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Sunday 4, Year B: Catholic Education Sunday

As you know, we celebrate this week the 100th anniversary of the Scottish Catholic Education Act. The Act transferred ownership, as it were, of the Church’s schools to the state but with a number of conditions attached in order to preserve the Catholic identity and ethos of the schools.

In recent years, a number of contentious issues concerning Catholic schools has emerged in public debate. For example, the system of Catholic schools is blamed for segregation and sectarianism. The argument is that the state should not be funding that and that schools should be integrated under a secular banner. It would not be appropriate in a homily to get into social and political arguments on these and other issues. That’s the role of the Catholic laity: to take up these matters intelligently, calmly and confidently with the competent authorities. What I would just say is that if a Catholic school is fulfilling its vocation – yes, its vocation! – then far from causing dissension in society it brings true integration. Why? Because it produces not just well-formed Catholics but well-formed citizens who are inspired by their faith to be pro-active in strengthening the foundations of society.

And it’s really this that I’d like to tease out a little more. What does it mean to be a well-formed Catholic and thus a well-formed citizen?

The two words, “Catholic Education” actually contain in themselves the answer to that question. Let’s take first the word “Catholic.” If I asked you what the word meant, I think you would all answer as one man, “universal.” The Catholic Church is the universal Church, you would say, because it is one all over the world. While that is right, it is only a partial answer to the question about the meaning of “Catholic.” In fact, in the early Church, the word that was used to describe the geographical expanse of the Church was not “Catholic” but “ecumenical.” This term means, “the inhabited earth.” Since what we now call the Catholic Church spread across the inhabited earth at the time, it was called “ecumenical.” Whereas the word “Catholic” meant something much more and much richer. You will be familiar with the term “holistic” or “alcoholic” or “workaholic.” They refer to the totality of something which can be good or bad. Those three letters “hol” are of course in the word Catholic. The letters “cat” mean “according to” as we say at Mass, “A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Mark.”

Hence the word Catholic means “according to the whole.” The “whole” of what? And here is the richness I was mentioning: the whole or fullness of the Truth, the faith; the wholeness or fullness of the means of sanctification, the sacraments; and the wholeness of divine charity, or service. Catholic Church means the Church which has been given by Christ, as the result of his death and resurrection, the fullness of divine truth, divine worship and divine charity. This does not mean that by being a member of the Catholic Church we each individually have all of that. But it does mean that, together with all other members of the Church, Christ and His Spirit guarantee the presence of these divine gifts in the Church. The task of each of us, with the help of God, is to immerse ourselves in them, or better still, to let them take possession of us. The true Catholic is not the one who shouts the odds or sings loudest “full in the panting heart of Rome.” The true Catholic can never be sectarian. That’s a contradiction in terms. The true Catholic will want to give the fullness he/she has received because he/she realizes that it is a gift received to be given, not some kind of privileged position from which to castigate others.

Yet it is precisely because of this fullness, this Catholicity, that Catholics, individually and collectively seek and establish means to plumb the depths of what they have received from Christ. And those depths and breadths extend beyond the sanctuary and the church to every facet and dimension of life. Even a superficial reading of the history of the Catholic Church will show how Catholicism as I have explained it gave rise to institutions of education and health, to great movements of civilization and in general to the humanization of social life. In all these endeavours, including Catholic education, Christ and his Spirit have provided unfailingly the inspiration and power to better and to improve the lot of human society.

In this sense, the word “education” is the natural companion or complement to “Catholic.” Education, meaning to lead forth, to bring out the full potential and identity of the individual person, is itself a term which refers to the whole of the person. You could even say that education is aimed at calling forth the catholicity of the person, meaning each and every dimension of the person. You don’t just educate someone’s mind; even less do you limit education of the mind to one dimension of knowledge such as science. No, you want to open the mind out to the whole of the intelligible world, even if realistically no one can study everything. But the education of the mind alone would lead to a deformity of the person, a lop-sidedness in their development. Affections and emotions, moral behaviour, social graces, human virtues and above all the spiritual and religious dimensions must also be educated. Why do I say of these last two that they above all must be educated? For the simple reason that the religious dimension is the deepest and most authentic trait of the human person. Created by God, God has left deep in our spirits the hallmark of this creative act of divine love. No matter how we might try, or others might try, or the circumstances of life would try, to suppress man’s yearning for God, in the end it cannot be suppressed. For, in the end, we return to God. In this sense, religious education is the most important aspect of education in which educators must invest their skills, their efforts and their resources. If we get religious education right, we have loved and served and cared in the best way for our children and young people, because we have prepared them to live their lives now in view of eternity. We have also honoured and obeyed the loving will of the Creator.

Of course, religious education for us means Catholic education. It means exposing the whole life and person of the young both appropriately and gradually to that fullness of divine truth, divine worship and divine charity which defines Catholicism. It means leading the young to be inspired by their faith to engage in the other dimensions of their education and ultimately of their work and vocation in the world. Catholic education does not stifle true growth but enhances it. When the religious sense of any person is at work in them, they have in that a principle that brings unity and purpose to everything else they do. Catholic Education must of course be intelligent, creative in helping the young to come to know and love Jesus Christ as real, indeed as the “realest” reality of their existence. This of itself leads to joining with others of the same persuasion with a sense of joy and love and of mission to live for Christ. Speaking of mission, this is the mission of the Catholic school. It serves not itself, not the Church as an institution, but the wider good, the common good, of society.

Together with parents, who are the first and best teachers of their children in the faith, and with the parish, in which especially at Mass Christ constantly pours out his truth, grace and love, the Catholic school has a key role to play in introducing our young people to society. It teaches them that the Catholic way of life is a solid basis and foundation to live in society responsibly and happily and to contribute to its growth in the sight of God. Let us do all we can, then, to support our Catholic schools. It is a serious investment in the good of our children, in the authentic growth of our society and in our vocation and mission as members of the holy Catholic Church.