Reclaiming an Education for Joyful Hope

At the heart of the Catholic faith lies both certainty and mystery. In this time of year when we journey through the joyful hope of Advent, to the wondrous gift of the Incarnation, and on to the Epiphany of the Magi, we are immersed in a transcendent reality that lifts us from the concerns of the here and now.

The tumult, fears, and divisions of 2020 stand in stark contrast to the peace of the Christ Child. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the weary world rejoiced in the Truth. Everything was forever changed. But amid today’s aggressive secularism, the challenge for Christians is to keep this truth in focus, to live constantly in the wonder and mystery that lie beyond human comprehension–that draw us to the Light beyond ourselves.

Wonder is the natural state of the child, continually surprised, delighted, and drawn to that which he cannot quite grasp. Persistent and inquisitive, he is rewarded by the joy of discovery. So how is it that so many of our young people lose their hunger to know the world and fall into apathy or anxiety during their years of schooling? And how does this impact their natural desire to know God?

Among parents, educators, and clergy who are alarmed by the skyrocketing numbers of young people who are falling away from their Catholic faith, there is a growing realization that the secular progressive model of education has been a stealthy saboteur. Rooted in an atheistic, utilitarian philosophy, it has no interest in wonder or wisdom. Aimed at the merely temporal goals of college and career readiness, it fails to feed the mind, the heart, and the soul. A pragmatic, godless education relentlessly defies and belittles the mysteries at the heart of faith. Its consequences can be seen in an epidemic of skepticism, anxiety, and even despair among the young.

A growing number of Catholic educators are now confronting the fact that, when they uncritically adopt secular curricula, standards, and pedagogy, they are inadvertently teaching as though the Incarnation never happened. They see what the secular model can never convey: The world is a different place through the eyes of faith. Learning becomes an adventure to discover meaning, purpose, order, connections, and beauty in Creation. All knowledge is one in Jesus Christ, the Logos in Whom all things cohere. As young people are guided to know themselves and their place in the world, they grasp that “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes). When this vision is restored throughout the curriculum, pedagogy, and school culture, they grow in joyful hope.

A vibrant renewal of Catholic education is spreading across the country as educators reject the utilitarianism and fads of the dominant, industrialized model and reclaim the distinctive, centuries-old Catholic educational tradition that unites faith and reason. The impact of this deeply human formation is transformative. Students find joy in learning. Teachers are renewed in their vocations. Families are being drawn back to the Church. Dying schools are revived. New ones are launched. Their experience demonstrates that the solution to the demise of Catholic education has been hiding in plain sight all along: These communities flourish when they reclaim the Church’s tradition in the classical liberal arts and sciences, which formed some of the sharpest minds and holiest saints in the history of the world.

“Classical education” speaks to the origins of this tradition that was taken up by the Catholic Church and ordered toward the Logos. “Catholic liberal education” speaks to its end: freedom in the Truth of Christ. Freedom to become a saint. Different Catholic schools in this renewal may use different labels, but they are all seeking the same thing: the intentional recovery of the Church’s rich heritage in the formation of the human person. It is as powerful in the 21st century as it was in the 16th, because it is based in the nature of reality and of the human person. This liberating approach in K-12 schools, homeschools, and universities is critical not just for children and the Church, but also for the wider culture.

“The contemporary world urgently needs the service of educational institutions that uphold and teach that truth is that fundamental value without which freedom, justice, and human dignity are extinguished,” Saint Pope John Paul II told American bishops in 1998, drawing from his earlier encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. The secular educational project implicitly and explicitly rejects the notion of objective truth, while simultaneously force-feeding ideologies to students. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prophetically warned of this emerging Dictatorship of Relativism. Over the course of the past century—and especially over the past 50 years with encroaching government control—the educational monopoly has rejected the time-tested tools of thinking known as the seven liberal arts. These arts, which include the formal study of logic and rhetoric, free the mind to see the truth of things. For 2,500 years these tools were the proven path to “critical thinking” and offered protection from propaganda.

The pandemic has further exposed the deep flaws of a one-size-fits-all, top-down educational bureaucratic system that is founded on a faulty philosophy. As parents, Catholic educators, and clergy recognize that they can no longer take their cues from this model, they may contemplate instead some educational lessons drawn from the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmastide.

“More, and on a deeper level than before, we really know this time that all of life is Advent,” wrote Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., from his prison cell in Berlin five months before he was killed by Nazis in 1945. Fr. Delp’s writings and homilies point to the profound reality that the whole of the Christian life is one of waiting in joyful hope. What does this mean in the classroom? 

Advent calls us to prepare our hearts and minds to receive Truth Incarnate. It calls us to be alert, to wait, to attend, to contemplate, to love. For Catholic educators, the art of teaching should aim to cultivate these habits of mind in their students. As Simone Weil, the French philosopher and teacher, noted: “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention.”

The wonder of the Incarnation is repeated on a small scale in the classroom each time a child can delight in the discovery and embodiment of new knowledge. “Being a little fragment of a particular truth, it is a pure image of the unique, eternal, and living Truth, the very Truth that once declared in a human voice: ‘I am the Truth’,” Weil wrote. In this way, children are drawn to see the beauty and unity of knowledge.

“Wonder signifies that the world is profounder, more all-embracing and mysterious than the logic of everyday reason had taught us to believe,” according to philosopher Joseph Pieper. “The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery.” Out of wonder comes joy, according to both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Pieper notes that wonder and hope have the same structure, the same quality of “not yet knowing.” Therefore, a spirit of inquiry and wonder in the classroom is inseparable from formation in joyful hope. 

Moving through Christmastide, the Feast of the Holy Family reminds us of the importance of parents as the primary educators of their children, and of the family as the first school of love. The Church teaches that the school must foster a community climate, partnering with parents in the Gospel spirit of freedom and love. The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of the Church, reminds us of the constant presence and powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin, and of the teaching authority of Holy Mother Church.

The Epiphany shows us the Magi, who came from afar guided by the light of a star. They were profoundly changed by their encounter with the Christ Child, and returned home by another route. With the renewal of the Church’s tradition in faith and reason, every young person in a Catholic school can be profoundly changed by an ongoing encounter with Truth, and be firmly set on the right path homeward.

Photo by José Ignacio Pompé on Unsplash

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Elisabeth Sullivan serves as the Executive Director of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE), whose mission is to renew K-12 Catholic schools by reclaiming the Church's distinct, proven tradition in the unity of faith and reason. She found her passion for this work through her vocation as a wife and mother to three sons. Read more about this successful movement in the Institute’s newly released book, Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age

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