Pope Francis spoke today with members of the Congregation for Catholic Education. The Congregation, the branch of the Curia that ultimately oversees everything from Catholic kindergartens to Pontifical Universities, is preparing for a year which will mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s document on Catholic education, Gravissimum educationis, and the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae.
Pope Francis’ words to the Congregation underline that Catholic education is a gift, but a gift that works two ways. It is a gift received by the Church, the students and educators themselves, and a gift that the Church and each participant in Catholic education must offer to the world.
He spoke about the value of dialogue in Catholic education. Is it not a “by us, for us” scenario. Many students at Catholic schools are non-Catholic. What Catholic schools have to offer is “an educational proposal that looks toward the integral development of the person and which responds to the right of all to have access to wisdom and knowledge.” And yet, in the name of that same integral development and openness, the Pope in no way says that the religious basis of the education should be lessened in any way, to make it palatable for a non-Catholic audience. For “[Catholic schools and universities] are called to offer to all, with full respect for the liberty of each person and the methods proper to a school atmosphere, the Christian proposal, that is Jesus Christ as the meaning of life, the cosmos and history.”
It is interesting that, while the Pope does not have an issue with non-Catholic students, which would be a natural part of the mission of a Catholic school, he does not mention that having non-Catholic educators or “formators” is a goal in itself. His second point, about quality preparation for those importing Catholic education, underlines that a Catholic school hands on knowledge, yes, but also a set of values which “shouldn’t only be announced but witnessed.” He recommends professionalism but also retreats and spiritual exercises for educators, to bolster “faith and the growth of spiritual motivation.” This boils down to one quality: coherence. “Coherence is an indispensable factor in the education of young people. Coherence! One can’t help another grow, one cannot educate wikthout coherence: coherence, bearing witness.”
His last point was that, at the institutional level, Catholic schools and universities should do for the field of education what Catholic teachers do for students: bear witness to Christ. They are to be a “living presence of the Gospel in the field of education, science and culture.”
“It is necessary that Catholic academic institutions not be isolated form the world, but rather know how to enter with courage into the areopagus of today’s cultures and place themselves in dialogue, aware of the gift that they have to offer to everyone.”
One can hear under the Pope’s words Christ’s own words in Matthew 10:8 “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” It is only with a deep awareness of the gift that one has received that one can be motivated to give to others. Catholic schools must teach the truth about who God is and who we are. To know and live that truth brings fulfillment and joy. It is this that the world craves.
Individual and institutional coherence, maintaining Catholic identity, is not merely a marketing tool, a way of pandering to a niche market. Pope Francis is saying that it is the very mission of a Catholic school. Without it, we fail to appreciate a gift. We leave a light under a bushel basket. And both we and the world suffer the darkness our light was intended to remedy.