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St. Joseph Calasanz and the education of the poor

“When, in the interests of soul and body, knowledge is imparted, piety cultivated, Christian doctrine inculcated, their teachers share in a certain manner in the work of their guardian angels.”

A statue of St.José de Calasanz in Zaragoza. (Image: Ecelan/Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the liturgical memorial of St. Joseph Calasanz, August 27, 2020 (EF), at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.

The memory of St. Joseph Calasanz is honored in the calendar of the Ordinary Form of the Mass on August 25 (the actual date of his death), while the Extraordinary Form calendar honors him today.

He was born in 1556 in Spain and died 92 years later in Rome. Very early on in his priestly life, he became concerned with the abysmal ignorance and moral uprootedness of poor children, which concern caused him to open the first free school in Rome. The success of that institution led him to open several more which, in turn, attracted several young men who wanted to assist in that noble apostolate, with the result that they banded together in 1617. The community was canonically established in 1621, with the impressive name in Latin of Ordo Clericorum Regularium Pauperum Matris Dei Scholarum Piarum (Order of Poor Clerks Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools); the last word “piarum” gave them their short-hand name, “Piarists.” They are the oldest order dedicated exclusively to the education of youth; in fact, to the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they add a fourth vow, committing them precisely to the education of youth.

Several years ago, on a visit to the principal museum in Budapest, I was greeted by a young fellow at the ticket booth with the words, “Laudetur Iesus Christus!” After duly responding, “In saecula saeculorum,” I asked, “Where did you learn that beautiful greeting?” He replied, with great pride, “I am a Piarist boy, Father.” He went on to explain that his was the first class to graduate from the newly reopened Piarist high school in Budapest after the fall of Communism.

Back to a brief history of the Order. The Community was plagued by prejudices, politics, treachery and envy; this is a nearly infallible sign that a work is inspired by the Holy Spirit. They were also strongly opposed by the Jesuits – an absolute sign that you are on the right road! The holy Founder was demoted; the Community was suppressed in 1646 but re-established by papal decree ten years later. Two of its more famous alumni are St. John Neumann, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia and St. Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. The Piarists staff two parishes here in the Archdiocese: Annunciation, uptown; St. Helena’s in the Bronx (where they also have their local House of Formation).

St. Joseph Calasanz was but one of the first priests to dedicate himself to the teaching of elementary and secondary school students. St. John Baptist De La Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers in the eighteenth century, and St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesians in the nineteenth century, both held Calasanz in high esteem. And those two institutes of male Religious continue to have a powerful influence in the Archdiocese of New York.

Most people know of Cardinal Newman’s involvement with Catholic higher education, but few realize his intense commitment to Catholic education at the primary and secondary levels. Indeed, within fourteen years of Newman’s conversion, he established the Oratory School, intended as a Catholic Eton, precisely “to create an intelligent and well-instructed laity.” Michael Hickson then describes life at the institution that was undoubtedly “the apple of [Newman’s] eye”:

Newman took a leading role in each stage of the school’s development. Far from being the distant founder and aloof administrator, Newman was active in the everyday life of the school. Once a month, all the boys were required to sit through an examination given by Newman and the Headmaster, Ambrose St. John. Both Newman and St. John played instruments in the school’s orchestra, Newman taking the part of second fiddle. Most lively of all, however, was Newman’s participation in the school plays.

And Cardinal Newman himself, in an 1862 letter to the President of the seminary at Maynooth, gave this estimate of the project:

I am overworked with various kinds of mental labour, and I cannot do as much as I once could. Yet it would be most ungrateful to complain, even if I were seriously incommoded, for my present overwork arises from the very success of a school which I began here shortly after I retired from the [Irish] University. When we began it was a simple experiment, and lookers-on seemed to be surprised when they found we had in half a year a dozen; but at the end of our third year we now have seventy. . . . As all other schools are increasing in number, it is a pleasant proof of the extension of Catholic education.

So strong was Blessed Newman’s advocacy on behalf of Catholic schools, that in 1879 the Archbishop of Sydney, Roger Bede Vaughan, solicited his assistance for the cause in Australia. To which the new Cardinal replied:

. . . I feel it a great honour on the part of Your Grace, that you have made use, in the Pastorals, which you have had the goodness to send me, of what I had occasion to say at Rome last May on the subject of the special religious evil of the day. It pleased me to find that you could make it serviceable in the anxious conflict in which you are at this time engaged in defence of Christian education. It is indeed the gravest of questions whether our people are to commence life with or without adequate instruction in those all-important truths which ought to colour all thought and to direct all action; – whether they are or are not to accept this visible world for their God and their all, its teaching as their only truth, and its prizes as their highest aims; – for, if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?

There’s the heart of the question: “. . . if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?”

Finally, with a most priestly heart, Newman places the role of the priest in a Catholic school directly within one’s pastoral ministry and gives it preeminence, words spoken by him as congratulatory words were first directed to him by the Oratory School community upon his entrance into the College of Cardinals: “No other department of the pastoral office requires such sustained attention and such unwearied services. A confessor for the most part knows his penitents only in the confessional, and perhaps does not know them by sight. A parish priest knows indeed the members of his flock individually, but he sees them only from time to time.”

As most of you know, I have devoted my entire priestly life to the Catholic school apostolate. Why? Because I agree with that great, fiery, indomitable Archbishop of New York, John Hughes, who asserted without fear of contradiction, “the days have come, and the place, in which the school is more necessary than the church.” Or, the equally passionate John Lancaster Spaulding, Bishop of Peoria, who declared – presciently – that “without parish schools, there is no hope that the Church will be able to maintain itself in America.” And isn’t that exactly what we see unfolding before our eyes these days?

With the absence of priests from our schools in recent years, orthodoxy and Catholic identity waned in many places, leading to a further crisis in the schools. The mass exodus of women Religious from the schools is yet another reason why the presence of priests is even more important than ever. The involvement of a priest, however, is not simply or even primarily that of a watchdog; his involvement is needed to provide pastoral support for faculty and administration, to teach religion or other subjects according to his abilities, to be part of the lives of the students on the playground, in the cafeteria, at social and athletic events and, of course, for sacramental/liturgical services.

Not a few bishops – precipitously and foolishly, in my opinion – withdrew priests from high school work, yet the presence of priests there provided one of the most effective “recruitment” devices we ever had for priestly vocations. Dioceses that have kept priests there – or which are putting them back – know that.

St. Joseph Calasanz understood all this very well, bringing into high relief his rationale for priests in our schools in a letter he wrote to Cardinal Michelangelo Tonti (which letter appears in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for the liturgical memorial of Calasanz). Listen to the logic, conviction and holy zeal of the Saint:

Everybody realizes the great dignity and merit of that ministry in which men devote themselves to the education of boys, especially poor boys, so that they may learn the way to eternal life. When, in the interests of soul and body, knowledge is imparted, piety cultivated, Christian doctrine inculcated, their teachers share in a certain manner in the work of their guardian angels.

Help of the most excellent kind is given to young people, whatever their origin or station, so that not only are they preserved from evil but they are more easily and gently drawn towards good. It is universally accepted that when the young receive such aid, they become so much changed for the better as to be no longer recognizable for what they previously were. The young, like tender plants, are easily trained in the desired direction, but if allowed to toughen, we find that our best efforts may fail to correct their wills.

The education of youth, particularly of the poor, while it assists them to grow in human dignity, also concerns all members of Christian society. Parents rejoice to see their children being led along the right path; civil authorities approve the formation of good-living subjects and citizens. The Church especially has cause to be glad, for, as lovers of Christ and defenders of the gospel, the young are more speedily and efficaciously brought into her many and varied fields of life and action.

Those who undertake this work of teaching, surely a task to be carried out with the greatest care, must be endowed with overflowing charity, inexhaustible patience, and, above all, profound humility. So may they be found worthy for the Lord, in answer to their humble entreaties, to make them fellow-workers with Truth itself; may He strengthen them to carry out their noble office, and finally, may He grant them a heavenly reward in accordance with the saying: “Those who instruct many in virtue will shine like stars for all eternity.”

They will attain more easily to this, if, having made profession of perpetual service, they strive wholeheartedly to cleave to Christ and to please Him only, who said: “Whatever you did to one of the least of my little ones, you did it to me.”

Through the intercession of St. Joseph Calasanz, St. John Baptist De La Salle, St. John Bosco, St. John Henry Newman – and all the holy priest-teachers – may the Lord raise up a new generation of such priestly ministers to labor in that most important corner of the Lord’s vineyard, which is the Catholic school.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 160 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

1 Comment

  1. Would like to add that Catholic Education is vitally needed for spritual growth of children. While the importance of mom and dad teaching and providing a good example are vital, the school provides training and culture supporting the development and growth of each childs faith. The decline of the Catholic School System has manifested in the growing decline in church attendance and understanding of the catholic faith. The main cause is the obvious fact that vocation for sisters, in parallel with vocation for priests, has been obliterated. It has not helped that bishops seem to quick to cut school program that are too small or financially shaky. From what I can tell there is little energy to retain schools, it is easier to eliminate a school than to command an all out effort to save a school.

    There are a few exceptions that may provide a model or models to consider to bring back the catholic school system. One example is the Sacred Heart Of Jesus School in Grand Rapids. The school switched to an academy approach, but also implemented an aggresive fundraising effort. So instead of dying the School is now growing. As posited in the this important article, the parish priest was the driver to make it happen.

    In another example, The Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor Area of Michigan is a growing religious order dedicated to teaching. It seems now they are able to provide suitable catholic schools with a few sisters to support the teachng staff.

    As someone who went through a catholic system, I know its value and can readily see the dire results of letting the system deteriorate. It has effected the catholic life all around us. As a starting point, as Father points out we need priests to take charge, but in saying this I recognize many parish priest are over worked, but the job cannot be done without them. Just as important or maybe more important is that bishops should not be cutting schools, every avenue must be pursued to save schools. Suggest the MBA philosophy of cutting costs, and instead the focus should be on saving schools.

    Finally the example of the Dominican Sisters and similar orders need to be publisized. In the parish I belong too and those I check out in the NW Chicago suburbs, no mentioned is ever made of them. The job of advertizing these vital Sister Organizations has also to be a priority. If a girl is looking for growing spirtually as a sister this information should readily be available.

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