Restoring Catholic Education

I receive the quarterly newsletter of Thomas Aquinas College…a few articles are always impressive in their content or theme.  I recently came across the summer newsletter on my desk and not having reviewed it since I received it, I thought it would be good after dinner reading. The front page article was an excerpted keynote address from 1970 given almost 18 months before the college opened its doors by the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.  The topic was “The Restoration of the Catholic College.”  I went to the website to see the entire speech as well as listen to the audio files that introduce the college as well as Bishop Sheen’s talk.  His remarks are simple and poignant for time period he gave them. Archbishop Sheen’s themes are universal towards the purpose of Catholic education then, today and tomorrow.
Venerable Sheen introduces the currents of the church but as well as education post Vatican II as one of effects: the laity being a people of “Go,” rather than a people that are called to “come” but Christ and his Church.  Bishop Sheen says “The first word of Our Lord’s public life was ‘Come.’ ‘Come to me, learn, absorb.’ The last word of Our Lord’s public life was, ‘Go.’ ‘Go into the world.’”  Are we prepared to “Go” into the world?  One of the key principles of any education, especially as ancient as Plato’s Academy, it was for its student to come to him and learn to understand the world in order to engage it.  Christ was the same way, but fulfills where the pagans lacked in the completeness of their education.  Archbishop Sheen states that if the people are made only of “‘go, goes’ without any ‘come, comes’ then we lose our faith, and our fire, and our zeal.”

Archbishop Sheen states that the restoration of the Catholic College includes two key elements: “the return to the will” and the second is the “rediscovery of Christ.”  In a lengthy, but important part of his remarks Archbishop Sheen focuses on the “will.”  He first makes note that the doctrine seems to be the focus of the current CCD training, but he reflects, “Our Lord said, ‘If you do my will…’ you will know my doctrines (cf. Jn. 14:23).  He didn’t say ‘If you know my doctrine, you will do my will.’”  It is not just knowledge that the faithful need but discipline to live out the faith.  Sheen says that discipline is the foundation to Christian character and that it is the “first requirement of a reborn Catholic education.”

As I listened to the speech first then went back to read over his remarks, I chuckled when I came across Archbishop Sheen’s analysis that “With permissiveness, we have the problem of identity (I am sure not the identity issues we have today, but these two are not far off from each other).”  The rest of the paragraph and the beginning of the next are worth quoting. “It is a terrible tragedy that we should have young men and women — 19 and 20, even seminarians , 23 years of age — having problems with their identity [only if the Venerable Sheen could see the identity issues of even senior citizens of today, like Bruce Jenner]  Once upon a time there was fish on top of the Empire State Building, and the fish said, ‘I wonder what I’m supposed to be doing up here?’…How do we know the identity of anything?  We knew our identity by boundaries, by limits.”  Sheen is worth listening too and reflecting on knowing the current trends of society and the answers he suggests then are just as relevant for then, today and for tomorrow.


Archbishop Sheen’s second requirement is a rediscovery of Christ.  Not as a symbol, or just a word, but the Word made flesh…the second person of the Trinity, God himself.  A later example of the word God and Christ as a mere word or symbol can be seen in 1980’s with the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who upon meeting with President Reagan in their first summit, used the term god multiple times in their personal conversations that the president was taken aback.  Upon checking with his advisors, he was reassured that the Soviet leader was using the small “g” for god.  It was a mere symbol for him. Archbishop Sheen makes reference to our loss of understanding who Christ is as a person and God, as crucifixes leave the classroom and the smiling Jesus replaces Him who died on the cross for us all.  Sheen illustrates the person of Christ in a more striking image than I can summarize, “We had to have somebody who would understand Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche — all the agnostics, all the skeptics, and all the people who have lost their faith.  And he allowed all of these clouds to pass over Him crying out, ‘My God, my God, why, why has Thou abandoned me?’ There was a moment when God was almost an atheist —when God asked ‘why’ of God.”

I hope to have not given too much away of his remarks, they are worth our meditation, as we struggle to prepare ourselves and our children/students for the ongoing struggle of truly understanding and living out the faith.
Archbishop Sheen reminds his audience of three conditions for the restoration of education:
1. “…we must train the whole man, not only his intellect, but also his will.”
2. “…we must get back to the only subject that there is in all the world that can give us peace and that is Christ, and to make Him the center of our training…”
3. “…there is such a thing in history as a crisis, which Greek means ‘judgment.’ If I don’t eat, I get a headache; when we disobey God’s laws, a crisis comes.  He doesn’t send it; we just produce it.”

Western Academy, where we are preparing to begin our sixth year, does just that from grades 3-8; families bring their sons for an education and formation in academics and character, the physical, and spiritual. Western Academy does not subvert the formation from our students families, but rather assists parents in an education of the whole. It is this basis, of not “going” all of the time that allows our students to “smell the roses” or rephrased to engage in leisure and the wonder of learning. The boys enter into third grade to an education and formation for the whole person and as eighth graders are sent out as young men, grounded in the three requirements that Archbishop Sheen expresses, beginning to engage the world.

I invite you to listen and read the remarks that were given that evening: Reflect on the restoration of Catholic education, but also remember the restoration begins at home and in grade schools, where habits are first formed.