During his general audience on July 28th, Pope Francis discussed the life of St. Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first canonized saint. As Mother Mary of the Cross, MacKillop founded the Josephites, an order of religious sisters dedicated to the education and care of the poor. The Pope went on to describe education as an important form of evangelization. To fulfill this role, however, education has to be properly directed. Pope Francis noted that “education does not consist in filling the head with ideas.” Rather, education should be about “accompanying and encouraging students on the path of human and spiritual growth…educating and helping them to think well, to feel well… and to do good.”
If we lose this holistic understanding of education as a formation of the whole person, and instead act as if we were merely uploading useful information into a bunch of biological computers, our educational attempts will be detrimental rather than beneficial. Every form of education shapes those who receive it, whether we realize this or not. A purely technocratic, mechanical form of education may prepare some students for material success in the world, but there will be a terrible cost to their souls and minds if the overall approach to education is not geared towards forming the entire person.
This is particularly the case when it comes to teaching the Faith. If the Faith is presented merely as an intellectual scheme, it will lack persuasive power. Students will either become bored and forget about the whole thing, or will become “Catholic geeks” rather than followers of Jesus Christ. Rather, the teacher or evangelist must be first and foremost a witness; as Pope Francis said, Mary MacKillop felt called to bear witness to God “not only with words, but above all with a life transformed by God’s presence.”
How should a truly Catholic and humane education shape the students who receive it? In her beautiful essay Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, Simone Weil suggests that the true purpose of all school studies is to build the power of attention. The individual subjects certainly have their own rightful place, but the particular content does not matter as much as the development of this ability to truly pay attention, to remain open and receptive before an idea or a person. Evil dissipates and fragments the human spirit; by learning to pay attention, we can gather ourselves back together. Attention allows us to fully give ourselves to those around us by making ourselves truly “present” for them. And attention makes authentic prayer possible, since prayer is nothing other than giving loving attention to God.
In a certain sense, the whole purpose of the Catholic Church is to educate people, to form a certain kind of person. Everything that the Church does: liturgy, prayer, moral teachings—serves to change us, to give us a different perspective on the world and a different way of thinking and acting, to bring us to conversion or metanoia. Our fallen human nature is self-centered and self-obsessed; the task of the Church is to move us out of ourselves and make us attentive, to God and to our neighbors and even to the created world that God has given us.
This kind of attention is at the heart of the Pope’s vision for a synodal, listening Church. Whatever the outcome of the current synod in Rome, the most important “synodality” is that which each of us practices in our own lives; respectfully listening to those around us in a loving manner, rather than using them as blank canvases onto which we project our own worldview, desires, and experiences. In a paradoxical way, just as grades are not the most important thing about schooling, the outcome of the current synod is not the most important thing about it. At best, the Synod can merely point the way. If we want a synodal Church, it is up to each of us to practice respectful, attentive listening in our own lives. We need to listen to those around us, even those who disagree with us or oppose us; we need to give each person we meet this gift of attention through which they can experience the love of God, who is fully attentive to each and every one of us.
In particular, we must be attentive to those who are marginalized and poor in worldly terms. They can easily be overlooked, since they don’t have the ability to attract the world’s attention. In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis commented on how a slump in the stock market makes headlines—but when a homeless person dies on the street outside of an empty hotel, few notice. In the poor and forgotten, we find the presence of Jesus—if only we have the eyes to see, if we are attentive to his presence. If we are not attentive, we will not recognize him, and will “miss the time of our visitation.” (Lk 19:44)
Through the grace of God, the practice of the Christian life will school us in attention, and our lives will become fully poured out in love for God and neighbor, just as they were fully received from God. Through our practice of attentive giving in the here and now, we will become fit for Heaven; we will find God in everyone and everything, and eventually become one with the inner self-giving life of the Blessed Trinity.
Image: Sculpture of St Mary MacKillop in Mary MacKillop Plaza, St Francis Xavier Cathedral, Adelaide, South Australia. Sculpture by Judith Rolevink, 2009. By yaruman5 on Flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)