The meaning of Catholic Education in the 21st Century

By Álvaro Lobo Arranz SJ, 10 April 2022
Students and teachers of Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta school during the 2019 Diocesan Education Mass. Image: Diocese of Parramatta


Throughout history, the education of Catholics has been largely entrusted to religious. This has been the case since schools arose around monasteries, and then universities were established. Numerous religious congregations, devoted to education, appeared, especially during the 19th century. Many saints have dedicated themselves to educating young people, such as Saint Marcellin Champagnat, Saint Joseph Calasanz and Saint Jeanne de Lestonnac. Thousands of religious and lay people have spent their lives offering a good education and in this way expanding the Kingdom of God. Their schools have formed, year after year, students capable of living according to the various charisms of the founders and of transmitting to others all the good received.

Today the context has changed, and in recent times public and secular education has grown stronger in much of the world. Although there are still spaces that it cannot reach, in most Western societies secular and religious education coexist in a secularized context, where the Christian dimension has progressively lost influence, although this does not necessarily mean that it loses importance. For this reason, in the midst of the 21st century, it becomes increasingly urgent to recall the meaning of religious instruction, that is, the principal motivation which, over so much time, makes most congregations and dioceses, as well as other ecclesial bodies, continue to focus on this instrument of evangelization, not without some difficulty. This explains why there are still schools in neighborhoods where very few people profess to be believers, in educational centers where there are no longer any religious, or in countries where the faith arouses mistrust.

We must remember that the worst betrayal that can be inflicted on tradition is that of repeating the traditions, but forgetting their essence: in this way they end up turning into empty gestures, or into a strange nostalgia for a past that is always considered better than the present. In order to renew itself in every moment and place of history, tradition needs to find its deep meaning.

For this reason we will try to deepen here some elements inspired by Ignatian pedagogy, which were contained in the education given by many religious congregations. Today, centuries later, they remain influential in many Catholic schools.[1]

Educating in depth

Let us imagine that we are going to build a cathedral. It is not so different from building a school, because they share several characteristics: both are collective works;  both are characterized by generosity; both link local history with the succession of generations and, although in different ways, they succeed in transforming the cities in which they are located. Ultimately, they become symbols of many cultures and are able to encapsulate in their stones the soul and religious values of a people.

From this perspective, it is easy to see how necessary depth is. First, as must be done in any building, it is essential to dig deep foundations. At the same time, it is the depth of knowledge that makes it possible to construct the building, for without the necessary rigor, study and knowledge, Gothic architecture would have been impossible and, in our time, even the reconstruction of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris would be an infeasible project. As for people contemplating a cathedral, if they are able to understand what lies behind every expression of that art, if they can grasp the true intentions of the artist, they will be more easily touched and moved by it. We can affirm, without exaggeration, that in a cathedral depth realigns our perception of reality, positions us in the environment, and makes us feel part of something that is much greater than we are.

In a world where everything changes too quickly, developing deep roots is all the more essential, because otherwise any storm would easily uproot people and groups, dispersing them like twigs or, in the event of drought, they would be like trees struggling to find the nourishment they need to survive. Every tree, if it is to bear fruit, must first be firmly rooted in the ground. This is true not only on an individual level, but also on a collective level, because the contempt that our time reserves for history sometimes leads us, as individuals and as peoples, to forget who we are and where we come from, and therefore to repeat past mistakes that should never have happened.

Today, in an age in which, thanks to the Internet, information channels are multiplying and a tweet has more influence than a doctoral thesis, it is more necessary than ever to distinguish opinion from knowledge, truth from falsehood, what is essential from what is incidental, good from evil, what is consistent from what is apparent and what is rational from the emotional. It is also depth that enables science not to lose the meaning of what it does, that reminds it that its work is important insofar as it serves humanity.

Finally, depth is the gateway to beauty, which improves us and refers us to something greater than ourselves, and thus gives greater value to life and the world. Saint Ignatius of Loyola invites us to such depth when he proposes that we find the profound meaning of our lives, when he exhorts us to dream, and when he recommends the study of the humanities.[2] This is the depth we aspire to when we entrust ourselves to contemplation and the desire to see beyond the limits of our senses.

Education in depth not only involves the constant parade of questions that we ask ourselves in order to go beyond ourselves.  It involves the whole person and his or her relationship with others, and therefore makes room for respect, trust and sincere friendship. When we educate in depth, we cannot limit ourselves to the distinction between good and evil. Above all, we must separate the good from the apparent good and choose, among the good things, the one that is truly the best in each circumstance. This includes, therefore, the appreciation of silence, the ability to distinguish between emotions and feelings and to see which are useful to us and which, instead, lead us down a blind alley; in other words, we need to discover the value of a profound spirituality. Educating in depth involves entering into a reality of our lives where it is possible to find authentic love, the cause and motive of our entire existence.

Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth had this idea of solidity and depth when he made his exhortation to build the house on the rock (cf. Matt 7:24-29) or when he pointed to himself as way, truth and life (cf. John 14:6).  Who knows if it was not this very feeling of depth that inspired some alumni of religious schools, such as René Descartes when he revolutionized philosophy, Miguel de Cervantes when he invented Don Quixote de la Mancha, and Alfred Hitchcock when he directed his films!

Educating for Global Citizenship

Many cathedrals have figures of kings and shepherds carved under their porticos as a warning to visitors to respect the building as the temple which is “the home of all” and, as far as faith and dignity are concerned, one’s origin and rank count for very little. They are special buildings, not least because they do not belong to individuals, but serve as a home for anyone who wishes to pray and celebrate the faith with the other members of God’s people. It can be safely said that global citizenship has always been present in the spirit of the Church, even though it is so often threatened by the reality of borders and particular or national interests.

When we try to understand the need to train for global citizenship, we have several elements at our disposal. Among the most obvious is Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[3] and today in some ways there are also the Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, in too many places the dignity of so many people is being questioned, and in many others theory remains far removed from reality. As for Christians, the dignity of the human being is declared from the beginning (cf. Gen 1:27), and we understand our universal fraternity the moment we turn to God as Father (cf. Luke 15:11-32; Matt 20:1-16 and Matt 6:9-13).

Today we live in a world where identities, nationalisms of various kinds and ideologies are becoming increasingly important. It is enough to take a look at the media to notice how problems are read from a biased perspective, forcing the readers to choose between right and left, good and bad, us and others, forgetting that behind any category there are the lives and dignity of people. It is ideologies that force us to analyze any issue from a certain point of view and offer that as a solution for all problems. Thus, with the overbearing and divisive intent of their originators some ideas that overlook the harsh reality of our conflicted world are rampant.[4]

This dividing, segregating gaze is countered by the itinerary of St Ignatius’ meditation on the Incarnation in the Spiritual Exercises (ES) (cf. ES 102-109). Unlike a gaze that has eyes only for evil, God sees the human race in all its complexity, with what is good (cf. Gen 1:31) and what is less good. Unlike a view of the world that divides and condemns, God looks on everyone with mercy. Unlike a gaze that sees only failure and pessimism, God offers the incarnation, hope and salvation of humankind. Unlike a view of the world that distrusts those who are different, God’s vision contemplates diversity as a good and necessary reality.

Ours is, undeniably, a hyper-connected world. This century has already offered us numerous examples of the fact that what happens in a remote corner of the world can have consequences tens of thousands of miles away. The pandemic is the most recent demonstration of this. Nor can we overlook the evidence that global problems require global solutions, otherwise we will simply patch them up and cause frustration. On the other hand, this situation also has advantages, because it allows for the rapid movement of resources, ideas and people. Our pupils must not only prepare themselves to travel, appreciate different cultures, speak foreign languages and see the opportunities that the 21st century offers them, but they must also be trained to expand their horizons, to become aware of and responsible for the world, and in this way to increase their love for the whole of humanity.

To the genius of Leonardo da Vinci is attributed the statement that “nothing can be loved unless it is first known.” Only in the context of knowing the world and being open to others and their dignity will we be able to approach their problems, share their suffering, and seek solutions together. In his apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (QA), Pope Francis reiterated that diversity is anything but a risk, it is a source of great wealth for humankind.[5] It is not out of place to recall here that the encyclical Fratelli Tutti (FT) invites us to initiate humankind into a new time of fraternity and understanding.[6]

In several passages of the Gospel, Jesus encounters foreigners (cf. Mark 7:24-30) and people considered enemies of the people (cf. Luke 7:1-10) and, despite everything, he recognizes their faith and dignity. In the same way, he sends his disciples to evangelize the whole world, and not just Palestine. Today, this is the example of many communities of men and women religious who go beyond their origins, age and skin color to put God at the center, or so many missionaries who risk their lives on the other side of the world. This reality is probably also experienced by the many students who go to refugee camps to help, making them understand that foreigners can treat each other as brothers and sisters.

Educating for reconciliation

Having taken the image of cathedrals as a model, we are required take an almost compulsory step to look at one of the most symbolic and important cathedrals of Europe, that of Santiago de Compostela. In the course of the centuries, countless pilgrims from all corners of the Old Continent have come to the Galician city to prostrate themselves before the tomb of the Apostle James. Along the way they were greeted by Hospitallers and other religious orders that made the “culture of care” a way of life. Among the reasons for that pilgrimage there was in many the desire to reconcile with their past in order to spend the rest of their days in peace. Even today, thousands of people from all over the world continue to make that pilgrimage for reasons that correspond to their deepest aspirations.

Returning to Ignatian pedagogy, we must remember that among the objectives assigned by St. Ignatius to the Society of Jesus was that of reconciling dissidents, which was also pursued by many other religious congregations.[7] Centuries later, this idea of reconciliation was re-proposed in the Second Vatican Council,[8] and it is what every priest tries to do when someone asks for confession. We cannot forget that this same idea of reconciliation is also manifested in schools, involving all those who belong to them.

Among the most paradigmatic experiences in this regard we can recall the one that Saint Ignatius himself had first in Loyola and then in Manresa. During those decisive months he was able to reread his own life in its entirety, to accept himself for what he was, to welcome divine forgiveness and mercy, and to recognize that not everything depended on him. In fact, only a person who accepts himself can then turn to others; only someone who has become reconciled with his own history can build his own identity and find his place in the world. Formation cannot be reduced to external aspects alone: those engaged in formation must know how to reread the history of each person and recognize how God has acted over the course of time.

The next step is reconciliation with others. It consists in reconciliation with one’s neighbor, in recognizing his or her dignity – especially that of those who suffer most – and in knowing how to live in family and community beyond differences and divergences. This also applies to society as a whole, especially in a world where social inequality is growing and isolated groups are increasing. This kind of reconciliation, according to Gaudium et Spes, translates into social justice (cf. GS 29). Reconciliation with others involves working for the common good, creating just relationships and institutions, and transforming those structures that generate poverty and exclusion. In essence, as Saint John Paul II stated, “there is no peace without justice. There is no justice without forgiveness.”[9]

Thus we must not forget reconciliation and creation. We began to realize this years ago, and today it has become a worldwide emergency. Probably the first challenge is to remove passing fads and ideologies that attract some and put others in difficulty. Behind the defense of the common home, at stake is not only the perception of how we welcome what we have been given and take care of it, but also the commitment to the new generations,[10] to the poorest who pay the consequences and, as Pope Francis emphasizes, to our very way of being in the world (cf. LS 231). If we take care of creation and, consequently, reconcile with it, we will be able to understand reality differently and live in gratitude for all that we have received.

Finally, there is reconciliation with God, which allows us to give meaning to our existence and to understand it. Here we need to create spaces that lead us to approach Christianity in the deepest, most personal and rigorous way possible. In a world where religions are so important, a serious knowledge is required, not one that considers the various beliefs as irrational attitudes for which there is no longer a place in our world. What must be avoided is a knowledge that tends toward an erroneous image of God, anchored in prejudice, domination or bad doctrine. Of course, it is necessary to have an effective, experiential and healthy knowledge of the Church, currently distant because of too many stereotypes present in society, which, instead of bringing us closer to a God who is love, create in people only rejection, resentment, incomprehension and estrangement.

To reconcile is to open the door to mercy; it is to live according to the “culture of care.” It involves restoring a relationship broken by sin, even if the current era tends to despise its importance and effect. It means accepting the wounds and moving toward rapid healing. Undoubtedly, this can be an opportunity to draw closer to others and to discover that those wounds can be an opportunity to grow and to unite ourselves more effectively (cf. LS 210) with God, the Church, others, creation and ourselves. Jesus gave us an example when, dying on the cross, he forgave (cf. Luke 23:34), not letting sin have the last word. In some way Saint Peter Claver, the apostle to the slaves, also gave us this witness. Despite the opposition of almost all the inhabitants of his city, he went every day to the port of Cartagena in what is now Columbia to help and care for the people arriving from Africa. He remains for us a reference in the struggle for justice and an example of reconciliation between peoples and people.

Educating in the faith

We must also remember two elements that cannot be missing in any cathedral. The first is brightness. The presence of light, which is transformed by lamps, stained-glass and rose windows, not only makes it more usable, but also allows us to discover its beauty and, like a revelation, brings people closer to God. In fact, light is able to make us see reality in a clearer, wider and sharper way, and this is exactly what happens when we rediscover the religious element in the human being. The second fundamental element is the keystone. This element sustains the whole, although we hardly notice it. If it were to be missing, the building would collapse. Deepening the metaphor, we can say that this keystone is none other than faith. As we can in fact guess, a cathedral without faith would end up becoming a shopping mall, a luxury hotel, a building as tall and bright as a skyscraper; and, if we refer to schools, an educational space indistinguishable from so many others.

To discover that people are religious by nature, it is enough to go to an anthropological museum. This religious sensibility was already evident in the rock paintings of the Australian aborigines, and in many findings in other archaeological sites around the world. With the passage of time, art has well represented this human aspiration through its many languages, because it has managed to convey the need for the transcendence of the human being beyond the senses, as well as the realization that, if there is no religion on which people can lean and satiate their thirst, they will try to prostrate themselves before other worldly realities, such as money, power or pleasure.

There are other “museums” of a different nature that can help us grasp the necessity of faith to understand ourselves as a culture and as a society. If they lack a minimal knowledge of the Bible, of the tradition and history of the Church, it will be difficult for pupils to understand what the Western worldview is, let alone our history, our art, our vision, and our roots. With regard to this aspect, it should be emphasized that most of the achievements in democracy, freedom, equality and civil rights that we enjoy in the West have their roots in the Christian tradition. Only a deep knowledge of its faith and of what moves a culture enables one to understand the essence of a people.

We cannot proceed on our journey without dwelling on the need to cultivate interiority, prayer, silence and piety. It is difficult to imagine a world where there is nothing but physical, emotional, material and selfish experiences, and consequently to reject truth, justice, goodness and freedom, to embrace instead a cheap relativism and a meaningless existence. In this, history abounds with tragic examples where atheism, in its various forms, has resulted in a perfect scenario for totalitarianism, which does not respect the entire dignity of the human being; for populism, which exploits the relativization of truth; and for terrorism, which takes innocent lives in the name of a bloodstained chimera.

It is necessary to consider that this faith, depending on the context and the educational system of the country, is called to be, as far as possible, explicit and open to one’s neighbor (cf. Matt 22:34-40); otherwise a sick faith will be transmitted. There will always be a tension between partisan proselytism and the abandonment of proclamation for fear of offending someone. It is not so much a matter of discussing religious symbols in classrooms or renovating chapels, but rather of creating languages through which the Christian faith can be transmitted in the 21st century. There are examples of impositions and conceptions that have caused enormous damage, as well as many examples that reveal how a personal faith without external references is like a clock that lacks an hour hand, a road without signs or a compass without cardinal points. It progressively fades into other more superficial messages, and leads to confusion and other difficulties. We are members of the Catholic Church, and this impels us to transmit what burns in our hearts, our passion for Christ and for the Kingdom of God. We should never give up on transmitting the Gospel, because, as Jesus says, no one lights a lamp to put it under a bushel (cf. Luke 11:33-35).

Finally, we must remember that in the corridors of our schools thousands of students, teachers and parents pass by every day. We cannot miss the opportunity to make every educational community a Christian community, where Jesus is at the center of everything, where faith in a living God who comes to meet us is transmitted, and where we live in fraternity as a result. It is a space where joy is invited. In a few years our students will remember it with affection and emotion, and perhaps they will be able to say that they spent the best years of their lives there. Only if we transmit faith in Jesus of Nazareth and in his message about the Kingdom of God will we succeed in leading our students to the joy of the resurrection, and thus to the construction of a future to be lived to the full.

A story to write

Today more than ever, it is almost impossible to predict what the world will be like in a few years. All we know is that each pupil will have to search freely for his or her place in it, and above all will have to ask himself or herself how he or she wants to take care of it and improve it. We hope that each one of us has been bold enough, healthily ambitious enough and committed enough to accompany our students, and perhaps one day we will recognize them by their fruits. We hope that their imprint on the world will remain alive, just as so many cathedrals endure in the unstoppable passage of time.

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.4 art. 7, 0422: 10.32009/22072446.0422.7

[1].    The origin, structure, and some of the ideas in this article are taken from the II JESEDU-Global Colloquium 2021, “Contributing to a Future Full of Hope.” In this text we are also inspired by our article “Educación jesuita: el arte de construir catedrales”, in EDUCSI (Department of Education of the Spanish Province of the Society of Jesus).

[2].    In the course of the article, some basic ideas taken from Ignatian spirituality and the tradition of Jesuit schools are set forth, which in some cases have served as a reference point for what is meant by religious formation. A clear example is the publication of the Ratio studiorum in 1599 and the impact it had on the world of education.

[3].    “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

[4].    Cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), No. 231.

[5].    See QA 37.

[6].    See FT 77.

[7].    “And he should nevertheless prove himself fit to reconcile dissenters, to succor and piously serve those who are in prison and in hospitals, and to perform, in absolute gratuitousness, all other works of charity that will seem useful to the glory of God and the common good” (Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus 1550, approved and confirmed by Julius III, in Ignatius of Loyola, Gli scritti, Turin, UTET, 217).

[8].    “In him [Christ] God has reconciled us to himself and to one another, and has torn us from the bondage of the devil and of sin; so that each one of us can say with the Apostle: the Son of God “loved me and sacrificed himself for me” (Gal 2:20). In suffering for us he has not simply given us an example to follow in his footsteps, but he has also opened up the way for us: if we follow it, life and death are sanctified and acquire new meaning” (Gaudium et spes [GS], No. 22).

[9]  .  John Paul II, Message for the Celebration of the XXXV World Day of Peace, January 1, 2002

[10].   Cf. Francis, Laudato Si’ (LS), No. 67


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