Pope Benedict’s seed blooms as ‘morning glory’

“I used to say, as a convert, that I read my way into the Catholic Church, which is true, to a certain degree. But, the older I get, the more I am convinced that it was the power of good friendships that converted my heart.” Bishop James Conley. Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and Classical School Gala, Denver, Colo., Feb. 17, 2018.

In study after study, the sad realization is that our schools are failing at something essential—the sticky factor. With all the incredible brain trust and vast financial resources being invested into Catholic education, we seem to be losing ground on the results of a lived Faith.

The latest large-scale Pew Research study indicates that a disturbing trend is rocking our Church—over three percent of Catholics have left the Church in just seven years—that is three million fallen-away Catholics from 2007-2014. A related statistic is that 79% of former Catholics left their faith before age 23! Catholic school faith is not sticking. Evangelization of hearts is not happening, even among the majority of students in our own Catholic schools.

In 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke at the Catholic University of America and, not surprisingly, provided clear direction in the battle against the dictatorship of relativism—especially in our own Catholic institutions.

First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who, in Jesus Christ, reveals his transforming love and truth…. In this way, those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life.

Ho hum. I’ve heard that before. And another hundred lines like it! One important difference is that this was said by a pope who is a scholar’s scholar. This quote reminds me a bit of the shock I had when I heard St. Thomas Aquinas’ judgment of his own voluminous works of theology as straw, compared to the beatific vision. A vision of God is so far beyond what we can imagine, yet it should be our constant and only quest, even within our daily duties of work, play, friendships, and entertainment. Pope Benedict’s call is not some feel-good appeal to a squishy, indefinable feelings-based relationship with Jesus. This is a clear, hard charging and direct call to everyone involved in Catholic education.

There is no room for interpretation or subjectivity. “First and foremost,” the Holy Father states. He does not say, “Don’t forget to bring the Faith into the classroom in a relevant way.” He references God’s love and truth as transforming—transforming the faculty, administration and students. In our K-12 schools, the truth we teach and stand for, and the love we give and point to, should also be transforming families. He concludes this short but powerful quote by letting us know that such an encounter is not an experience, not a passing feeling, and not just a lesson covered in a classroom, but an encounter that will “draw [them] to lead a new life.” To lead a new life! That is a powerful charge for us educators.

So, what has happened since 2008? Was anyone listening?

In our work throughout the country helping schools recapture the Catholic intellectual tradition in their curricula and teaching methodologies, we have seen a huge upswing in schools, and even some whole dioceses, who seem to take Pope Benedict’s charge very seriously. See the recent article “Kansas City Light” for one of many examples.

Recently, Northeast Catholic College in New Hampshire took a large and unique step to help ensure that a deep and abiding Catholic identity imbues the life of students who attends their college. We all know there are no guarantees, but that should never stop us from doing our best and trying our hardest. We know any and all manner of ills can befall our children, that they could still choose evil no matter how hard we try and all we give them. And yet, we still do our absolute best to try to raise them well, giving them the best advantages in life—a work ethic, a kind and charitable heart, good manners, healthy life habits, and of course a strong Faith and love of God.

In a like manner, Dr. George Harne, president of Northeast Catholic College, recently struck an agreement with Fr. Michael Gaitley and the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy to greatly increase the odds that his students will not only learn the greatest ideas in human history, but also shine the Gospel light on it in a new and very personal way.

Harne, who wrote a wonderful article about Pope Benedict’s address a few years ago, has been able to pull all the pieces together and provide this benefit to his students through this new partnership. He understands that “first and foremost, Northeast Catholic College is a place to encounter the Living God” and, because of that, he has committed time, money, and institutional restructuring to allow Jesus Christ the time and place to “reveal his transforming love.”

Harne told me via email that he sees such an integration as mandatory at Catholic schools. Again, he directly responds to Benedict XVI, who also stated at his CUA address that “fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning.”

Harne wrote, “The partnership we are announcing with Fr. Gaitley and the Marian Missionaries is a concrete way to fulfill the mandate Benedict gave us in 2008: Educate our students in a way that includes and complements evangelization. Even at faithful Catholic schools, the education of the mind and the education of the heart can unfold in ways that do not reflect the institution’s own commitments to the integration of Faith and Reason. How these two spheres should be united will vary from school to school, but it is time to intensify our thinking about approaches that can yield the harvest that we long to see and that the Church expects from schools called ‘Catholic.’”

The core of this partnership, and the effect it aims to produce is to build an environment of integrated enculturation. I have often described my own conversion of heart as a teenager as being a result of experiencing a small “Christendom,” a Christian society. I was sent to a non-denominational Christian camp in the Colorado Rockies and it was there that I first experienced the freedom and joy that came from being amidst 60+ teenagers and young adults who lived and loved the Lord. I did not expect to find “normal” kids, but they were, and they freely talked about Jesus and aimed to discern better ways to live his precepts in a modern world. Against my original attitude, I was smitten.

Northeast Catholic College, in entering into this partnership with the Marian Missionaries, will substantially enhance the student experience on campus. They will find their hearts being formed right along with their minds. This is the uniqueness and beauty of this partnership, the purposeful attention to the development of the whole person instead of just hoping the heart will follow the truth learned in the classroom. Harne sees Benedict’s call as demanding Catholic institutions to be more proactive in providing the opportunity for the “encounter” with Christ.

“The partnership,” Harne told me, “will be fundamentally relational and rooted in mentoring relationships. Students will not only learn directly from Fr. Gaitley and other MIC [Marians of the Immaculate Conception] priests, but will also study, worship and grow alongside slightly older (but still young) Catholics who are animated by a lively faith.”

In hearing this, especially the “animated by a lively faith,” I was immediately reminded of my own life-altering experience in Colorado. This program can be powerfully transformational in the lives of these young people.

Based on the mentoring relationships and cemented through retreats, courses, and service opportunities with the Missionaries, Northeast Catholic students will be immersed in the great spiritual giants whom God gave us to answer the call to evangelize the modern world. In addition to the gentle rainfall of truth forming minds in the classroom, they will also be formed in the spiritualities of saints such as John Paul II, Therese of Lisieux, Faustina, Maximilian Kolbe, and Mother Teresa. These saints will provide the divine sunshine that will aid in blooming Benedict’s seed of wisdom, and the morning glories will proudly display God’s ever-blooming beauty.

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.

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