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Education & Evangelization


Stratford Caldecott

Education of the Virgin (detail), Anonymous, 14th century — © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The call for a new evangelization — what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the “urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a highly secularized environment”— has huge implications for Catholics in education, at home and at school. Both are places of evangelization. 

According to the Congregation for Catholic Education, “The mission of the Church is to evangelize, for the interior transformation and the renewal of humanity. For young people, the school is one of the ways for this evangelization to take place.” The home is the first and most important school we attend, and our parents remain our primary educators, no matter where we go later.

The Catholic understanding of evangelization places a priority on personal conversion and “interior transformation.” In this sense, it is radically distinct from proselytism, which aims at exterior measures and effects, such as putting people in pews and money in the collection basket. This is something we need to get right, as Pope Francis keeps insisting. If we do, fewer of our children will lapse in their faith as they grow older, and more will find themselves able to reach out and speak about their Catholic faith with confidence to the world around them.


The process of evangelization has three dimensions, as well as another very important stage, sometimes called “pre-evangelization,” that must take place beforehand.

This initial phase corresponds to the call to discipleship. The Gospels show us that the disciples were called to Christ not by abstract speeches, but by an encounter either with Christ himself or, after Pentecost, with men and women who were on fire with the Holy Spirit. The Apostles taught doctrine, of course, but it was the firm foundation of a living faith that carried the words into the hearts of their listeners, showing that they, too, could be transformed. What every Christian convert eventually comes to realize is that he or she is being offered not just a list of rules or a set of doctrines, but also the secret of true happiness.

If a person does not feel drawn toward Christ and does not appreciate the need of salvation, he or she can hardly be expected to listen to the Church’s teaching with real attention — just as an academic subject that appears to have no connection with one’s own life will always seem boring. We have to find ways of presenting that call of Christ and nurturing interest into a desire to follow him.

Sometimes a longing for the joy and happiness that only God can give can be aroused through a work of fiction — the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis would be a good example (in fact, the author said that they were written partly with this intention in mind). Lewis himself felt that inner joy and discovered a way to communicate it to others. Likewise, works of art, music, song, poetry and biography are all vitally important in opening our hearts to the call of God. This is sometimes called the “way of beauty.”

The witness of individuals who have lived their faith in difficult circumstances, or who worked in the service of the poor and sick and found joy in doing so, is also a powerful means of making audible the call of Christ. Personally meeting such a witness can sometimes be a life-changing experience. And it goes almost without saying that an exemplary parent or teacher, one with a living faith and real integrity, may have the most powerful and lasting effect of all.

Of course, sometimes the best we can accomplish by our attempts at “pre-evangelization” is to arouse someone’s curiosity. Making him or her an apostle may take longer, but that’s fine. Curiosity is better than indifference.


Christ’s call is followed by a “sending” (missio) to others that corresponds to evangelization. It is helpful to think of evangelization as having three elements or dimensions: remembering, thinking and communicating. These elements, in turn, relate to the trivium of classical education: grammar, logic and rhetoric.

The first dimension of evangelization is an initiation into the memory of the Church, or the transmission of doctrine and tradition. “Do this in memory of me,” Jesus said at the Last Supper. The original Greek word (anamnesis) implies not just a going back into the past, but a gathering together into the present. This is not just learning, then, but initiation — a process by which we become familiar with the tradition and begin to inhabit it as our home, becoming a part of the chain of transmission ourselves.

For many people, this first part of evangelization appears to leave us with nothing more to do, as if the whole point of evangelization is to make people part of our tradition. True, it is an essential step, but it is not nearly enough by itself. As we have seen in the past, faith based on memory, doctrinal instruction or familiarity alone cannot survive the challenges of modern life. Many children grow up knowing their faith and remembering Bible stories and rituals, but they still fall away because it does not really mean anything to them apart from a vague nostalgia.

Therefore, the second, equally important dimension of evangelization is an awakening of intelligence. Doctrine, ritual and Scripture have to be understood as ways of apprehending and progressing in truth. They are not just motions we go through or affirmations we make because we are part of a group. What we learn must not sit there in our minds unexamined, until it is worn away or cast aside under the pressure of modern life. This second step is to help the inquirer to engage with the faith, and to do so with both mind and heart alert. This requires mental discipline in the pursuit of truth throughout a person’s life.

Truth in its totality, as an overarching unity, always lies just beyond our grasp — once we think we have finally attained it, it has slipped through our fingers. And yet we cannot give up the search, except at the cost of our humanity. A growing faith should be a stimulus to reason and intelligence, not an obstacle or alternative. This is the lesson of Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). There are always questions, puzzles, enigmas and mysteries to contemplate, new depths to penetrate.


The third dimension of evangelization prevents it from becoming a merely intellectual — and eventually exhausting — obsession.

We need community, which implies a set of relationships within which truth can be communicated. No one can learn or teach in a vacuum. This third dimension of evangelization involves the cultivation of an ethos — the sense of belonging to a community of shared values and ideals, a moral environment where the individual person is valued, supported and cherished.

The word ethos originally meant “custom” or “habit” or “character,” and so the “ethos” of a Christian community — such as a school — refers to a way of living, a way of relating to one another, a way of being together (and being with God, together). It refers to the way we treat each other, and it depends on the quality of our attention and respect for one another. It supports and stimulates both imagination and intellectual inquiry, but is distinct from both.

The ethos of a school is sometimes expressed in a mission statement, but that can be no more than a point of reference. Ethos requires us to actually behave, not just speak, in accordance with the faith and intelligence we profess. It is a matter of the “spirit” rather than the “letter.” It shows itself in different ways, from an almost tangible mood or atmosphere to various concrete signs, such as the close integration of liturgy, prayer and religious instruction with the rest of life; the moral example set by teachers and parents; the encouragement given to courtesy and kindness; special care for those with special needs, and so on.

To some it may sound excessively Catholic to say so, but a Christian ethos is essentially Marian. The “atmosphere” of a Catholic school or home will tend to reflect that of the Holy Family, since this is the educational environment in which our Lord himself grew up.

It is the work of the Christian teacher or parent to help bring Christ to birth and to maturity in each member of the community, and to that extent to help extend the ethos of the Holy Family throughout the world. This is only possible with the helping grace of the sacraments, which transmit the living presence of Christ himself.

Evangelization does not stop with religious instruction or liturgy, but affects what is taught and the way it is taught, no matter the subject. The Incarnation is not some piece of historical information that, once communicated, can be forgotten while we turn our minds to geography or biology or mathematics. If true, faith changes everything, even the way we view the cosmos. Once that primary lesson is learned, there are no “boring” subjects. Nothing can be ugly or pointless unless we make it so. G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.”

In the end, faith alters the way every subject is taught as well as the relationships between them. It connects them severally and together to our destiny, to the desire of our hearts for union with infinite truth — what used to be called the saving of our souls.

STRATFORD CALDECOTT is a director of Second Spring Oxford (secondspring.co.uk) and the author of Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (2012). He is also the editor of the online journal Humanum (humanumreview.com). In September 2013 he received an honorary doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.