Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy is multifaceted, and it includes a rich vision for Catholic education. As those of us in the Partnership join Catholics around the world in praying for the repose of his soul, we have a unique way to honor him: as Catholic educators, we can take a moment to see our work as he did.
A talk that the former pontiff gave in 2012 to teachers and professors in Washington, D.C. touches on many of the themes he returned to often in his career as a scholar and church leader. Among his insights:
- Catholic schools are places to encounter “transforming love and truth.”
When students really come to know Jesus Christ in our schools, they are invited into a revelation of how they are loved by God, and how beautiful truth permeates creation. It is nothing less than this relationship with “the living God” that should animate our school days.
- The truth we teach is more than “factual data.”
Pope Benedict had long defended the existence of objective truth in a world that prefers subjectivity. He also called the truth of the Gospel “creative and life-changing.” He called this “performative” truth—so compelling that encountering it causes us and our students to grow and change.
- We should spend more time forming students for freedom.
In his years as a scholar, Pope Benedict grew concerned that the notion of freedom was being “distorted” in contemporary cultures. “Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in—a participation in being itself,” he explained in Washington. There is no true freedom where there is not also faith in God, he asserted, and he reflected that “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will.”
- Schools’ Catholic identity comes from how we are, not who our students are.
He declared that a “school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction—do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear?”
- “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
Pope Benedict heard those voices suggesting either that the Church should concentrate on work other than that of schools, or that Catholic schools have little value for the wider community. He pushed back against both. “Do not abandon the school apostolate,” he urged; “indeed, renew your commitment to schools especially those in poorer areas.”
Our work, then, involves knowing we are loved by God, passing the truth of that love on to our students, letting it change us and the world around us, giving our students the tools they need to freely choose that love, and doing all of this for young people in marginalized communities. Seen this way—as Pope Benedict XVI saw it—the work of Catholic schools is a daily practice of hope in a world that could use more of it.