As part of this year's Catholic Education Week (13-20 March), we thought it would be a great idea to delve into some of the things the popes have said about the nature and purpose of Catholic education. As we go through the thought of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, some common themes will emerge.

Namely, the essential link between education and the Gospel; the need to cultivate a sense for the true, the good and the beautiful; and the need for an education that cuts through ideological slogans and fads.

Pope John Paul II: Teaching is more than a profession!

In 1986, Pope John Paul II addressed Catholic Educators in Melbourne during his pilgrimage to Australia. In this speech, he spoke about the challenging and ‘profoundly satisfying’ experiences that come with being a teacher. ‘It is more than a job,’ he said, ‘for it is rooted in our deepest convictions and values.’

As teachers, you kindle in your students a thirst for truth and wisdom. You spark off in them a desire for beauty. You introduce them to their cultural heritage . . . What an awesome responsibility and privilege is yours in the teaching profession.’

Yet, while the work of teaching demands professionalism, it is more than a profession. ‘Your profession as teachers involves tasks that are linked to your baptism and to your own commitment in faith . . . No matter what subject you teach, it is part of your responsibility to lead your pupils more fully into the mystery of Christ and the living tradition of the Church.’

Essential to Catholic education is the entrusting to young people of this ‘great treasure’ of Christ and the Gospel. Only with this great treasure will young people be able to think critically, to go to the foundations of existence, to see through the trends and slogans of the moment and embrace authentic truth, authentic freedom:

Very often I have spoken to young people in words like these: "Dear young friends: do not allow this treasure to be taken from you! ... Love ‘rejoices in the truth’. Seek out this truth where it is really to be found! If necessary, be resolved to go against the current of popular opinion and propaganda slogans! Do not be afraid of the love that places clear demands on people. These demands – as you find them in the constant teaching of the Church – are precisely capable of making your love a true love". Remember that the truth leads to Christ, for he alone is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”.

Pope Benedict XVI: 'Do we really believe?'

During his Apostolic Journey to the United States of America in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed Catholic educators in Washington D.C. He also linked education with the mystery of Christ and the Gospel:

Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.’

He warned against rooting Catholic identity in the shifting sands of numbers and statistics, instead encouraging it to be rooted in conviction. The ‘crisis of truth’ the world is undergoing today is a direct result, he said, of a ‘crisis of faith’ – of a world that has turned away from its transcendent source and goal, from the very foundation of its existence. This is why truth and faith need to be deeply integrated in a Catholic education – they feed each other.

When it comes to Catholic identity:

It is a question of conviction – do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation?’

A truly Catholic education, harkening back to Pope John Paul II, will also help young people to see through the propaganda, the fads, and the slogans of the day, because it takes a person deeper than any other philosophy can:

Similarly the Church never tires of upholding the essential moral categories of right and wrong, without which hope could only wither, giving way to cold pragmatic calculations of utility which render the person little more than a pawn on some ideological chess-board.’

Pope Francis: 'Be open to reality!'

In an address to teachers and students across Italy in 2014, Pope Francis gave a message that was reminiscent of the work of Fr Luigi Giussani, who spoke often about education as an ‘openness to reality’ rather than a matter of ideological indoctrination.

Pope Francis said:

I love school because it is synonymous with openness to reality . . . Going to school means opening one’s mind and heart to reality, in the wealth of its aspects, of its dimensions. And we do not have the right to be afraid of reality! School teaches us to understand reality.’

This openness to reality is something that teachers need to model, too. Young people are clever, the pontiff said, and can sniff out the teachers who are eager to learn and those who are not:

Teachers are the first ones who must remain open to reality . . . with minds still open to learning! For if a teacher is not open to learning, he or she is not a good teacher and isn’t even interesting; young people understand that, they have a “nose” for it, and they are attracted by professors whose thoughts are open, “unfinished”, who are seeking something “more”, and thus they infect students with this attitude.’

Ultimately, schools should cultivate a sense of the true, the good, and the beautiful, each of which is related and feeds into the other. They are ‘interwoven’.

With a foundation in the true, good and beautiful – the Transcendentals – even in dark and difficult times people will have what it takes to not give in to despair, but to remain open to life: ‘True education makes us love life, and it opens us to the fullness of life!’

Alongside the interweaving of the true, the good and the beautiful, is a wholesome education in the ‘three languages’ of the mind, the heart and the hands:

I wish you all — parents, teachers, people who work in the schools, students — a beautiful journey at school, a journey that enables you to learn three languages that a mature person should know how to express: the language of the mind, the language of the heart and the language of the hands. Harmoniously though, that is, to think what you feel and what you do; to feel deeply what you think and what you do; and to do well what you think and what you feel.’