When I decided I wanted to be an artist, I started to investigate the training that was given traditionally to artists in the past. This involved the study of a number of things: how the skills of the art, painting and drawing for example, were transmitted; the great works of Catholic culture so that the artists understands the tradition in which he is working; and a formation of the person, so that he is open to inspiration, and can apprehend beauty and work beautifully.
This article is an attempt to articulate concisely what I discovered (and describe in greater length in the book the Way of Beauty) – that a formation in beauty, was not only part of a general Catholic education, but in fact was identical with what a general Catholic education ought to be, and so rarely is.
The only difference between an artist’s education and any good general education was the vocational element, in this case painting. It occurred to me that this could change according to the particular calling of each person. Then the rest would benefit every person, regardless of his precise calling in life and could complement all other study and human activity.
I believe also, incidentally, that this is a program that could be also a formation of people as evangelists who can participate in the New Evangelization, shining with the Light of Christ as they go about their daily business.
The content of the syllabus, which I do not describe in detail here is superficially similar to many humanities and liberal arts educations. However, in contrast to many of these existing educations (the ones that I have looked at, at least), it emphasizes in its pedagogical method more strongly what I see as an essential element, that of praxis – putting into practice what is learnt and so developing the faculty of the creativity by creating beautiful things..
The other key element – perhaps the most important – is that of consciously ordering of everything to man’s ultimate end and relating it to the highest form of praxis – the worship of God.
Teachers and students alike should be able to make the connection between any element of study and our purpose in life. Then the teachers know the answer to the question, why teach? And students know the answer to the question, why learn? And each will be motivated all the more to fulfill their role.
I will outline the pedagogical method first, and then articulate my understanding of what a Catholic education is. Finally I will list some quotations from Church documents that emphasize the points that I am making in regard to the goal of a Catholic education:
1. Wonder – the appreciation of divine beauty The first stage is to inspire in the student a natural and personal response to the divine beauty which is present in creation and in the beautiful works of man in both the culture of faith and the wider culture. This response should be a natural and joyful experience.
2. Intellectual Illumination – imparting knowledge and understanding This aspect examines how the good, the true and the beautiful participate in all that exists and are personified in God. As much as communicating the subjects taught – eg the liberal arts, philosophy and theology – a goal is to train people to think both analytically and synthetically so that we set them on a path of lifelong learning which they can direct themselves. By ‘analytically’ I mean examining the parts of the subject; by synthetically I mean understanding the whole in the light of what we know about the parts. The broadest synthetic thought is that which places all that we know in the context of our whole human life and its purpose.
3. Praxis 1 – creating a culture of beauty. First by imitating the most beautiful parts of the culture – eg the works of masters, with understanding. Second, by creating original works in art, music, literature etc. and so contributing to the culture.
4. Praxis 2 – participatio actuosa – active participation in the sacred liturgy: the realization of ‘liturgical man’. Teaching people the practice of the worship of God and all it entails. When students take these lessons to heart, participation in the liturgy becomes the ultimate act of creativity, by which they enter into the mystery of the Trinity and by grace participate in the creative love of God.
What is a Catholic education?
The aim of all Catholic education is to offer students a formation that might lead to supernatural transformation in Christ that each might be capable, by God’s grace, of movement towards their ultimate end, and of contribution to the good of each society of which each is a member.
All other stated ends in education, for example, the re-ordering of society’s culture, of bearing witness to Christ in their surroundings and the training of skills to enable the student to earn a living, while necessary are nevertheless ordered to this ultimate end and achieved in their fullest measure by this supernatural transformation.
It is common in the field of Catholic education to cite the creation of the virtuous person as a goal. This is true, and it is in effect another way of saying the same thing, for the highest virtue is a cardinal virtue, the virtue of religion. According to St Thomas (ST II-II, Q.lxxxi) it is a virtue whose purpose is to render God the worship due to Him as the source of all being and the principle of all government of things. It is a distinct virtue, not merely an aspect of another.
This supernatural transformation, made possible by baptism, is made real by an encounter with the living God. This encounter can happen in many ways but occurs most profoundly and most powerfully in the Eucharist and by it we are made capable in a new way, through God’s grace, of loving Him and our fellow man. Love of our fellow man in all its forms is inseparably bound up with love of God: the encounter with God in the Eucharist renews our capacity for love of neighbor; and love of neighbor tends to deepen our participation in the worship of God in the Eucharist.
So profound is this connection between love of God and love of neighbor that there is no authentically human activity – thought or deed, sacred or mundane – that cannot be formed by and ordered to the Eucharist for the better of each person, society and the Church. In this sense the Eucharist is the form (as in guiding principle) of every aspect of the Christian life including all those pertaining to a Catholic school.
Any school or educational institution therefore should ensure that all that goes on is in accord with the end of all education. Accordingly, it should ensure that students are aware that their capacity to be educated and that every aspect of their lives as Christians, whatever their personal goals, will be enhanced when they participate actively in the Eucharist and live a liturgically formed life. This knowledge will help to motivate students in their studies and order all their activities to their personal goals in life, which in turn are ordered to their ultimate end.
Each student should be clearly aware of the profound desirability of a supernatural Christian transformation and, therefore, the need for grace in their education, as in all human activity; and that the Sacred Liturgy is the optimal encounter with Christ in this life that provides for this need. There are many ways that Christ can be encountered, and every activity of a school should be such an encounter of one form or another. However, each encounter, if it is real, points to and is derived from that optimal encounter in Sacred Liturgy. Students should be aware that the fruits of such a transformed Christian life, which are promised to us, are precisely those that a Christian education aims to provide in the ideal.
As well as imparting an understanding of the primary importance of the Sacred Liturgy as the form of their everyday lives and in their education, students need to be given religious instruction so that each, in accordance with his personal situation, might develop a sacramental life that will make the transformation possible. This religious instruction includes principles by which they can develop a harmonious balance of liturgical prayer, both the Mass and the Divine Office, devotional and personal prayer in which the non-liturgical elements are derived from and point to participation in Sacred Liturgy. By this instruction they will know, in theory at least, what is necessary continually to deepen their participation in the sacramental life, with the Eucharist at its heart; and continually to renew and increase their capacity for love of neighbor.
While it may be appropriate for the instruction of what is just described to be given to all in the classroom, the actual participation in the liturgically centered sacramental life must always be one that is voluntary. We must respect each person’s God-given freedom to choose. Transformation itself can neither be taught nor enforced: it is derived from a personal and free response to God’s love for us. The participation therefore, should be encouraged. Accordingly, the role of the school is to increase the freedom of each person to choose well by enhancing their knowledge of what is good in this regard and giving them, where humanly possible, the power and opportunity do to do so. In accord with this the college should make it a priority to make beautiful and appropriately celebrated Sacred Liturgy available to the students in a beautiful place of worship. Ideally the faculty will lead by example, so that their actions speak of the centrality of the Eucharist in a life well lived.
All subjects included in the curriculum, while not all relating directly to the subject of the Sacred Liturgy, must nevertheless be consistent with these twofold and inter-connected aims of love of God and love of man, consummated in a freely chosen liturgically oriented piety. Each faculty member should be able to explain the reason for the inclusion of the subject taught in the light of these principles and willingly direct the students to its liturgical end.
Moreover, beyond the classroom the college should strive to encourage a culture in which any aspect of community life is in accord with and reinforces its ultimate goals for the students.
Quotations from documents on education:
‘A school is a privileged place in which, through a living encounter with a cultural inheritance, integral formation occurs.’ (The Catholic School, 26; pub The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, 1977)
‘The proper and immediate end of Christian education is to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is, to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by Baptism…For precisely this reason, Christian education takes in the whole aggregate of human life, physical and spiritual, intellectual and moral, individual, domestic and social, not with a view of reducing it in any way, but in order to elevate, regulate and perfect it, in accordance with the example and teaching of Christ. Hence the true Christian, product of Christian education, is the supernatural man who thinks, judges and acts constantly and consistently in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ; in other words, to use the current term, the true and finished man of character.’ (Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, 60; Encyclical on Christian Education, 1929, 94, 95, 96)
‘The integral formation of the human person, which is the purpose of education, includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, becoming aware of the transcendental, and religious education. Every school, and every educator in the school, ought to be striving to form strong and responsible individuals, who are capable of making free and correct choices .’ (Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, 17; pub Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, 1982)
‘No less than other schools does the Catholic school pursue cultural goals and the human formation of youth. But its proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith.’ (Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis, 8)
‘For a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share.’ (Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis, 1)
‘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’ (Benedict XVI, Meeting with Catholic Educators, Catholic University of America, Washington DC, April 2008)
‘The true Christian does not renounce the activities of this life, he does not stunt his natural faculties; but he develops and perfects them, by coordinating them with the supernatural. He thus ennobles what is merely natural in life and secures for it new strength in the material and temporal order, no less than in the spiritual and eternal.’ (Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, 60; Encyclical on Christian Education, 1929, 98)
‘Since all Christians have become by rebirth of water and the Holy Spirit a new creature so that they should be called and should be children of God, they have a right to a Christian education. A Christian education does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person as just now described, but has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced to knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society.’ (Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis, 2)
‘Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful.’ (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium)
From documents on the liturgy:
‘Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.’ (Sacrosanctum Consilium, 10)
‘A mystagogical catechesis must be concerned with bringing out the significance of the rites for the Christian life in all its dimensions – work and responsibility, thoughts and emotions, activity and repose. Part of the mystagogical process is to demonstrate how the mysteries celebrated in the rite are linked to the missionary responsibility of the faithful. The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one’s life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated. The aim of all Christian education, moreover, is to train the believer in an adult faith that can make him a “new creation”, capable of bearing witness in his surroundings to the Christian hope that inspires him.’ (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 64)
“The Sacred Liturgy is not a hobby for specialists. It is central to all our endeavors as disciples of Jesus Christ. This profound reality cannot be over emphasized. We must recognize the primacy of grace in our Christian life and work, and we must respect the reality that in this life the optimal encounter with Christ is in the Sacred Liturgy.” (Sacra Liturgia 2013 conference, Rome. Opening address by Bishop Dominique Rey of Frejus-Toulon, France, published in the proceedings of the conference, p15, pub Ignatius, 2013)
‘We can thus understand how agape also became a term for the Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us. Only by keeping in mind this Christological and sacramental basis can we correctly understand Jesus’ teaching on love. The transition which he makes from the Law and the Prophets to the twofold commandment of love of God and of neighbor, and his grounding the whole life of faith on this central precept, is not simply a matter of morality—something that could exist apart from and alongside faith in Christ and its sacramental re-actualization. Faith, worship and ethos are interwoven as a single reality which takes shape in our encounter with God’s agape. Here the usual contraposition between worship and ethics simply falls apart. Worship itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.’ (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 14)
‘There is nothing authentically human – our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds – that does not find in the sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full.’ (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 71)
‘The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. As Saint Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendour at their source. (106) This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love.” (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 35)
‘Many manuals and programmes have not yet taken sufficiently into account the need for a mystagogical renewal, one which would assume very different forms based on each educational community’s discernment.’ (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 166)
All the photographs are from St Edmund Hall, Oxford. This was established in the 13th century and was named after St Edmund Rich, also known as St Edmund of Abingdon (a town in Oxfordshire), or St Edmund of Canterbury. The design of each building, the layout of the college and still, the rhythms and the patterns of the educational year are all in conformity with a principle that places the worship of God as the highest activity of the student (although I’m guessing that most who now attend are unaware of this). For more detail read the Way of Beauty book.