by prayer meetings, work with the St Vincent de Paul Society, and outings to places of pilgrimage and retreat. With boarders it was a straightforward matter to organise such things, but things were to change.
We started taking in day pupils in 1987 and we looked at various options for daily common prayer, in addition to the morning mass which day-boys, as well as their parents, and the boarders are welcome to attend. Morning assemblies of school pupils are well established in Britain, and some Irish schools also use them. Many headmasters use their public address systems to relay live or recorded programmes of reflection and prayers. In a lot of cases these have to be very carefully designed to cater for different religious allegiances within the same school. That was not going to be a problem in Castleknock. We decided against having a large communal exercise in the chapel or hall, because of the difficulty of creating a good atmosphere. The public address idea seemed to have possibilities, and we had just set up a small studio in the old power house for what became known as the College Radio.
So I was asked to provide a broadcast on the public address system to each class-room in the last five minutes of the first class period each morning. The reason for this was to ensure a quiet atmosphere for a small group with their teacher present. Boys are creatures of habit and tend to resist change unless they have asked for it themselves, so, at first, the only rooms wired to take the service were those used by boys new to the school. Older pupils, therefore, couldn’t complain about compulsory prayers. But I found that another curious bit of schoolboy psychology operated to my advantage. Many of the older ones asked me why they weren’t getting Morning Prayer. They were curious, and felt they were missing something. I used this curiosity as part of my marketing strategy.
Fr James Murphy wrote the early scripts, and we asked a pastman working in the RTE newsroom to record them for us. These were quite successful, and from time to time we did some special topics “live”, for example when there was a funeral, and on these occasions the whole school was connected up. Staff and pupils appreciated these broadcasts and gradually the interest grew in having Morning Prayer for all, every day. I didn’t rush into this because I felt we were not ready. We extended the service slowly as the day-boys progressed year by year up through the school.
Summer 1989 was a turning point because that was when the Junior School was re-structured. All the upstairs dormitories were converted into class-rooms, and a new public address system was put in. An important element in the production of Morning Prayer is the music, which often carries part of the central thought or message. So I decided that this must be heard at the same quality as a person would expect from a good stereo at home. This meant fitting the best speakers and amplifiers. Incidentally, the work was done at minimum expense because I was helped by a few young offenders allowed out on work parole from a Dublin prison. (I do some work with prisoners, but that is another story).
September 1989 brought a real challenge because, for the first time, I had the entire school as a captive audience at ten o’clock every morning, six days a week. It brought me back to my Radio 2 days, from which I still have all the scripts filed and computerised. Adolescent interests and allegiances can be notoriously fickle, so it was make or break time. New commercial radio stations were coming on the air clamouring for the attention of the young, with bright crisp sounds and new voices and ideas. Morning Prayer would have to be bright and topical with FM quality sound. The boys would have to feel that it was in some way their own. I introduced a new format which had a less formal sound, and used music from the current charts, in addition to folk and classical, and whatever suited the topic of the day. The idea was to be topical, relevant and friendly. All classes and all teachers were invited to produce scripts, and musicians were asked to record suitable solo pieces. I want to teach the pupils that prayer is a natural part of everyday life, and they can use all sorts of skills in praying. Young people love stories, and so do the teachers. Each day has a fresh story or reflection lasting about two minutes, followed by vocal prayers including the Our Father and Hail Mary. The topics include the background to feast days, life-stories of great people who were born or died “on this day”, and topical news items.
I should perhaps explain that the College Radio was a genuine radio station for over a year when the air-waves were almost a free-for-all for unlicensed stations. In a neighbouring house of the Daughters of Charity another station was putting out Christian programmes 24 hours a day, and two Dublin priests ran a music station with spiritual messages interspersed, and the Dominicans in Tallaght provided premises for a local community station with plenty of religious input. The College Radio was seen as a modest venture with a range of just a few miles, taking in the village and its surrounding area, but the evening programmes were very popular with our day pupils and their friends and families. At the time of writing Community Radio in the Castleknock area is about to begin and it is hoped that the College will participate by producing programmes in our own studio, and there is a possibility of getting a special type of limited licence for institutions, allowing us to broadcast from time to time over a small area.
At the moment we use a very weak FM transmitter which allows the use of a radio to pick up Morning Prayer. This is very useful for some outlying areas and rooms that don’t have the public address network. This works on the same principle as the cordless microphone used in many churches.
How effective is Morning Prayer? I find it difficult to assess and I suppose it is a case of nemo sibi judex. The reactions so far have been generally good. The staff frequently say that they find it helpful; student opinion has come by a more roundabout route. People who come in to give retreats have heard spontaneous comments of approval during discussions. I think the real fruits will be long-term and not easy to quantify. If the boys learn how to pray; if they come to know that God loves them and wants to hear from them; if they see prayer as something simple and straightforward, and relevant to their interests, then I think it will be worth all the effort that goes into researching the scripts, and the recording, and the editing and so on. Perhaps we won’t really know until the present boys’ sons (or, dare I say, daughters?) are sitting in their dads’ places.