Challenge is to make the classroom a holy place

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  • August 24, 2013

BARRY’S BAY, ONT. - Catholic education should lead to an encounter with the living God and reveal reality’s transcendence, said the Federation of Catholic Teachers’ Guilds of Ontario’s founding president.

It should also serve as a call to holiness that should be exciting to students, said Barry White, elected at the federation’s inaugural meeting Aug. 8. It was held during the third annual Wojtyla Institute for Teachers at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy.

“Here is a reason to send your child to school — to encounter Being, namely God through His creation,” said White, principal of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School. “For a young person to see creation, to behold the world in a contemplative way, is to step in the direction of the beatific vision.”

In a talk entitled “The Role of ‘communio’ in Education,” White explained communio as a theological term that captures a transcendent dimension missing from the word “community.” The reality of communio is captured in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus says “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” White said.

Education is an encounter “informed and guided by communio,” “oriented to holiness” and “anchored in the lived witness of the eucharistic teacher,” he said.

But White said he did not find the 1965 Declaration on Christian Education Gravissimum Educationis particularly inspiring.

“Gravissimum sounds heavy, it sounds earnest, like the importance of eating broccoli,” he said.

“If education involves an orientation to the world as creation, as God’s handiwork, as God’s gift, then Being has a lightness, not just in terms of gravity, but in terms of luminosity, of intelligibility.”

The document reminds parents to send their children to Catholic schools whenever possible, but today it’s legitimate to ask questions about whether a school which calls itself Catholic has an authentically Catholic program, or even whether to send a child to school at all given the rise of homeschooling, he said.

“A parent can reasonably ask what is to be gained from attending a school today that has the appearance and form of schools evolved to meet the needs of the 19th century,” he said.

Even governments are recognizing the present educational model is becoming obsolete in today’s “electronic cultural milieu” as students anticipate “life-long” learning for five or six different careers over their lifetime, he said.

“What about teaching the things that never change?”

In 2008, Pope Benedict answered the question when speaking to educators in Washington, White said, by saying “First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals His transforming love and truth.”

The notion of communio steers us to the “real above” that makes a true community of persons possible, a sharing in the inner life of the Trinity, he said.

The tension between the horizontal and vertical aspects of communio can be seen in how people see the commandment to love God and to love your neighbour, White said. “It’s not a matter of choosing one or the other — it’s both.” Yet there is often a danger of collapsing to one or the other, he said.

“The universal call to holiness... is often misunderstood because of this collapse,” he said.

“There are some who are very much engaged horizontally in the world, assisting others, who feel that a vertical focus on sacramental holiness not only distracts people from doing good for others, it is a form of spiritual selfishness, engaged in by those worried only about their own personal salvation.”

Yet for many there is a discomfort with the call to holiness, White said, because it’s mistaken for a moral quality that would run someone the risk of being “seen as one of those holier-than-thou super pious types.”

Holiness means being set apart for God’s use, he said. Christ is “the locus of meeting between God and mankind. He is the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical. He is the living tabernacle, the place of encounter, the ultimate expression of holiness.”

“We are drawn up into holiness to the extent to which we join ourselves to Christ,” he said. This makes holiness more accessible, even exciting.

The challenge for teachers is to transform the classroom into a holy place, he said. Holiness for the teacher is more than “just showing up with personal interior sanctity,” White said. “Holiness in the classroom entails how the teacher and the students are engaged in the activity of learning.

“The student encounters the Word lived,” he said. “The teacher bears witness to the truth by his or her teaching to the extent that the student is engaged with and led closer to the transcendent reality of the world as real, as true, as good, as beautiful, as gift. This is the change of a truly liberal education.”

In bearing witness, the teacher leads the student to encounter reality, “to see the world, not as a disenchanted material universe made up of a heap of neutral building blocks there for our manipulation, buttso see the world as awesome, as beautiful, as good, ultimately to see the world as Creation,” he said.

White did not minimize the difficulties of pursing this kind of education in the cultural milieu of relativism and cynicism and instrumentalism.

“The sacrifice of the teacher is to lead the student by the hand further into reality, with whatever patience, struggle and ingenuity that might entail, out of love for the student and a desire to share with others in a response to reality,” he said.

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