By CAROL ZIMMERMANN, CNS | Published April 24, 2008
In an address to U.S. Catholic educators April 17, Pope Benedict XVI thanked them for their work and urged them to continue to bring their students to a deeper understanding of faith “which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
“A particular responsibility … for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief,” he told more than 400 Catholic college presidents and diocesan education representatives at The Catholic University of America.
The pope was cheered by several hundred students who gathered on the lawn of the campus, and he was warmly applauded when he entered the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center. He delivered his address while seated on a wooden throne designed by Catholic University students.
Weeks prior to the address many had speculated that the pope might have harsh words of reprimand for college leaders, but instead the pope spoke warmly to the group, calling them “bearers of wisdom” and telling them of his “profound gratitude” for their “selfless contributions” and dedication.
He made one specific reference to Catholic college presidents, near the end of his address, telling them he wished to “reaffirm the great value of academic freedom.” He also noted that any appeals to academic freedom “to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”
The group of educators in the university’s hall came across as a big group of friends genuinely glad to see each other while socializing before and after the address. When the talk was over, they seemed to collectively feel they had been given a pat on the back by the leader of the church whom many described as “a colleague.”
Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y., called the pope’s address “very affirming of the work we’re doing … and of how we can make a difference.”
The educators not only appreciated the acknowledgment of their work but they were heartened to hear the pope’s challenge to religious sisters, priests and brothers, “not to abandon the school apostolate” and to “renew their commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas,” which drew strong applause.
“I know from my own days as a professor, and I have heard from your bishops and officials of the Congregation for Catholic Education, that the reputation of Catholic institutes of learning in this country is largely due to yourselves and your predecessors,” he said.
That is not to say the pope didn’t challenge the group representing kindergarten through college graduate students. Several times during the half-hour address he urged them to live up to their responsibility of imparting truth to their students to enable them to live out their faith in the modern world.
“Not just our own ecclesial communities but society in general has high expectations for Catholic educators,” he said, adding that this gives them “a responsibility and offers an opportunity.”
He noted that the role of educators is particularly crucial in the modern world where many often question the church’s role in the public forum. A primary role of the church, he said, is “upholding the essential moral categories of right and wrong” because without that direction, he said “hope could only wither, giving way to cold pragmatic calculations of utility which render the person little more than a pawn on some ideological chess board.”
The church and those entrusted with teaching roles also need to speak on the role of truth, stressing that “truth and reason never contradict each other.”
As may have been expected, the pope highlighted the importance of Catholic identity—a key issue for Catholic colleges, schools and religious education programs. The pope talked about this identity from a different perspective, focusing on what it is not.
“Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students,” he said. It also is not “dependent upon statistics” nor can it be “equated simply with orthodoxy of course content.”
Instead, he stressed that the Catholic identity of a school or religious education program “demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.”
The pope linked the current “crisis of truth” to a “crisis of faith” and said educators must do more than simply “engage the intellect of our young” but should instead help today’s youths to fully live their faith. “The difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God” is a “complex phenomenon,” he said, adding that it is one which “I ponder continually.”
He stressed that teachers and administrators in universities and schools have a “duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.” To not do this, he said, would weaken Catholic identity and cause “moral, intellectual or spiritual” confusion.