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CPW 1945 - 2015: 70 years searching for the Promised Land

On VJ Day, the Feast of the Assumption 1945, during the first "Catholic People's Week" held at Wadham College, Oxford, there came into being "The Association for Catholic People's Colleges". It was the brainchild of 3 founders - Reg Trevett, Ralph Russell and John Todd.

Reg Trevett (1904-1961) was a teacher in Taunton; Dom Ralph Russell (1903-1970) was a monk at Downside Abbey; and John Todd (1918-1993) was to become an author and publisher, co-founder of the religious publishing house Darton Longman & Todd. Their aim was to establish residential colleges for Catholic adults, similar to the Danish "Hojskolen" (Folk High Schools), which would offer five-month long courses. This was at a time when most people left school at 14, and there were few opportunities for ordinary lay Catholics to study theology or deepen their understanding of the faith.

The original objects of the Association envisaged a wide curriculum - including Christian doctrine, scripture, liturgy, philosophy, science, history, literature and sociology. On methods, the objects said: "The community life of which the daily Sung Mass and corporate Communion will be the divine source. Teachers and taught will be in constant and fruitful contact. There will be talks and discussions and individual tutorial work. Manual work will be an essential part of each day's programme. There will be no examinations and no diplomas! Education will be for life, and for a full, Catholic life". The annual subscription was set at 2s. 6d. (12 p). Until the Association could realise its long-term aims, "we hope to approach this ideal by organising Catholic People's Weeks at frequent intervals".

And so further CPWs were organised in 1946 and 1947, and two in 1948 and 1949. 1950 saw the first CPW at Stonyhurst, a Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire, and there was a CPW there every year until 1964. Stonyhurst was the venue for the first family week in 1952; members were asked to bring "towels and soap, a Liber Usualis and an emergency ration card"; the cost was 4.10s. Once established, family weeks became the norm, and in fact there wasn't another "adult" week held again until 1973.

By this time, the Association had changed its name to Catholic People's Weeks, and the need for a permanent college was not so pressing: further education had changed and expanded enormously, and Catholic theology was now a mainstream subject. Up to 1963, there were only one or two CPWs held each year. But Vatican II seemed to fuel a deep thirst for knowledge, and for the rest of the sixties there were four or five Weeks each year.

After a couple of years in the early 70s when only 3 Weeks took place, the number of CPWs held each year shot up, and it became normal for there to be eight to ten Weeks each year, right through the 80s and 90s.

The world - and the Church - of today is, of course, very different to that of 70 years ago. Those were the days of the Latin Mass, of a church (in England) that was a strange mixture of triumphalism and ghetto mentality; a time of post-war privation, rationing and nationalisation; and of general ignorance of what was going on. Seventy years on, we live in an age of instant communication, relative luxury, widespread higher education, declining church attendances and (some would say) universal scepticism. CPW has adapted to these changes, rather than changed fundamentally.

One past Chairperson says: "We shifted from the idea of a Catholic university to a broader approach to education. We moved from formal lecturing to more participative methods. We also added an element of holiday to the Weeks, finding that people needed time for reflection and recreation to assimilate the learning element. We are all seeking God. We can through our experiences understand a little more about our relationships with God and with one another. We do not have a settled home. We might stop and build an altar in the desert of Riddlesworth or Hyning or wherever, but we strike camp and move on again because it is not the Promised Land, even though we might be tempted for a while to think it is."