Catholic education in a secular culture

Catholic education in a secular culture

Alexander Morrison

Alexander Morrison is an English student who attended Chavagnes International College in France for three years. In 2006 he was accepted for admission to Oxford University. Here he reflects on the education he received at Chavagnes and the kind of counter-cultural education that is needed at Catholic schools today in secular cultures.

Many Catholic parents and teachers, now more than ever, realise that living and passing on the faith is essentially counter-cultural. The present climate of secularism and individualism rejects nearly all that Christianity stands for, meaning that those whose faith is unstable face many new and unexpected perils.

In recent times Catholic education has often been prey to unhelpful and dangerous influences, both from within the Catholic community - from those who seek to pass on their own version of the Church's teachings - as well as from without, as we know.

It can do no harm to consider how a more radical approach to teaching the faith in such a climate might bring more success. The result could be many souls won for Christ and the return of many to the Church and the practice of their faith.

When I left my native England in 2002 at the age of sixteen to become a founder pupil of Chavagnes International College (near Nantes, France), I was fortunate to have had a good Catholic upbringing. I grew up in a family that attended Mass more times in a week than it watched television, I served Mass as a boy, and was sent to local Catholic schools.

I did not have anything in particular to complain about, and yet in choosing to finish my secondary education at Chavagnes, I recognised that I was embarking on a whole new adventure into culture, history and the faith, one that I needed more than I knew.

Being faithful to Christ in today's society is not easy. Our faith is constantly challenging us to reject evil and do good, to love our enemies, to overcome our human weaknesses, in short, to follow the Gospel of Christ and not the false attractions of the world.

As a young student, going to school at Chavagnes was a perfect chance to take up these challenges with courage, at the same time as I was excitedly facing the challenges of my academic formation.

I found that both the College's community atmosphere and its timetable, which balances religious, academic, cultural and recreational elements so well, helped enormously. A sense of school routine was replaced with a "way of life". Although I am now a student at university in the "big bad world", much of this has stayed with me and continues to provide a focus, prompting me to be a Catholic in the world as well as in some respects against the world.

The following are some of these aspects, which, in my opinion, should be integral to any system of Catholic education.

Living the Faith

As we know, a school's mission for academic excellence must run hand in hand with a strong pastoral ethos, in order to educate the whole person. This system can work particularly well in a Catholic school when its entire structure is built on the solid foundation of the faith, giving the ethos an evangelical and apostolic aspect.

However, it seems to me that education in such establishments is only fully effective when the faith is visibly lived as well as taught. Then, it is more than just a school, it becomes a refuge for young Catholic souls, a solid foundation for the Christian life, which is thereafter as unshakeable as the "house built on rock" (Mt 7:24-27).

Chavagnes International College was set up in 2002 in a set of buildings that used to be a junior seminary, founded exactly 200 years earlier by a saintly priest, the Venerable Louis-Marie Baudouin. The College provides education for Catholic boys (from 11 to 18), but its pupils come to board from all over the globe, the only condition being that they speak English with some proficiency.

Were he alive today, Abbé Baudouin would undoubtedly recognise some continuity in the life led at the College. Students and staff are lucky to have their own full-time Chaplain, meaning that Mass is offered daily for all in the beautiful neo-gothic chapel, with solemnity and reverence, often in Latin (a subject I was able to study at Chavagnes) and with a good dose of Gregorian chant and decent hymns in the English tradition.

Any "fuzzy" elements that are often so off-putting to young people in the Church are eliminated, and the boys are able to show reverence to Our Lord both by kneeling for Communion and also ornamenting the Mass with their beautiful singing.

As organist there, I lived this first-hand, and I can say that there is no substitute for a good and healthy liturgical life at a school. The preaching of the priest is vital, as is the enthusiastic use of the best chant, hymns, organ music and polyphony in the Church's tradition.

There was no room for tuneless, meaningless, mediocre hymns that try to be "up-beat" while taking away the sense of the sacred that the worship of God demands. Certainly the "lex orandi lex credendi" principle was clearly visible to me there. The prayer life of the College includes sung grace before meals, the recitation of the Rosary and Benediction twice a week. The boys are also given ample opportunity to go to confession.

Forgive me if I paint a picture that makes the daily religious life of the College seem oppressive or monastic!

Although routine and a rule of life were important, the balance of activities meant it was never oppressive. As a student living and learning in this rather unusual atmosphere, I was able to grow spiritually as well as intellectually, under the guidance of my teachers and the chaplain, with mind, soul and body being educated and catered for.

In addition to - and closely linked with - the academic and the religious life of the College, I believe that the cultural formation I received at Chavagnes was of vital importance. Extra-curricular activities form part of any good education, but young Catholics especially need to be historically and culturally rooted, to enhance their formation in the faith.

At Chavagnes, one of the English teachers hosts the Literary Club for the senior boys, where the group reads a short story, a play or some poetry, giving often unusual and interesting insights into writers of all genres, centuries and nationalities (the foreign books are read in translation, for the most part).

Minds broadened

Our minds were often broadened by listening to recordings of some of last century's finest musicians and composers, whose music often complemented the literature we read, helping to set the scene culturally. Sometimes films are watched or the group listens to an opera or an oratorio, all of which are chosen to be enjoyable and fulfilling as well as educational.

For the whole community, College feast days (including the feasts of Sts Patrick, George and Andrew, the Immaculate Conception, May Day and Burns' Night) were joyful opportunities to celebrate with friends and locals at a special dinner which was often accompanied by musical offerings from both students and teachers.

Here students' minds are broadened in the same way in which they are educated, that is, in a spirit of charity and friendship. And since the body must be trained along with the intellect, at Chavagnes there is no risk of the body broadening along with the mind, despite all the good food. Sports take place every day, with a range of sporting and fitness activities offered to the students.

Having been so lucky in my three years at Chavagnes, there came a time to accept my new qualifications and leave for university.

Living permanently back in the middle of an un-Christian society has taken some getting used to, and yet I now feel more ready to accept the challenges that face me every day. As an undergraduate of the University of Oxford, I am living in one of Britain's most beautiful cities, but which, like any metropolis in the world today, is more obviously full of sin than full of grace.

Oxford's cultural and religious history - especially that of the Catholic Reformation Martyrs - is indeed inspiring, and marks it out as a place of excellent faith and virtue, as well as academic and cultural brilliance. Anywhere I go in the world, however, I feel that with more knowledge of the faith (a knowledge that deepens throughout one's life), I face the daily challenges with more confidence.

On the other hand, how can we expect young people to be practising Catholics if they do not have a basic understanding of what the Mass is, how the Church operates, what devotion to Our Blessed Lady is? Many of my friends back home, even those at Catholic schools, could not answer those questions if asked. Just being sure of the faith makes one more comfortable to be part of a Catholic student community and take a public stand for faith and culture, the defence of life at all its stages, and fidelity to the Magisterium.

My Catholic education did not end at Chavagnes. While it may have peaked there in terms of a more intensive and radical phase, Catholic education is something that continues throughout one's life, at least in theory. Somehow the world's problems are more clearly seen, understood and dealt with through the eyes of a sure and certain Catholic faith.

Even the Church's own problems become more than just upsetting statistics. The fall in Church attendance, widespread loss of faith and even the vocations shortage can all be effectively combated if many young people are prepared to accept their Catholic faith with zeal and courage.

Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this in his message at the start of World Youth Day 2005. "To build your life on Christ," he said, "to accept the Word with joy and put its teachings into practice: this, young people of the third millennium, should be your program!

"There is an urgent need for the emergence of a new generation of apostles anchored firmly in the word of Christ, capable of responding to the challenges of our times. It is this that the Lord asks of you, it is to this that the Church invites you, and it is this that the world - even though it may not be aware of it - expects of you! If Jesus calls you, do not be afraid to respond to him with generosity."

Radical solutions

Catholic education, founded on Christ and for Christ, is one of the main tools in the Church's hand, two others being the family and the parish community. This is why it seems so important that all should have the opportunity to deepen their faith while at school in a supportive and uncompromisingly Catholic community.

My education at Chavagnes was a much-needed time of growth in knowledge, confidence and maturity. With such fear and hatred of religion present in the world, especially hatred of Christ and the Church, radical solutions such as the formation offered at Chavagnes (and doubtless elsewhere too) are what is so urgently needed.

May good Catholic education flourish everywhere for the glory of God, the benefit of the Church, the formation of our young people, and ultimately for the salvation of many souls.

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