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May 28, 2014
Reflections on Catholic education
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

In the 1986 film, “Hannah’s Sisters,” Woody Allen, its producer and director, also plays the role of Mickey who bemoans his fragmented life.  He has had his fill of breakdown. Negation, no more! Thinking that the Catholic Church will bring meaning to his life, Mickey visits a priest who asks “Why do you want to become a Catholic?”  “It’s such a beautiful religion, it’s such a strong religion, and it’s so well structured,” replies Mickey in his Brooklyn twang.

Holiness Is Wholeness

The Church affirms wholeness, insists on wholeness.  It proclaims one God, the whole Christ, the complete community, the Body of Christ.  It builds up the whole person, not merely pious feeling but also right reason, not just the free will but the intellect and the affections.  Jesus asks of his disciples complete commitment with nothing held back.  No half measures. No tepidity. To them is promised full and complete joy, and a full and abundant life.   Thus, a unity of beauty, truth, and goodness.

Catholic Education: a Human and Divine Pedagogy

Catholic education is engaged primarily in forming the mind which seeks truth but is engaged in wholeness.  Catholic education, as a human and divine pedagogy, forms citizens for this life and the next. It is intimately bound up with forming the full and complete Catholic. 

What of those students in our schools who follow another faith-tradition?  Or no faith? In some schools, they outnumber Catholic students. It is a well-known fact that these children are enrolled in Catholic schools to benefit from their structure and discipline as well as from their strong code of morality. What code?  In The Book of Virtues, William J. Bennett offers ten virtues that can be integrated into any core curriculum: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, faith. He uses figures from history to exemplify each virtue. When these virtues are integrated into the Catholic curriculum, Jesus Christ is their context and model. 

The Catholic Educator

Care of the whole person marks the vocation of the Catholic educator whose ingenuity finds ways to inspire students to higher goals, always the more. Enthusiasm is contagious and will be caught by the students if the educator brings that vitality to teaching. The educator reminds students of their God-given talents, gifts that are to be developed to the fullest and not just for themselves. They, and all of us, cooperate with God in building a better world in business, media, the arts, and politics.

The Student

The classroom is sacred ground where children can be inspired to the love of learning. They learn by doing. An action, task, or lesson repeated about fifty times with focused attention is likely to be assimilated, whether the action, task, or lesson is good or bad. With repetition of something good comes freedom from the tyranny of the scattered, undisciplined mind.  And, as athletes tell us, self-discipline is a form of freedom, freedom to achieve their goals.

Catholic education promotes structure and self-discipline.  Both affect attitude, thought, and behavior.  They free the individual to choose a disciplined and virtuous life rather than the therapeutic culture that has glorified the self.  The ‘me’ culture is beginning to crumble.  Given the state of the job market, it behooves every student to embrace not only self-discipline but humility as well. College graduates in the thousands find themselves having to work in minimum-wage jobs while paying off large loans!

The School Day

Catholic education is student-oriented. A typical class day leans toward about 75 percent student expression and 25 percent teacher expression. After the teacher explains the lesson, frequent questions and repetitions are conducted to ensure that it has been thoroughly learned. So too with varied systems of exercises: compositions, discussions, debates, contests.
Today, social media is so dominated by texting on mobile devices that mastering the English language must be intensified with maximum effort.  This includes grammar, diagramming sentences, elocution, especially through daily recitation and oral topics, composition (writing correctly and writing creatively), practice in editing one’s written work and re-submission of it even more than once, and memorizing poetry. In Latin, these exercises are part of eloquentia perfecta.

Education in the arts is important: listening to classical music, drawing, painting, and even sculpting, if children are accustomed to express themselves through oral, written, and creative media, they will more easily succeed in math and science which exact stringent analytical and precise thinking.

Schools and its classrooms should be cheerful and orderly places of learning.  Copies of attractive classic painting and worthy statuary in offices and hallways are non-verbal ways of affirming the power of beauty to inspire.

One month before his tragic death, President John F. Kennedy offered the following remarks at Amherst College: “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business and statecraft.  I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.  And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.” 

The Joy of Reading

Reading good and great literature is its own reward.  We read for enjoyment. Such reading is a not utilitarian activity to be validated by measurable outcomes. Reading frees our minds and spirit to go beyond ourselves and travel to places different from our own. It expands our world and awaken us to other cultures.  With good reading comes wisdom. Reading good literature improves our vocabulary as it does our writing.

The Joy of Memorizing Poetry

We memorize poetry for pleasure.  Like mastering a Bach fugue, poetry imparts power like the power of owning real estate, writes Jim Bolt in “Got Poetry?” (NY Times, April 5, 2009).  It makes one rich.  First, comes struggling with the notes to get them under the fingers.  Gradually, the fingers glide over the keys eager to bring out the beauty of Bach’s creative process. One owns the piece just mastered.

Children love to recite poetry aloud. Adults as well. President Kennedy and his brothers, Robert and Edward wove poetry into their speeches, including prosaic stump speeches. Recently, Maria Bartiromo, a prominent TV journalist, columnist, and a Wall Street whiz delivered a commencement address into which she incorporated Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” all four stanzas.   She felt it was that important for the graduates to hear.

Educating the Emotions for Wonder and Contemplation

One of the most pressing needs in Catholic education is educating the affections.  From infancy, children live in a state of wonder, their mouths almost always agape at external stimuli.  Their senses are in play before other faculties. Their developing sense of wonder should prepare them for the contemplation of spiritual realities, most especially, for communion with God in prayer.  If this aspect of children’s lives is neglected, why the surprise when they misuse or abuse their senses in destructive behavior? The senses are our friends and not our enemies. 

Several years ago, I taught sixth-graders in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where most families lived in squalid tenements.  Every semester, I took the children on an outing to the country. I wanted them to experience the beauty of nature in verdant fields, trees, and flowers.   Once there, child after child would exclaim, “Oh, Sister, this is so beautiful!  Can’t we stay the whole day?”   In the classroom setting, they responded similarly after they had learned to enjoy beautiful music, painting, or literature. They would pause in deep reflection, as if to linger in those experiences. 

Religious Formation: Apologetics of Personalism

The times call for a religious formation that also includes apologetics, the defense of the faith. St. John Paul II believed that “personalism is the best medicine for awakening the world from its metaphysical slumber” (Avery Dulles, Church and Society, 436). Personalism appeals to the universal aspirations of the human heart for communion with the divine. The best way to bring others to Jesus Christ is to live the good news with conviction.

The power of good example as a way to edify others and to defend the faith cannot be overstated.   In fact, the beauty of a holy life is the surest and most persuasive occasion for influencing others.  When the journalist Tim Russert died suddenly in 2008, his colleague Howard Fineman publicly stated that, if he were ever to convert to Catholicism, Tim Russert would be his role model. God’s love shines out from those who of themselves are unaware of God’s working in their daily lives.  So it was with Tim Russert.   

Giving good example doesn’t excuse ignorance of one’s faith. To be a Catholic in contemporary America is to be an informed and devout Catholic.  Faith needs reason; reason needs faith.  Blind faith and pure rationalism are to be rejected. Modern apologetics walks with the four “Cs” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These tenets should form an integral part of Catholic education, whether in formal religion class or in subliminal ways:

Creed. What we believe. The tenets of the faith are summarized in the Nicene Creed.  

Cult. How we celebrate in liturgical worship what we believe.

Code. How we live what we believe and celebrate in liturgical worship.  Formation of conscience is essential and training of the will.

Contemplation. One’s personal encounter with God in prayer vitalizes creed, cult, and code.   

With these pillars of Catholicism, students can defend their faith confidently and calmly if it becomes necessary. 

Conclusion

Catholic education should begin the process of transforming its students into affective, effective, affable and cultivated disciples of the Lord—for life.  How will tomorrow’s Church reveal its splendor of truth, ever ancient, ever new? The soundness of tomorrow’s Church will largely depend on the quality of today’s Catholic education at all levels.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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