Pope Francis Makes First Major Statements on Catholic Education

From Cardinal Newman Society

Calling for schools and universities committed to catechesis and evangelization, Pope Francis makes his first significant statements as Pope regarding Catholic education in Evangelii Gaudium, his apostolic exhortation released Sunday.

With significance for the work of The Cardinal Newman Society to promote and defend faithful Catholic schools and colleges, Pope Francis identifies education as a solution to secularization:

The process of secularization tends to re­duce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by com­pletely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change. …We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data—all treated as being of equal importance—and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches crit­ical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values. (64)

The Holy Father praises Catholic schools and colleges for their contributions around the world, yet acknowledges that those contributions are often not appreciated when they are counter-cultural, as is often necessary to remain faithful to Catholic teaching:

Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in find­ing solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defence of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and uni­versities around the world! This is a good thing. Yet, we find it difficult to make people see that when we raise other questions less palatable to public opinion, we are doing so out of fidelity to precisely the same convictions about human dignity and the common good. (65)

The emphasis of Evangelii Gaudium is on evangelization—“the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world”—and Pope Francis has much to say about the role of Catholic educators and experts in evangelizing the culture.

He urges theologians to dialogue with other disciplines, the hallmark of Blessed John Henry Newman’s vision for the Catholic university and the faithful Catholic colleges recommended in The Newman Guide. By informing the sciences and other disciplines with Catholic theology, Pope Francis says, “water is changed into wine” and the other discipline “becomes an instrument for enlightening and renewing the world”:

Proclaiming the Gospel message to differ­ent cultures also involves proclaiming it to pro­fessional, scientific and academic circles. This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new ap­proaches and arguments on the issue of credibil­ity, a creative apologetics which would encour­age greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all. When certain categories of reason and the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the message, these categories then become tools of evangelization; water is changed into wine. Whatever is taken up is not just redeemed, but becomes an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world.

It is not enough that evangelizers be con­cerned to reach each person, or that the Gospel be proclaimed to the cultures as a whole. A theol­ogy – and not simply a pastoral theology – which is in dialogue with other sciences and human ex­periences is most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups. The Church, in her commitment to evangelization, appreciates and encourages the charism of the­ologians and their scholarly efforts to advance dialogue with the world of cultures and sciences. I call on theologians to carry out this service as part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology.

Universities are outstanding environments for articulating and developing this evangelizing commitment in an interdisciplinary and integrat­ed way. Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelization of culture, even in those countries and cities where hostile situ­ations challenge us to greater creativity in our search for suitable methods. (132-134)

Later, in paragraphs 160-168, Pope Francis launches into a detailed exploration of catechesis as a component of evangelization. He says that catechesis is rooted in “the first announcement or kerygma,” echoing the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI that young people need to first know and love Christ:

The kerygma is trinitarian. The fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communi­cates to us the Father’s infinite mercy. On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in differ­ent ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of cat­echesis, at every level and moment. (164)

Pope Francis then calls for “mystagogic initia­tion,” defined as “a progressive experience of formation involving the entire community and a renewed appreci­ation of the liturgical signs of Christian initia­tion” (166). In particular, he urges catechists to “attend to the ‘way of beauty,’” a particular emphasis found today in many Catholic classical schools, Catholic homeschool programs and The Newman Guide colleges, especially the liberal arts colleges:

Proclaiming Christ means showing that to be­lieve in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be ac­knowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. This has nothing to do with fostering an aesthetic relativism which would downplay the inseparable bond between truth, goodness and beauty, but rather a renewed es­teem for beauty as a means of touching the hu­man heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it. If, as Saint Augustine says, we love only that which is beautiful, the incarnate Son, as the revelation of infinite beauty, is supremely lovable and draws us to himself with bonds of love. So a forma­tion in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith. Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization,building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new “language of parables”. We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others. (167)