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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

March 2014 - Pope Francis and Religious Education Lecture - Mary Immaculate College


I am very pleased to be here in Mary Immaculate College for this lecture.

By way of introduction, I’d like to say a word about Pope Francis’s background. His studies were in chemistry, literature and philosophy, psychology and theology. The figures of literature that he likes include Dostoevsky and Hölderlin, Alessandro Manzoni (he has read “The Betrothed” three times) and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He appreciates the art of Caravaggio and Chagall and loves the music of Mozart.

He taught literature for a couple of years in a secondary school. He admits that “I didn’t like to have a rigid schedule, but rather I liked to know where we had to go with the readings, with a rough sense of where we were headed.” He would start with what the students were interested in and move on from there.

He was close to a branch of theology called “theology of the people” begun in South America in the 1960s by Fr. Lucio Gera. This theology proposed that the focus should not be on what must be done “for” people (a focus that leads only to abstract theory detached from real experience and encounter) but rather what is to be done “with” people, sharing in people’s lives, seeing what’s is already going on, understanding the “wisdom” already working there. This leads to the importance of underlining discernment and attitudes that are need for encountering others: listening, attentiveness, calling, openness and waiting.[1]

It is important to remember that the Pope was (and still considers himself to be) a Jesuit. And this influences his philosophy of education. The Jesuits founded by Ignatius of Loyola in Spain over four hundred years ago, as we know, were among the most significant educators in Europe throughout the past 400 years. I read on the website of a Jesuit college: “For Ignatius, and therefore for Jesuit Education, ‘God is to be found in all things’. There is nothing in creation, and no area of human endeavour, in which God is not present or where God cannot be discovered. All search for truth, whether in the arts, sciences, or humanities, whether personal, communal, or universal, is a search for God; art, science, language, sport, drama, philosophy, theology, spirituality, indeed any human pursuit, can lead, and all at some time will lead, to God.” Jesuit Education achieves its ends by encouraging: critical thinking and reflection on experience; evaluating and learning from that reflection; action based on that learning.

A major aspect of Ignatius spirituality is the “Spiritual Exercises” (a retreat that consists in a series of meditations in silence over a period of time). Again the website tells us: “The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises is to assist the one doing the retreat to experience, accept, and respond to God. God is Love; to experience, accept, and respond to God is to experience, accept, and respond to love. Love, therefore, is at the heart of Jesuit Education, and at the heart of the Jesuit educational institution. It is in context of love, care, and respect, that the project is undertaken; a person of love, care, and respect, is its fruit, what is often spoken of as a person of Competence, Confidence, and Compassion, or ‘a man/woman/person for others’.”

In a sense, from this perspective it could be said that all education is religious education. It is important to recognise that we are talking about an integrated approach to religious education.

Pope Francis summarises his Jesuit philosophy of education in terms of the notion of magnanimity: “That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others; it means having greatness of mind and great ideals. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.”

Education is a key, key, key mission![2]

On a number of occasions Pope Francis has indicated that he sees education as very important. It is clear that he has reflected on education and what it involves for educators. He sees it as “a key, key, key mission”. Above all, it is rooted in love:

To educate is an act of love, it is to give life. And love is demanding, it calls for the best resources, for a reawakening of the passion to begin this path patiently with young people.[3]

Yes, certainly, competency and qualifications are necessary but the educator needs to be “someone who is rich in humanity and capable of being with young people in a style of pedagogy that helps promote their human and spiritual growth.”[4] Education is never simply a question of imparting facts and information. Words are not enough in teaching. Witness is essential. What you teach and what you live are linked:

Young people are in need of quality teaching along with values that are not only articulated but witnessed to. Consistency is an indispensable factor in the education of young people! Consistency! We cannot grow and we cannot educate without consistency: consistency and witness![5]

From what he writes, and remembering his background in the Jesuits, I think we can say that Pope Francis sees education is about the art of accompaniment. He writes “Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.” This art of accompaniment involves a balancing act. He writes:

In educating, a balance must be maintained, your steps must be well balanced, one step on the cornice of safety but the other into the zone of risk. And when the risk becomes safe, the next step must venture into another area of risk. Education cannot be confined to the safety zone. No. This would mean preventing personalities from developing; yet it is not possible to educate solely in the risk zone either: this is too dangerous. It is a balance of steps.[6]

Francis knows it’s not easy to be teachers. He knows there are difficulties, also in terms of the problems those we are teaching might be living through. He refers to real life situations that inform his view. He recalls a student in a school that was sad but then it emerged that her felt her mother’s fiancé did not like her and this was the root of her problems.[7] He offers words of encouragement:

Do not be disheartened in the face of the difficulties that the educational challenge presents! Educating is not a profession but an attitude, a way of being; in order to educate it is necessary to step out of ourselves and be among young people, to accompany them in the stages of their growth and to set ourselves beside them. Give them hope and optimism for their journey in the world. Teach them to see the beauty and goodness of creation and of humanity who always retains the Creator’s hallmark. But above all with your life be witnesses of what you communicate.

To be a teacher is not a solitary calling or profession. The school community is a very important feature of education. A good community spirit provides the best educational environment that helps teaching and learning. This is so because education is not only about developing the rational and cognitive intelligence, but also about providing “an integral formation of all the aspects of our personality.”[8]

Education is certainly about broadening the intellectual dimension of students but it also is about helping them grow in all their humanity, to develop into mature people who are simple, competent and honest, who know how to love with fidelity, who can live life as a response to God’s call, and prepare them to live their future profession as a service to society. Accordingly, collaboration in a spirit of unity and community among the various educators is essential and must be fostered and encouraged.

Finally, the Pope invites us to broaden our own horizons as educationalists. The educational field, he affirms, is not limited to the conventional school. ‘Encourage each other to seek new forms of non-conventional education in accordance with “the needs of the times and of people”.’[9]

Religious Education

When it comes to the specific topic of religious education, the first point to note is that Pope Francis didn’t become Pope like a meteorite from the sky! Like all popes, he follows in a continuity with what goes before him in terms of the wisdom and store of experience of the Church now two thousand years old and found in all parts of the world. He himself has explicitly referred to a number of Church documents on education and religious education.

The Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (1979), written by Pope (soon to be called saint) John Paul II, is about catechesis. The word “catechesis” relates to the Greek word that means “echoing” and in a general sense refers to the handing on by word of mouth of the Good News of the Gospel. This document aimed to “give fresh vigour” to the initiatives regarding catechesis and “should stimulate creativity... and should help to spread among the communities the joy of bringing the mystery of Christ to the world” (n. 4).

Francis also refers to the General Catechetical Directory (1997) produced by Congregation for Clergy. The main purpose of the Directory is to provide assistance in the production of catechetical directories and catechisms and text books.

At a conference last month Pope Francis spoke about a recent document from the Congregation for Catholic Education entitled Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love.[10] Recognising the challenges of culture and pluralism of cultures found side-by-side, this document provides a rich reflection on Catholic education and intercultural dialogue.

Religious Education and Evangelization

When it comes to reflection on how Pope Francis views religious education, it is clear that he is not thinking simply of what goes on in schools. For the Catholic Church, the primary form of catechesis/religious education is, in fact, adult catechesis! Francis sees formation in faith as vital to the future of the Church because without a deep grasp of their faith, Catholics won’t be able to really contribute to today’s society with the hope and vision that the Gospel, the Good News provides. In order to be magnanimous with inner freedom and a spirit of service formation is necessary. 

Religious education has a context and we see this when we reflect on the first Apostolic Exhortation produced by Pope Francis. It Is dedicated to the theme of the “joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) and is about Evangelization, the transmission of the Gospel. In this important text, Francis wants Catholics all over the world to rediscover all activities on the part of the Church are animated by a missionary desire to communicate Good News to the world around us. And that includes religious education.

It is difficult to even begin to summarise what is a very rich document. It certainly pushes us to go beyond our comfort zones and reach out to the “peripheries” as the Pope puts it. But I think we who are involved in religious education can take from it a passionate plea to ask ourselves the “why” questions. Given that this lecture is taking place in Mary Immaculate College, these questions could be: why am I going to be a teacher? Deep down what motivates me? What vision will inspire me as I go forward in the teaching career?

Pope Francis provides his response:

The primary reason for evangelizing [we could think here of religious education] is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts... The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us. But if this is to come about, we need to recover a contemplative spirit which can help us to realize ever anew that we have been entrusted with a treasure which makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life. There is nothing more precious which we can give to others (EG, 264).

At the heart of Religious education is the primacy of communicating God is Love. In EG, 164, Francis writes:

On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.

All religious education must be permeated with this primary and central communication. I notice in Evangelii Gaudium how the Pope describes a person’s journey in faith “backwards” as it were. He writes that the “fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy” (EG, 164). This is not insignificant.

We can only communicate God as Love “in the Spirit”. In the Christian understanding, the Spirit is love. It is only when there is love that God is really known and understood. From what the Pope writes, we can say that the context of our religious education is very important. It’s not simply a question of facts and information about Jesus. It is about moving from faith and love to inform others about faith and love as we are guide them into faith and love.[11] It involves intellectual grasp and understanding of faith but not without our personal experience in all its aspects – aesthetic and cognitive, emotional and imaginative.

Christian faith involves formation in moral living. But Francis wants to remind us that Christian faith is not about a cold set of moral obligations divorced from a life-giving context. Morality isn’t dour but joyful! As the Pope puts it, we shouldn’t go around as “sourpusses”.

It is always important to keep in mind the main focus of what the first Christians called the “Kerygma”, the word the first Christians used for proclamation or communication of the Gospel. Francis points out that “All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma”:

The centrality of the kerygma calls for stressing those elements which are most needed today: it has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical.” (EG, 165).

We can note the attitudes that Francis believes are important for all involved in evangelization [and so also religious education]: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental” (EG, 165)

Francis refers to what is known as “mystagogy”. This involves a progressive experience of formation involving the entire community and a renewed appreciation of the liturgical signs of Christian initiation. He comments, “Catechesis is a proclamation of the word and is always centred on that word, yet it also demands a suitable environment and an attractive presentation, the use of eloquent symbols, insertion into a broader growth process and the integration of every dimension of the person within a communal journey of hearing and response.” (EG, 166).

This is linked to the theme of beauty. We know that Dostoevsky wrote that “beauty will save the world”. Francis thinks the same. He sees the theme of beauty as very important for religious education:

Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty”... Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus... If, as Saint Augustine says, we love only that which is beautiful, the incarnate Son, as the revelation of infinite beauty, is supremely lovable and draws us to himself with bonds of love. So a formation in the way of beauty ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith.

He writes of the need for a “new language of parables”:

We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others. (EG, 167).



Above and beyond what Pope Francis has said about religious education, he is showing us in his actions what religious education involves day by day. We can be grateful for his example. But, ultimately, he would bring us back to the source of our religious education – the Word of God. He says: “It is essential that the revealed word radically enrich our catechesis and all our efforts to pass on the faith.” To know the Gospel, contemplate and meditate it as well as live it out day by day – that’s the real source of religious education.


[1] See F. Euvé, “Un nouveau pape”, Etudes (2013): 580-582.

[2] From address to Major Religious Superiors in November 2014

[3] Talk at the Vatican to the Participants at the Plenary Session of the Congregation for Catholic Education (13 February, 2014).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Address at the Vatican to the Students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania, 13 June, 2013.

[7] To Major religious Superiors November 2014

[8] Address to the Students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania, 13 June, 2013

[9] Ibid.

[10] Published by the Congregation for Catholic Education, 28 October 2013.

[11] See Dermot Lane, Religion and Education : Re-imagining the Relationship (Dublin: Veritas, 2014).