Pius XI Speaks to Us Today
In his majestic encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, Pope Pius XI quotes St. Gregory of Nazianzen as saying that “[education] is the art of arts and the science of sciences.” In so doing, he at once highlights the importance of education, and its difficulty. The pre-eminence of education is easily seen when we consider its principal goal which, in the words of the same holy Pontiff, is intimately and necessarily connected with the last end of man. He says: “Education consists essentially in preparing man 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.”
The Art of Arts
Education is therefore not merely concerned with making a child memorize a set of facts in different branches of knowledge such as mathematics or history. In a sense, this is a rather simple task. The actual work of education is much more complex; its main task is to give a deep and lasting formation to the soul of the child entrusted to the care of the educator, which will enable him to live in a manner worthy of his Christian vocation. This means that the educator must constantly have before his eyes the goal of his labors: namely, a Catholic gentleman or lady able and willing to order every aspect of his life in light of the Catholic Faith. This already difficult task is compounded by the fact that the results of his labor are often years in the future; it thus requires immense foresight for the educator to judge properly how his actions contribute to the yet distant final goal. We may say that an educator is like a traveler whose destination lies over the horizon in a wholly unexplored territory. He may know the general direction in which he must go, but it is hardly clear if each step is leading him directly to his journey’s end.
As is evident, the task of educating souls is by no means easy and carries with it an immense responsibility before God. Is it therefore a dangerous and thankless task which drains the man or woman who performs it without conferring any benefit on them in return? To answer this question, it is important to remember what is commonly said by numerous good teachers: namely, that “one never learns a subject until one has to teach it.” This is nothing other than a restatement of the classic Thomistic axiom “Nemo dat quod non habet.” If the task of the educator—whether as a parent or a teacher in a school—is to form Christ in the child committed to his care, then this duty necessarily forces him to strive to be perfectly conformed to Jesus Christ. If St. Paul could say, “My little children, of whom I am in labour again, until Christ be formed in you,” it was only inasmuch as he could truthfully claim, “And I live, now not I: but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 4:19 & 2: 20). Indeed, we may even venture to say that there are few more powerful means (outside of the Mass and sacraments) to grow in the spiritual life than generously to undertake the education of youth.
A Greater Grasp
For in the first place the teacher must necessarily have a greater grasp of the material—that is, Our Lord Jesus Christ—to be conveyed than do his students. Father Berto (1900-1968), the personal theologian of Archbishop Lefebvre at the Second Vatican Council, said that he had to use all the principles of dogmatic theology when preparing children for their First Communion. It is evident that he did not mean that he read to them from the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas; rather, he wished to say that in order to help these young souls learn the basic truths of the catechism he had to comprehend the deeper principles upon which they rested. Though we are not all theologians of the stature of Father Berto, nevertheless we must always strive to have a deeper understanding of the truths of our Faith than those to whom we wish to impart it; otherwise we shall be unable to help our students truly see the beauty of our religion or even to answer their questions. And questions they will have; an eminent philosopher once observed that children are like strangers newly arrived in a foreign country. Customs which inhabitants of such a land take for granted will appear to the stranger wholly inexplicable. Likewise, many truths which we assume to be evident and never think of questioning appear mysterious to the child. They will therefore want our help to understand, and if we have never cultivated the Faith we ourselves received as children, we shall only be able to answer their inquiries with “because.” In the end, this is insufficient to lead them to love the Faith.
Knowledge of the Human Soul
Furthermore, the instructor must supplement his knowledge of Our Lord Jesus Christ with knowledge of the human soul and, in particular, the character of his pupils, for he is not merely stamping information on uniform models which are identically receptive to his influence. He is dealing with individual souls, each one of which has its strengths and weaknesses, its native interests and aversions, and innate virtues and vices. No two souls will react in the same way to any method of instruction or correction. Thus, the educator must spare no pains to observe what manner of soul he has before himself and to adapt his methods in the manner most apt to attract it. He should be able to apply to himself the words of St. Paul, “I have made myself all things to all men in order to gain all” (I Cor. 9:22). Furthermore, he must strive to cultivate the strengths of the soul while helping it to combat its weaknesses. In a special way, he must learn not to be shocked at the occasionally glaring failures and shortcomings of the souls in his care; in this regard, he must imitate Our Lord Jesus Christ, who “broke not the broken reed nor extinguished the smoking flax” (Mt. 12:20).
This knowledge and imitation of Our Lord is also reflected in the spirit of sacrifice which is at the heart of the work of any educator. One need only glance briefly at the lives of the saints who excelled in the role of educating the youth—such souls as St. John Bosco, St. John Baptist de la Salle, St. Angela Merici—to perceive that their lives were characterized by a constant self-immolation on behalf of their charges. On a basic level, no small investment of time and energy is necessary in order to convey a true and abiding formation. Archbishop Lefebvre was known to observe that in any course of instruction, one must reasonably devote twice the amount of time to preparing the material than will be used in actually teaching it. On top of this, a teacher must spend a large amount of time in the often tedious task of correcting his pupils’ work. The need to invest so much time will necessarily require the educator to sacrifice many of his own interests. God knows how many plans, ambitions, or desires Catholic parents and instructors have had to set aside in order to give their children or pupils the attention necessary to advance in the spiritual and moral life.
Spiritual Benefits of Teaching
This devotion reflects a deeper level of self-sacrifice; simply put, education entails the whole-hearted consecration of the instructor to the good of the souls in his care. The true educator no longer lives for himself, but for his students. This is the only explanation for why instructors are willing to teach countless students despite the ingratitude which is oftentimes their principal reward. Recently, a religious had the occasion to respond to a priest who had written her to express his gratitude for her beneficent influence. She wrote that he was the first and only one of her pupils in 45 years to have taken the time to thank her. Was this a cross for the nun? Certainly. Did it move her to abandon her noble vocation? By no means. It was rather an occasion for her to be more perfectly conformed to Our Lord Jesus Christ by “laying down her life for those she loved” (Jn. 15:13). In other words, in such an educator we find an excellent embodiment of the spirit of Our Lord, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mt. 20:28).
The spiritual benefits of teaching do not end there, for when this activity is elevated to the supernatural level by grace, it becomes a participation in the mission of the Holy Ghost, whom Our Lord calls the spirit of truth. Speaking to His apostles, Our Lord says that it is the Holy Ghost who will instruct them in all truth and who will bring to mind all things which He has said to them. It is therefore the special prerogative of teachers to be the lieutenant of the Holy Ghost by opening the minds of their pupils both to the wonders of the natural realities of the world made by the Word of God and the supernatural truths revealed by Him in the Flesh. Moreover, as we are reminded in the Church’s liturgy at Pentecost, the Holy Ghost not only illumines intellects, but He also inflames hearts. In like manner, the zealous instructor not only fills the minds of his students with facts, but also awakens within their souls an ardent longing for truth and, ultimately, for perfect knowledge of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He thereby prepares the ground for the work of the Holy Ghost.
It is evident that the education of the youth is an arduous task which entails no small responsibility before God. Yet it is one of the most beautiful and spiritually profitable undertakings in which men may engage. They not only imitate St. Paul by “forming Christ”—whether directly or indirectly—in their pupils, but they are also compelled to know and to love truth and Jesus Christ, to imitate Our Lord’s self-sacrifice, and to cooperate in the work of the Holy Ghost. Truly, this labor is as noble as it is taxing, and Pius XI did not speak lightly when he called it “the art of arts and the science of sciences.”