Catholic education: The Holy See goes back to the basics

Just after his installation as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education for the Holy See, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi oversaw the Vatican’s World Congress on Education. I was a participant and spoke to his Eminence about the renewal of education in America—and in particular about our efforts to create textbooks once again for Catholic schools.

He lauded the good news and said of our textbooks, having perused one volume, “This is important work!” I was obviously pleased and proud, but also hopeful that he was the new prefect, one who seemed to understand clearly the true essence of what Catholic education should be.

I was heartened when I read recently of Cardinal Versaldi’s address to Chile’s Sixth National Congress on Catholic Education where he proposed for consideration five keys for Catholic schools to employ in order to unlock their potential “to respond in depth to the current challenges of society.” In his address, he reiterated what he shared with me that day in Italy.

It is also probably important to note that his five points are really nothing new, but they seem to have been lost over the generations. It is refreshing to be re-schooled in our heritage. It is good to go “back to the basics.”

Cardinal Versaldi’s first key is that schools are centers of the proclamation of the Christian life: “The Catholic school has both the right and duty to not only teach in consistency with its own values, but also to have an inner dynamic of proclaiming and living the Christian life.” This is in great contrast to battles that many Catholic schools are facing from local or national political agendas, and sadly, even from some of the schools’ own families.

To this later point, Cardinal Versaldi gives us some perspective and justification for holding to our mission, “It would be unjust to ask, in the name of tolerance, for Catholic schools to take a neutral approach in what they teach and to not to be able to foster a religious way of life, while still respecting people’s freedom, since the students have decided to go to an institution they already know is Catholic.” Common sense, surely. Yet, sadly, it is not so common anymore, which is why we need to go back to the basics.

Cardinal Versaldi then reminds the faithful that a Catholic school should be known for being a community filled with teachers who are a daily “witness of charity.”  This second key, he continues, will help be leaven to a community. “A Christian school community imbued with this charity is in and of itself the best means of pastoral ministry.”

The third key he discusses is deeply essential and probably under-represented in today’s teacher formation. However, here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for the last several years, all high school teachers are required to attend one faith formation day, which is a meaty intellectual day consisting of sound formation in the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition. All teachers, regardless of what they teach, must join in for the day and hear the wisdom of the Church through world-class teachers like Bishop Robert Barron, Dr. Scott Hahn, Dr. Janet Smith, or Sr. Regina Marie Gorman, OCD.

How perfectly this meets Cardinal Versaldi’s third key regarding the ongoing formation of teachers in “their spiritual growth and their truly living out their faith.” He reminds us that this is “not a waste of time or effort which takes away from their actual teaching,” but that it allows true teaching to flourish. My own experience with our Institute teacher training programs has shown this a hundred-fold and beyond. Our teachers become enflamed with a heart for the truth in all subjects, in all things, and thus true teaching flourishes.

Another important key the Cardinal points out is the need for schools to continue working together with the Church. He also indicates that this fourth key is a two-way street, that school and parish “mutually help each other out in their different roles.” Pastors must visibly and regularly support their schools, whether it is their own parish school or a regional school where their parishioners attend. The pastors should be promoters and fundraisers for the Catholic school, which is helping form the Church’s future.

Similarly, local Catholic schools should be active in the principal parishes that the school draws from, aiding in liturgy, altar servicing and society, attending Masses, adoration and processions, and aiding in the works for the poor and pro-life causes. Mostly, “it is important to foster a consistent witness, including that of [students’] lives outside the classroom, such that the Church community would think the school a living example of her realities.” Catholic school children who are active in a parish can revivify a parish community.

Finally, Cardinal Versaldi reminds us all to turn regularly to Providence as our guide.

“Schools need to [be] animated not by a paralyzing pessimism but rather with Christian hope founded on the faith that human history is always guided by Divine Providence despite people’s free will.” If we develop our curriculum and school culture around the highest things of mankind, of wisdom, virtue and heaven, our students will grow in understanding and perspective and be able to see the hand of Providence amidst the vacillations of social and political turmoil, at least that which the daily headlines promote.

The Cardinal grounds us with this fifth key, saying, “It is important to maintain this faith and translate it into the work of education as an overriding way of acting in order to become protagonists in a true renewal of the social scene without letting oneself be manipulated by the various political factions.”

In order to effect each of these in our schools, the administration, pastors, central office personnel, and teachers all would do well to follow Cardinal Versaldi’s comments on formation, where we each focus on “spiritual growth and living out [our] faith [which] is not a waste of time or effort which takes away from [our] actual teaching.”

We would all do well to remember the importance of virtue and wisdom as guiding ends for our educational and parental duties. And we would all do well to stand on the shoulders of the giants who built our Catholic intellectual tradition rather than embrace an historical intellectual amnesia and follow every new twist and turn of educational research. As Cardinal Versaldi reminded me in Rome, and I paraphrase, “we built the great system of education, we better not forget it!”

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.