By Tanya Connor
The Catholic Free Press
WORCESTER – Catholic educators’ new mission territory is more challenging than in pagan lands of the past, a key speaker told participants in an international congress at Assumption College.
The public also attended Monday’s talk by Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard University and a former Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See. She spoke about challenges Catholics face in a secular society hostile towards religion, and offered suggestions and hope.
She incorporated words of Father Emmanuel d’Alzon, founder of the Augustinians of the Assumption (Assumption College’s founders) and the Oblates of the Assumption.
These congregations of the Assumption family were especially involved in the July 17-27 congress aimed at examining Father d’Alzon’s educational insights, according to a press release. Organizers said it was the first-ever Congress of Assumptionist Educators and drew more than 60 members of the Assumption family and their co-workers from Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America.
Father Richard Lamoureux, a congress organizer and director of formation for the Assumptionists in the United States, said the gathering was the first step in creating a network of Assumption schools. A draft of a handbook for Assumption educators around the world was produced, he said.
“I think the principle fruit was to get together people who didn’t know each other” and who didn’t know about some of the Assumption schools, said Father Lamoureux, who was formerly the Assumptionists’ superior general in Rome.
One school that congress participants learned about was Assumption College here, which 80 percent of them hadn’t been to, Father Lamoureux said. It is the larger of the Assumption family’s two universities, the other of which is in Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said.
Sister Zoé Vandermersch, an Oblate of the Assumption, said the congress reminded her that the aim of education is to form Christ in students’ souls.
“When you teach, you touch a life forever,” said the teacher who hails from France. “If you want to bring Jesus Christ to your students, you have to live what you say. I pray for my students every day. … We have to trust in God, because he does great things through our weakness.
“I feel close to anybody in the congress because I see we share the same values and ideas,” despite language differences. (Translations helped participants communicate.)
Assumptionist Brother Cristian Santana said he uses Father d’Alzon’s teachings when he teaches students and teachers in Chile. The congress also helped him meet other Assumptionists and learn from long-time educators, he said.
Assumptionist Brother Remacle Kadembi Kitambala said he coordinates state schools run by the Diocese of Butembo-Beni in Democratic Republic of the Congo. He must ensure the Catholic spirit is preserved in the schools, he said.
Father d’Alzon’s ideas are similar to ideas in Vatican Council II documents and both sets of ideas are relevant for youth today, he said.
Professor Glendon said developments Father d’Alzon struggled against in 19th century French society – increasing state control of education, hostility towards religion, and ignorance and indifference about the faith among Catholics – have spread far and wide.
She acknowledged that some of her listeners had come from places where they face even greater challenges, where Christians fear daily for their lives.
One challenge everyone faces is forming leaders who can help transform cultures of death, she said. She suggested using modern films, music and literature to introduce others to Christ.
Sometimes well-educated Catholics, even parents, have little understanding of their faith, and students are bombarded with messages that undermine what Catholic educators are trying to accomplish, she said. She said if religious education does not rise to the level of education in other areas, people will find it hard to defend their beliefs when mocked by secularism.
Seeking to combat this, she spoke of Father d’Alzon’s reference to “free-thinking Catholics, half-Catholics, Catholics of their times, Catholics by accommodation, and Catholics who think they are Catholics.” He said to avoid accommodations and “attach yourselves to the Catholic, apostolic, and Roman Church,” and that the world must be penetrated by a Christian idea or it will fall apart.
Catholic educators’ new mission territory is more challenging than the pagan lands Christians once evangelized, because paganism was open to transcendence, Glendon said. She said St. Paul could preach about the “unknown God” in a public square filled with temples to various gods, but God has been increasingly banished from today’s public square.
Catholics will not succeed if they model themselves on elite secular institutions, whose leaders can’t maintain the atmosphere of tolerance and free inquiry that was once the pride of liberal education, she said.
She quoted Father d’Alzon: “With the pretext of making allowances for a variety of beliefs, all beliefs have been set aside.”
Professor Glendon said educators’ intellectual heritage today includes a great asset scarcely developed in Father d’Alzon’s time: Catholic social teaching.
And Catholic educators have more than great intellectual tradition, she said. She quoted Cardinal John Henry Newman saying the heart is commonly reached through the imagination, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI saying arguments for the truth of the Church’s teachings include its art and saints.
She told listeners they have what they need for their mission, reminding them of what Jesus said to his disciples on the stormy sea: “O ye of little faith, why are you so afraid?”