The final document of the October youth synod has—amazingly—only one paragraph (n. 158) on Catholic schools. As inadequate as the Instrumentum Laboris was in many ways, it at least devoted several paragraphs to this apostolate of the Church. When anyone thinks of the Catholic Church—whether that person is Catholic or not—after the Mass, the outreach that usually springs to mind spontaneously and justly is her educational system. Untold millions (two million in the United States alone) receive an elementary and secondary education under the aegis of the Church. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the one ecclesial environment in which you are sure to find young people is in the Church’s schools!
(I should mention at the outset that the English text I am offering is my own translation of the original Italian, necessitated by the fact that now several weeks out, we still lack an official English translation!)
What does the Final Document say about schools? It notes, quite correctly, that schools are important because they are “the places in which the majority of youth pass much of their time.” Further, that “in many parts of the world, basic education is the first and most important request which young people make of the Church.” Thus, it is important to have “qualified teachers, significant chaplaincies, and a suitable cultural engagement.”
So far, all this could be said of almost any kind of educational institution. What makes a chaplaincy “significant”? What in the world constitutes “a suitable cultural engagement”? This comes off as gibberish, lacking any specificity.
We read that Catholic schools “express the concern of the Church for the integral formation of youth.” True enough, what does “integral formation” entail? Yet again, our schools “are precious spaces for the encounter of the Gospel with the culture of a people and for the development of research.”
“Precious spaces for the encounter of the Gospel”? Who speaks like that? What kind of research are we talking about, and at what level (in fact, much of what this paragraph delineates seems primarily geared to university education, rather than primary and secondary schooling)?
Then we are informed that Catholic education should be “a model of formation capable of bringing about a dialogue between the faith and the demands of the contemporary world, the diverse anthropological perspectives, the challenges of science and technology, changing social customs, and the engagement for justice.”
More gobbledygook. What is the goal of this “dialogue”? Again, nothing concrete.
Finally, we are told that Catholic schools ought to promote “creativity in science, the arts, poetry, literature, music, and sports,” enabling youth to “discover their talents and to place them at the service of society.” Of course, any education worthy of the name will include all these elements – as Catholic education has always done. “Placing [talents] at the service of society” is surely a worthy objective, but what about “at the service of the Church”? A strange omission.
Now, what did the document not say? Or better, what should it have said? Here are six points:
• As Bishop Arthur Kennedy (retired auxiliary of Boston and an educator in his own right) is fond of saying, the Catholic school is the primary engine for the new evangelization, wherein the Church is able to form not only the youth in the schools, but also to influence their parents and even grandparents.
• In mission territory and in the inner cities of the United States, the Catholic school is most often the means by which conversions occur. The redoubtable Cardinal Francis Arinze is a Catholic and a priest, precisely due to attendance at a Catholic school. Nor is it an accident that every black bishop in the United States became a Catholic through a Catholic school experience. How many pastors and principals report entire families coming into the Church every year as a result of having children in our schools? Even when conversions do not take place, the school introduces non-Catholics to a Church which esteems reason and values the dignity of the human person.
• While the document highlights the importance of an “encounter of the Gospel,” it would have been helpful, indeed necessary, to offer a catechetical model, by which that encounter can take place. Catechetical formation is at the very heart of the Catholic school; even non-Catholic students are required to participate in religion classes and liturgical services.
• As any pastoral worker or objective observer will say, the greatest source of peace in the Middle East is the network of Catholic schools, wherein students (Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims) have the experience of peaceful coexistence from childhood on.
• Citing Gravissimum Educationis of Vatican II and the Code of Canon Law, the Synod Fathers could have reminded parents of their serious obligation to entrust their children to our schools (to ensure that those children have the values of the Church and the family reinforced on a daily basis in the educational environment) and likewise have reminded the entire Catholic community of their obligation to support these institutions.
• It would have been a wise thing to encourage young people to commit themselves to embark upon the school apostolate.
Were there no former teachers among the Synod Fathers? Were there no teachers among the auditors? Was no one in touch with the reality of the Church on the ground, that such an important resource be given such short and shallow shrift? This treatment is an insult to every Catholic school teacher and pastor who give their all to raise up a new generation of “missionary disciples” (to use Francis’ favorite image). St. John Paul II referred to the Catholic school as the very “heart of the Church.” Pope Francis and his Synod have pushed the school to one of his “peripheries.” Another missed opportunity.
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