Monday, January 26, 2015

The Promise of Catholic Education

St. Thomas Aquinas, Patron of Catholic Universities, Colleges and Schools

The annual celebration of Catholic Schools Week in the U.S. typically serves as an important marketing moment.  It's a chance to share the good news about Catholic education, to spread the word about specific schools, and to build the enrollment base for the next year.

But, given Pope Francis' persistent emphasis on the Lord's call to "to go forth" from our comfort zones, perhaps Catholic Schools Week should become an occasion to envision just what the missionary transformation of our educational communities might look like:  What would it mean for Catholic schools to be "centers of the New Evangelization," for example?  What would it mean for Catholic colleges and universities to be places of intellectual, spiritual and cultural inquiry regarding the True, the Good, and the Beautiful?

Here are three couplets for consideration about Catholic education; they are not the only qualities that ought to set Catholic school communities apart, but they are among the necessary conditions for the possibility of an ongoing missionary transformation:

  • Grace and Mercy.  Grace is a gift--freely given and completely unearned.  Mercy is merciful precisely because it is undeserved.  Catholic school students and families should understand that existence itself is ours on loan; they should know that life is meant be received and revered, not manipulated according to our personal whims.  Grace means that we are never alone, although we will feel very lonely if we choose to refuse the gift.  Mercy means that we are never cut off, even if we have abused God's grace and abdicated our responsibility for his gift.  Grace and mercy mean that we look at one another differently, in a healed and holy way.
  • Encounter and Conversion.  Encounter is the stuff of life--it's about those whom we meet along the journey of life, as well as the One whom we long to know more fully.  Conversion is the ongoing invitation to a fresh start; it is the basic requirement of becoming the better person we know God wants us to be.  Encounter is never a one-way street, of course, since the infinite Lord of love has an eternity of time to spend with each of his children.  Every day, the Father reaches out to us, the Son knocks at the door or our heart, and the Holy Spirit prompts us to a deeper life of self-giving love.  Catholic school students and families should have the wisdom to sense these subtle spiritual movements and the courage to admit when they have ignored or rejected them in favor of some worldly idol.  Encounter and conversion mean that we live in a real, personal relationship with the One who is really real and perfectly personal.
  • Communion and Solidarity. Communion is both the Eucharist we receive and the life we live with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Solidarity is standing with and for others, in the Other. We can experience Jesus' real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, if our minds can see through the myth that the consecrated bread is simply symbolic.  Catholic school students and families need to receive the Eucharist as if from the hands of Jesus, who identified himself as the "Bread of Life," in order to live a deeper union with others.  If our hearts are open, we can experience communion and solidarity with others by meeting them where they are, as they are, and who they are--especially those who are marginalized.  Communion and solidarity change us even as they change the world.
This is at least part of the promise of Catholic education.  Its peril, of course, lies in failing to make the journey required by the call for a missionary transformation.  Will Catholic schools find an authentically counter-cultural voice, and thereby position themselves to help save souls and renew the culture?  Or will they serve as mere private-school mirrors to the culture at large, and thereby lose their most authentic identity and unique mission?

To ignore, deny or trivialize Jesus is the ultimate peril of Catholic education.  Its ultimate promise is to ensure that the Lord is at the center of every Catholic institution.  After all, Christ himself asks us to teach others to "observe all that I have commanded you," even as he promises to remain with us always, "until the end of the age" (Mt 28:20). 

The choice is ours.  The educated choice is obvious.