World congress ‘renews passion’ for Catholic education

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To meet the many challenges it faces worldwide, Catholic education must imbue the spirit of the faith into all aspects of academic life and form educators who know and share the love of Jesus.

These were the themes that stood out to Sister Patricia Helene Earl, a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who attended the first world congress on Catholic education Nov. 18-21 in Rome.

"Being a Catholic institution can't just be this nice phrase we all say; we've got to break open for everyone what that means," said Sister Patricia, director of Marymount's Catholic School Leadership Program in Arlington and former diocesan assistant superintendent for instruction and personnel. "It means we are welcoming, while at the same time we hold on to our roots."

Sister Patricia was one of 1,500 people from around the globe - 75 from the United States - invited to attend the congress, entitled "Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing a Passion" and sponsored by the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.

The event marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Christian Education ("Gravissimum Educationis") and the 25th anniversary of "From the Heart of the Church" ("Ex Corde Ecclesiae"), St. John Paull II's apostolic constitution on Catholic universities.

A handful of delegates from the region also attended the congress, including two from Catholic University in Washington and Brother Robert Bimonte, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association. The opening and closing programs were held at Paul VI hall in Rome, and meetings took place at Castel Gandolfo, a town 15 miles southeast of the Italian capital. The congress concluded with an address by Pope Francis.

Divided into sessions for Catholic school leaders at universities and elementary schools, respectively, topics ranged from Catholic education in different social and cultural contexts to how Catholic schools and universities dialogue with other formation institutions. With delegates hailing from India, China, South America and Europe, the congress was a "beautiful blend" of different languages and cultures, said Sister Patricia.

As the head of a program that shapes Catholic school leaders and as chairwoman of Marymount's Catholic identity committee, two sessions were especially compelling for her - "The Formation of Formators" and "Identity and Mission of Catholic Education."

A flourishing Catholic identity is one of the "major challenges" for Catholic institutions, said Sister Patricia. Marymount is diverse, with students coming from nearly 70 countries and a variety of religions. "We want to be welcoming," and interfaith events are important, she said. Marymount offers ways for students to deepen their faith, including a meditation room for Muslim students and opportunities to attend Christian services at area churches.

"We want to be sensitive to their needs, but at the same time being very certain we are authentic in promoting Catholic identity," she said. Identity is not just externals - a crucifix in every classroom, a beautiful chapel. Those are important, said Sister Patricia, "but it's also helping people understand the spirit of Catholicism in all we do. It means not just teaching Catholic theology, but integrating our faith in all disciplines, in service projects, through Catholic ministry. Catholic identity is not a permanent thing but an ongoing task."

"Our Catholic identity doesn't mean proselytizing," added Sister Patricia, "but imbuing our faith in everything."

Congress attendees were encouraged to share the unique charism of their institutions. "A Jesuit school is different from that founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (like Marymount)," she said, and a university's unique academic culture also shapes how it expresses the faith. "There's no one size fits all, yet the themes are the same," said Sister Patricia.

In "The Formation of Formators," speakers discussed how to help form educators. While in the 1950s and 1960s the majority of U.S. Catholic school teachers and administrators were priests and religious brothers and sisters, they now make up just 2.8 percent of elementary and secondary Catholic school staff, according to 2015 NCEA data.

"It is essential to help form lay people in knowing the faith but also in how to impart it to our youth," said Sister Patricia. Part of this effort requires supporting educators' relationship with Jesus and seeing Him "as a friend and guide for their lives," she said. "It is a continuous cycle of sorts. As adults we need to grow in our spirituality, our faith, our relationship with Christ. This in turn nourishes us to be more passionate about nurturing and forming our students, and as we help them, then again we are nurtured."

Receiving an invitation to the congress was "humbling and awesome," said Sister Patricia. The highlight for her was being in the presence of Pope Francis and hearing his classic from-the-heart and off-the-cuff remarks. "He talks about the Gospel of joy, and he radiates that joy," she said.

During the closing address, the pontiff "spoke about how education must pass through three languages - the language of the head, heart and hands," said Sister Patricia. "Think with the head, feel in the heart and help others in service. All three together must be in harmony."

She said the world congress and the pope's clear commitment to education affirmed the importance of and raised awareness about Catholic education. "We heard the challenges of today," said Sister Patricia, "and from those issues we need to look at how we can be the educators of tomorrow."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015