January 24, 2008
This past week, the International Committee on English in the Liturgy met in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Twice a year, the committee’s eleven bishops from English-speaking countries around the world meet with various experts. It is always a week of intense work as we prepare more accurate and richer translations for our Catholic worship.
Each day began promptly with morning Mass. Before the sun rose, we would make our way to the local parish of St. John the Evangelist. It was an adventurous 15-minute walk from the hotel. Crossing the street was a game of dodging the motorized rickshaws that swarmed at us like hungry mosquitoes. The drivers seemed more intent on getting to where they were going than in our safety!
The closer we came to the church, the more children and their parents we met. The young people ran up to us. With folded hands, as if in prayer, and a smile from ear to ear, they would ask for a blessing and then scurry off to class. Their parents also asked for blessings in the same way. The power of example. The lack of any embarrassment about their Catholic faith. Their joy. All these thoughts kept flooding my mind as we entered the church crowded with people attending Mass.
The parish school is filled to capacity. 3, 500 students, from kindergarten to 10
th grade, attend classes in split sessions. In a country that is less than 2% Catholic, we could hardly miss the value of Catholic education. It gives people a strong Catholic identity. And more as well.
This Catholic school in a country that is predominantly non-Christian is a strong reminder of the essential role of every Catholic school. In our diverse society, the Catholic school is an institutional commitment on the part of the Church to contribute to the good of all society by educating students with academic excellence and forming them to bring the power of faith to improve society with the knowledge they gain.
Today, there are serious challenges to maintaining Catholic schools. Some Catholics even raise the question of the value of continuing Catholic schools in light of the financial problems. Certainly, the Church cannot shrink from her responsibility of forming young people. But is the Catholic school the only way to do this? What about youth programs and the vast majority of young people who do not have the privilege of attending a Catholic school? Some suggest that the Church could better use her resources to fulfill her mandate from the Lord to make disciples of all peoples. Too much emphasis on Catholic schools, they argue, can detract from the urgent pastoral need to bring the gospel to as many people as possible.
Undoubtedly, the Catholic school is not the sole means of Catholic education. The family is the primary place where the young are formed in the Faith. The Liturgy is a privileged place of continual formation for all as disciples of Jesus. Religious education classes for those preparing for the Sacraments, the Rite of Christian Initiation, Family Catechesis and many good programs of continuing adult education are necessary in today’s society where less than 5 % of Catholics attend Catholic schools.
However, the Catholic school is not a secondary element in the pastoral work of the Church. “In the pluralistic society of today, the Catholic school, moreover, by maintaining an institutional Christian presence in the academic world, proclaims by its very existence the enriching power of the faith as the answer to the enormous problems which afflict mankind. Above all, it is called to render a humble loving service to the Church by ensuring that she is present in the scholastic field for the benefit of the human family” (
The Catholic School, The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, March 19, 1977, n 62).
Some 250,000 Catholic institutions educate students around the world today. On every continent, they form almost 42 million students in the Catholic tradition: 12 million in the Americas, 10 million in Africa, 10 million in Asia, 9 million in Europe, and 800,000 in Oceania. The number of students is small. However, size is not the measure of significance. Those gifted with a Catholic education are prepared to be the leaven of society and the salt of the earth.
All forms of Catholic education spring from the same conviction that truth is not neutral. Economics as well as literature, science as well as art, all the disciplines of knowledge have implications for life. Those with a solid Catholic education can, therefore, bridge the growing gap between culture and religion, reason and faith, life and morality.
We live in a time that emphasizes tolerance and openness and equates intellectual adherence to objective truth and objective morality as bigotry. Everything is relative. Everything depends on the individual. Much of our politics and many cultural institutions, such as the media and entertainment, espouse an unmistakably secular agenda.
In such a climate, many are willing to compromise church teaching on issues of social justice, war, the right to life, the care of the elderly, marriage, divorce and human sexuality. Today’s currents of secularism and relativism are the toxic air that we breathe today. Catholic education, and most particularly the Catholic School, is a life-breath for the good of all society.