Catholic Education: The Hope of the Church

Suzanne Cooke, RSCJ
In the Goals and Criteria, the Society of the Sacred Heart defines the mission of the school as part of the Society’s educational mission in the Catholic Church (Foundational Principle 1). These past weeks during Ordinary Time, we have been thinking about Sacred Heart education.
In the Goals and Criteria, the Society of the Sacred Heart defines the mission of the school as part of the Society’s educational mission in the Catholic Church (Foundational Principle 1). These past weeks during Ordinary Time, we have been thinking about Sacred Heart education. For this final reflection before Lent begins, I want to consider what Church leaders think about the role of Catholic education. To develop this week’s blog, I re-read To Teach as Jesus Did (1971)and  Congregation for Catholic Education’s Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion (2015). I recommend these readings to anyone engaged in Catholic education. 
Let me share some the insights I gleaned from my reading.

mission of Catholic schools is three-fold -- to proclaim the Gospel, to build community, and to serve our brothers and sisters. In words of the Archdiocese of Seattle:

Catholic schools exist to form…
young people in the faith and to provide a faith-based environment for their education. In cooperation and partnership with parents – the first educators of their children – Catholic schools seek to educate the whole child by providing an excellent education and the formation of character. Catholic schools cultivate the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; and the intellectual virtues of critical thinking and wisdom. Informed by these three sets of virtues, a comprehensive curriculum has as its goal the spiritual, moral, emotional, intellectual and physical development appropriate to the needs of each child.
The cultivation of these three groups of virtues, theological, moral and intellectual occurs in a culture imbued by encounter.  “First and foremost, every Catholic institution is a place to encounter the Living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals His transforming love and truth” (Benedict XVI).
Catholic leaders and Catholic educators share the belief that learning is not… “just equivalent to content assimilation, but is an opportunity for self-education, commitment towards self-improvement and the common good. Learning allows our students to develop their creativity, strive for constant learning and become more open towards others. Learning can also provide the opportunity to open students’ hearts and minds to the mystery and wonder of the world and nature, to self-consciousness and awareness, to responsibility towards creation, to the Creator’s immensity” (Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion). Thus, education is not simply knowledge; it is experience linking knowledge and action. Education “encompasses the affective and emotional domains, and is also endowed with an ethical dimension: knowing how to do things and what we want to do, daring to change society and the world, and serving the community.” (Ibid). The Congregation for Catholic Education explains that although cultural contexts vary, there are a number of quality hallmarks that Catholic schools and universities need to ensure:
  • respect for individual dignity and uniqueness (hence the rejection of mass education and teaching, which make human beings easier to manipulate by reducing them to a number);
  • a wealth of opportunities that are offered to young people for them to grow and develop their abilities and talents;
  • a balanced focus on cognitive, affective, social, professional, ethical and spiritual aspects;
  • encouragement for every pupil to develop their talents, in a climate of cooperation and solidarity;
  • the promotion of research as a rigorous commitment towards truth, being aware that human knowledge has its limits, but also with a great openness of mind and heart;
  • respect of ideas, openness to dialogue, the ability to interact and work together in a spirit of freedom and care.
There is a sense in this document that Catholic schools and universities are called to be living environments in which an integral education is provided including, that faith/religious formation. “Students need to be respected as integral persons and be helped to develop a multiplicity of skills that enrich the human person, such as creativity, imagination, the ability to take on responsibilities, to love the world, to cherish justice and compassion.” Educators are called to accompany students and support them in developing both the skills related to knowing and knowing how to do things and those skills that apply to living alongside others and growing as human beings. “These are reflective skills, for instance, by which we are responsible for our actions, or intercultural, decision-making, citizenship skills, that are becoming increasingly important in our globalized world and affect us directly, as is the case with skills related to consciousness, critical thinking and creative and transforming action. I value greatly the Congregation’s insight that the young people whom we are educating today will become the leaders of the 2050s.  

What will religion’s contribution…
be to educating younger generations to peace, development, fraternity in the universal human community? 

How are we going to educate them to faith and 
in faith? 

How will we establish the preliminary conditions to accept this gift, 
to educate them to gratitude, to a sense of awe, to asking themselves questions, to develop a sense of justice and consistency? 

How will we educate them to prayer?
These questions are essential to us as Sacred Heart Educators and as Catholic Educators. Answering these questions together with young people in minds, educators and parents will ensure the vitality of the mission of Sacred Heart education. Pope Francis believes that schools are meant to be “catalysts, places of encounter.”  Quoting Francis’ address to the students of the Jesuit schools of Italy and Albania, the conclusion of Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion, states:
Do not be disheartened in the face of the difficulties that the educational challenge presents. Educating is not a profession but an attitude, a way of being; in order to educate it is necessary to step out of ourselves and be among young people, to accompany them in the stages of their growth and to set ourselves beside them; Give them hope and optimism for their journey in the world. Teach them to see the beauty and goodness of creation and of human beings who always retain the Creator’s hallmark. But above all with your life be witnesses of what you communicate Educators, pass on knowledge and values with their words; but their words will have an incisive effect on children and young people if they are accompanied by their witness, their consistent way of life. Without consistency, it is impossible to educate! You are all educators, there are no delegates in this field. Thus, collaboration in a spirit of unity and community among the various educators is essential and must be fostered and encouraged. School can and must be a catalyst, it must be a place of encounter and convergence of the entire educating community, with the sole objective of training and helping to develop mature people who are simple, competent and honest, who know how to love with fidelity, who can live life as a response to God’s call, and their future profession as a service to society.
We can hear in Francis’s words the call to educators to accompanying young people in their search for truth. Sacred Heart Educators as do all Catholic Educators believe that Jesus Christ is truth. The work of education remains extraordinary because it is essential an experience of grace. In these times of significant change and uncertainty, we who are educators support our students in their journey towards holiness. It is our greatest hope that our graduates become the best for the world and continue the work of Christ. 

Suzanne Cooke, RSCJ is Head of the Conference of Sacred Heart Education.
Schools of the Sacred Heart share in the educational mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart as articulated in the Goals and Criteria. The structure supporting Sacred Heart education in Canada and the United States includes the Conference of Sacred Heart Education and the Network of Sacred Heart Schools.  Together they provide services and programs to ensure vitality of mission for the member schools sponsored by the Society of the Sacred Heart.