Monday, August 17, 2009

Christ in the Family: The Christian Education of Youth

“The family received from God a threefold mission: The care of the material life, the spiritual life and the supernatural life,” St. John Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, once said.[1] Recognizing that each human soul needs instruction in that which is good, the saint continued, “For this reason, it is, above all things, necessary that he should know the means that are indispensable for him to this end – and this is the knowledge of the commandments of God or, in one word – Religion.” [2]

With those words, the saint echoed the Church’s doctrine on Christian education and its threefold purpose, a doctrine reinforced in the 1929 encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, on the Christian Education of Youth: “In fact, since education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to obtain the sublime end for which he was created…there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education.” [3]

In using the term “Christian education,” Church tradition makes clear that the words Christian and Catholic are synonymous. As we know from the Acts of the Apostles (11:26), it was in 1st century Antioch that Jesus Christ’s followers were first called Christians. It was also in 1st century Antioch that the term Catholic Church [i.e., universal Church] flowed from the pen of St. Ignatius, the bishop-martyr known as the Apostolic Father because he was a “hearer” of St. John the Evangelist, as well as the third bishop of Antioch, following St. Evodius who was himself the immediate successor of St. Peter.[4] While more proof could be offered, these two examples from both Scripture and Tradition firmly establish that a Christian is a follower of Christ and a member of the Catholic Church, which bears four infallible marks – one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. It follows that we can say with gentle confidence that Christian means Catholic, and Christianity means Catholicism.

Once these very important terms and their definitions are accepted for the truth they are, the last sentence quoted from the encyclical Christian Education of Youth translates to “there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Catholic education.”

What Catholic Education Is and Isn’t
“Now in order that no mistake be made in this work of utmost importance, it is necessary to have a clear and definite idea of Christian education in its essential aspects…” [5]

First, it should be said that a Catholic education is not one in which a religion class is “tacked” onto the rest of the curriculum. We know this because the Church’s doctrine on education teaches: “For the mere fact that a school gives some religious instruction (often extremely stinted) does not bring it into accord with the rights of the Church and of the Christian family, or make it a fit place for Catholic students.”[6]

What is it, then, that makes education Catholic? The encyclical Militantis Ecclesiae proclaimed, “Religion must not be taught to youth only during certain hours, but the entire system of education must be permeated with the sense of Christian [meaning Catholic] piety. If this is lacking, if this holy spirit does not penetrate and inflame the souls of teacher and pupil, small benefit will be derived from any other sort of education; instead damage will be done.”[7] Finally, this same encyclical clearly states, “Religion must permeate and direct every branch of knowledge.”[8]

Catholic Education at Home
The Church’s doctrine on Catholic education applies not only to the Catholic school but also to the private Catholic home. Home education has existed since the dawn of creation and, therefore, throughout the Church’s history.

While the phrases “home education” or “homeschooling” will not be found in any Church document, the Church has always recognized and upheld the natural law that parents are responsible for their children’s education. Since the time that God became Man and elevated marriage to a sacrament, the natural necessity of children’s education became supernatural.

Now, more than ever, parental rights and obligations in the Christian education of youth remain necessary. As heretofore stated, the Church is very clear that Catholic education prepares man for three things: “for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created.” What he must be refers to the development of the child’s character and the interior life of the soul; what he must do here below refers to an individual’s purpose in life, which is to know, love and serve God, regardless of any aspirations about state in life; and the sublime end for which he is created refers to the eternal happiness of Heaven which God gives to those who have lived a life of faith and good works.

The objective mind, however, understands that Catholic education – whether at school or within the home - is no guarantee of sanctity, for one must not forget “the free will factor,” given by God to every person. St. Jean Marie Vianney was clear on this point when he said, “Christian fathers and mothers, if you wish to have pious, good children, you must first of all yourselves be God-fearing and lead good lives. As the tree, so will the fruit be, says an old proverb, and the divine word verifies this. A good tree brings forth good fruit, a bad tree fruit like itself” to which the saint wisely added, “We know that now and then, even in good Christian families, there are to be found degenerate sons or daughters, but the rule is as our Savior says…”[9]

The Four Pillars of Catholic Education
“The home, therefore, must be in accord with the Church,” the Curé of Ars taught, “so that all harmful influences must be withheld from the souls of children. Where there is true piety in the household, purity of morals reigns supreme, and every agreeable virtue finds a home therein. I turn to you, dear parents, and implore you: To imitate the Holy Family of Nazareth!” [10]

To follow this saintly advice and to keep the home in accord with the Church, we must adhere to the four pillars of Catholic education, which are as follows: 1) teaching, 2) organization, 3) teachers, and 4) syllabus and textbooks. The Church highlights the necessity of these four pillars in Christian Education of Youth, which declares “…it is necessary that all the teaching and the whole organization of the school, and its teachers, syllabus and textbooks in every branch, be regulated by the Christian spirit, under the direction and maternal supervision of the Church; so that Religion may be in very truth the foundation and crown of the youth’s entire training, and this in every grade in school, not only the elementary, but the intermediate and higher institutions as well.” [11]

The First Pillar - Teaching the Mind, Training the Will: Teaching consists of the instruction of the mind and the training of the will. In fact, teaching instructs the mind in order to motivate the will. As most parents eventually discover, teaching the mind and training the will are essential to all education; a plethora of books could (and have) been written about how to motivate a child’s will toward the good, but ultimately teaching and training centers on the virtue of religion, which elevates the mind and soul to God, the Source of All Good.

The Second Pillar - Organization: As taught in Christian Education of Youth, organization is addressed in two distinct parts, comprising the following whole: the establishment or the society of the school and its order, design or way of implementation. The organization of the Catholic home and school does well when it imitates those excellent examples traditionally provided by the Church throughout the centuries.

“Accordingly that education, as a rule, will be more effective and lasting which is received in a well-ordered and well-disciplined Christian family; and more efficacious in proportion to the clear and constant good example set, first by the parents, and then by the other members of the household.” [12]

Organization, as it pertains to the establishment or the “society” of the home led by the parents, is founded on one, multi-faceted motto of Catholic Action: Pray, Study, and Act. The organization of family life is firmly founded on daily prayer by parents and children, daily duty of study and work in the Catholic spirit of charity, and regular reception of the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion.

“It requires care, a great deal of care, to conscientiously fulfill the obligations of a father or mother,” St. John Marie Vianney noted. “The parents are a mirror to their children; and the children constantly look into this mirror. Be careful therefore that only the good, and what is worthy of imitation is perceptible in you and graven upon your hearts.” [13]

“Watch particularly over your children when they have grown up,” is another counsel of the saint’s. “Do not allow them to associate with irreligious persons.” [14] This important advice addresses the interior life of “teens,” for there are three periods of the spiritual life, which are compared to the three stages of physical life: childhood, youth, and adulthood.

In general, conscience or “aware” childhood commences at the dawn of reason, about the age of seven but sometimes before, and lasts until the age of puberty. Youth, or adolescence, spans the years of fourteen through twenty. Then follows adulthood, “in which we may distinguish the period which precedes full maturity, about the age of thirty-five, and that which follows it, before the decline of old age sets in.” [15]

“The period of puberty,” explained Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., “is characterized by a transformation not only organic, but also psychological, intellectual and moral. The youth is no longer content to follow his imagination, as the child was; he begins to reflect on the things of human life, on the need to prepare himself for some career or occupation in the future. He has no longer the child’s attitude toward family, social and religious matters; his moral personality begins to take shape, and he acquires the sense of honor and of good repute. Or else, on the contrary, if he passes unsuccessfully through this difficult period, he deteriorates and follows evil courses. The law of nature so ordains that the transition from childhood to youth must follow a normal development; otherwise, the subject will assume a positive bias to evil, or else he will remain a half-wit, perhaps even a complete idiot, for the rest of his life. ‘He who makes no progress loses ground.’” [16]

Those sober words explain why the Church insists that Catholic education must continue throughout the adolescent years and beyond. To accomplish this most important task, parents must themselves continue in the habit of prayer, to study the Faith, and to act by practicing the virtues, while gently and firmly expecting the same of their children.

The second meaning of organization addresses the order, design or way of implementation of Catholic education. When it comes to formally teaching religion, reading, arithmetic or math, science, history and geography, the Church’s traditional practice in instruction is systematic, methodical and cyclical. Such instruction eschews “child-led” learning which means allowing the child to choose what, how and when “subjects” shall be learned. Of course, authentic Catholic education does not preclude helping children develop their God-given talents and interests, but even this path must be tread with care so as to avoid self-indulgence.

“Bring up your children simply, withhold all luxury from them, discourage a too great desire of pleasures, and let them learn only that which is good, useful, and practical,” advised the saintly Curé of Ars. “See to it, that in their childhood, as well as when they are older, they frequent the Sacraments regularly.” [17]

The Third Pillar – Teachers: Parents are the primary educators of their children, a natural law which the Church recognizes and upholds in Divine Law. The begetting and education of children is the primary end of the marriage sacrament. As Christian Education of Youth elucidates, “Parents are under a grave obligation to see to the religious and moral obligation of their children, as well as to their physical and civic training, as far as they can, and moreover to provide for their temporal well-being.” [18]

The Fourth Pillar – Catholic Text and Syllabus: A priest who understands the purpose and aim of Catholic homeschooling once told me, “Many parents today have no notion of Catholic textbooks and if they do not have that experience, it is a gaping lacuna [hole or gap] in their formation as Catholics.” The selection of materials to study religion and the other subjects must also assist the parents in ensuring that the Catholic religion permeates the curriculum. This is often a daunting task, since for many years too many books considered “Catholic” are doctrinally diluted and, even worse, are peppered with the seeds of modernism, the synthesis of all heresies.

A century ago, the Church warned against “pernicious books” that have “now grown to such an extent that it is hardly possible to subject them all to censure. Hence, it happens sometimes that the remedy arrives too late, for the disease has taken root during the delay;” [19] the Church further warns against books bearing an Imprimatur which “may have been granted through carelessness or too much indulgence or excessive trust placed in the author, which last has perhaps sometimes happened in the religious orders.” [20] This warning is even truer today.

The Secret of Catholic Life
Despite the many obstacles placed before Catholic families, God provides the spiritual and material necessities, a truth of which the Curé of Ars reminded us when he said, “What are the means to renew the family life in the spirit of Christ and the Church? I answer: Keep the commandments of God, and follow the infallible teaching which God has placed in that haven of salvation, the Holy Catholic Church, so that you may walk in the right path which leads to the inheritance of the Saints. If you wish, Christian married people, to imitate St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother of God, you must sanctify yourselves; you must practice the virtues which shine out to us from the life of this most holy couple. Matrimony is a great sacrament, as St. Paul says, but only in Christ and His Church.” [21]

“As long as Our Lord is first served,” St. Joan of Arc was wont to say, in beautiful words that summarize the secret of Catholic life. The Catholic family must be grounded upon the Cornerstone, of Whom St. Jean Marie Vianney rightly exclaimed:

“Christ must come back into the family! Christ must remain in the family! Let this be your motto. Then, with the help of God, a devout, chaste generation will spring up to the joy of the parents and of the Church.”[22]

Secrets of the Catholic City is the name of Mrs. Bartold's new column, published by Catholic Family News (CFN). "Christ in the Family: The Christian Education of Youth" was published in CFN's August 2009 issue. All Rights Reserved World-wide by the author.

Marianna Bartold, founder of Keeping It Catholic, is the author of “The Age of Mary” Study Guides, a series of “digitally delivered” Catholic unit studies for homeschooled teens - as well as adults or anyone who wishes to grow closer “to Jesus through Mary.” Her other works include the upcoming digital Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings) Catholic Study Guide. She is the author of the Keeping It Catholic Home Education Guide books (Volumes I and II, available from Neumann Press). Mrs. Bartold was the original homeschool editor of Sursum Corda and the founding publisher of The Catholic Family Magnificat! Magazine.
[1] St. Jean Marie Vianney, Sermons of the Curé of Ars (Long Prairie, MN: The Neumann Press, 1995]: p. 87.
[2] Ibid, p. 88.
[3] Pope Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri (On the Christian Education of Youth, December 29, 1929; also known as Rappresentanti in Terra): para. 7. [Emphasis added]
[4] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, ca. 110 A.D.: “Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Cited by William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. I [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970]: p. 25.
[5]Pope Pius XI, loc. cit., para. 10.
[6] Ibid. para. 80.
[7] Pope Leo XIII, Militantis Ecclesia (On St. Peter Canisius, August 1, 1897): para. 18. Here it must be noted that, sometime after 1995, recent English translations of encyclicals have been re-edited, especially those currently available on the Net. See the article “Encyclicals: A Matter of Translation?” at
[8] Ibid.
[9] St. Jean Marie Vianney, op. cit., p. 91.
[10] Ibid., p. 90. [Emphasis in the original]
[11] Pope Pius XI, loc. cit.
[12] Ibid, para. 71.
[13] St. Jean Marie Vianney, loc. cit.
[14] Ibid., pp. 91-92.
[15] Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life [Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Reprinted in 1977 by arrangement with Burnes & Oates, London]: p. 26.
[16] Ibid., pp. 26-27. [Emphasis added]
[17] St. Jean Marie Vianney, op. cit, p. 92.
[18] Pope Pius XI, op. cit., para. 23.
[19] Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (On the Doctrines of the Modernists, September 8, 1907): para. 51
[20] Ibid.
[21] St. Jean Marie Vianney, op. cit, p. 91. [Emphasis added]
[22] Ibid., p. 92. [Emphasis in the original]

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