What are the marks of our Catholic culture? Let’s look at a few aspects, starting with our heroes.
Do your students know the story of St. Augustine and St. Monica, his mother? How about St. Benedict and the role the Benedictines played in forming Christian Europe from the remnants of great Rome and the barbarian hordes that destroyed it? St. Thomas Aquinas’s great labor to explain and defend the truths of the Catholic Faith? St. Philip Neri, the Apostle of Joy, and the other saints who renewed sanctity in the Church during the Catholic Counter-Reformation? Do they know St. Junipero Serra and the great work of bringing the Gospel to the Americas?
Stories of saints are an important part of the rightful heritage of Catholic youth. These are their spiritual fathers and mothers, of whom they can be rightly proud. In our secular times, only in Catholic homes and schools will they learn of them; as Catholic educators, we have the proud duty of passing their stories on to the next generation.
We need to tell our students the story of the Catholic Church as it has struggled and triumphed through 2000 years. Our students need to learn the great works of Catholic art, music and literature: Gothic cathedrals, Gregorian chant, medieval icons, Palestrina’s motets, Mozart’s symphonies and opera; Michaelangelo, Raphael, DaVinci; Dante, Tolkien, O’Connor, Waugh.
Culture is more than just great works and deeds; “it covers the whole pattern of human life and thought in a living society.” Living in communion with the saints of the past is a great part of Catholic life, as is living in a communion of faith and prayer with the Church today. Catholic students learn to join their minds and hearts in prayer with the Church in the Holy Mass. They should learn traditional Catholic devotions such as the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross, and also come to know the Liturgy of the Hours, which forms such an important part of the Church’s praise of God.
Catholics have a way of thinking about things that sets us apart. We are a Church of mysteries that excite a sublime love and reverence, the most profound hope, the deepest yearnings. Yet we are also the Church of the Word of God, Who encourages us to use all the riches of human learning to delve into those mysteries and to share them with others. So the Church founded the great universities of Europe, and brought forth the works of Copernicus and Galileo. And the Church has from time to time corrected those who pretend to use reason and science to deny the mysteries that ennoble human life.
The Word of God “enlightens all men coming into the world.” So Catholics have always found it natural to find great good among non-Christians. St. Augustine taught the Church to think of pagan thought, literature, science, and history as gifts to her from Her Spouse. In a particular way, as Pope Benedict frequently stresses, the Greco-Roman civilization, in which Christ was born, possessed a devotion to reason, philosophy, ethics and law that self-consciously transcended the limitations of ethnicity and nationality. Although the Romans killed her Founder and persecuted her, the triumphant Church embraced the good that civilization contained. The work of St. Benedict ensured that it would be preserved, purified, sanctified. Following this example, Catholic schools pass on the true, the good, and the beautiful wherever it is found.
Our work as Catholic schools is a great and noble task, which is more crucial than ever in our day. Pope Benedict has made the preservation of Christian culture a top priority of his pontificate. As secular society increasingly turns its back on the Christian heritage that made it great, Catholic schools, walking in St. Benedict’s footsteps, play an increasingly crucial role in preserving this treasure for the world.
But the creation of this massive [Catholic] educational system [in America] is in itself a great achievement and may have an even greater importance for the future. For as education reaches a certain point of development, it opens up new and wider cultural horizons. It ceases to be a utilitarian parochial effort for the maintenance of a minimum standard of religious instruction and becomes the gateway to the wider kingdom of Catholic culture which has two thousand years of tradition behind it and is literally world-wide in its extent and scope.
Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education.