By Junno Arocho Esteves
VATICAN CITY (CNS)/JACKSON – Catherine Cook, superintendent for Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Jackson joined 2,000 educators and education advocates in Rome in November for a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education and the 25th anniversary of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities.
The trip was full of highlights for Cook, including Mass at the Tomb of St. Peter, two days in Castel Gandolfo hearing presentations from educators around the world and a question and answer session with Pope Francis.
Taking questions from administrators and faculty members, the pope spoke about Catholic identity in education and warned about the dangers of exclusion and educating within “the walls” of a selective and safe culture.
Roberto Zappala, headmaster of Milan’s Gonzaga Institute, asked the pope what makes a school “truly Christian.” Christian education, the pope responded, is not just about providing catechesis, but requires educating children and young people “in human values,” particularly the value of transcendence.
Spanish Lasallian Christian Brother Juan Antonio Ojeda, a professor at the University of Malaga, asked the pope how educators can foster a culture of encounter and restore the broken bonds among schools, families and society.
The pope said Catholic educators must overcome a tendency of being selective and must work to restore the broken “educational alliance” among families, schools and society, which tends to place profit over people.
“This is a shameful global reality,” the pope said. “It is a reality that leads us toward a human selectivity that, instead of bringing people together, it distances them; it distances the rich from the poor; it distances one culture from another.”
The pope urged the group to find new and innovative ways to make Catholic education accessible to every family who wants it.
When asked how Catholic schools could contribute to building peace in the world, the pope called on them to educate the poor and the marginalized even if that meant cutting the staff at some of their schools in wealthier neighborhoods.
Cook said she appreciated hearing from international educators. “I learned that the concerns we have about Catholic education in the U.S. aren’t that different than everyone else and yet there are significant differences,” said Cook. “We all want to think of our schools as safe havens, but in some parts of the world, where school may provide the only meal a child gets in a day or provide a truly safe place to be – that challenge is significantly different,” said Cook.
She said that Mass at the Tomb of St. Peter was a very moving experience and she used it to pray for those who work in Catholic schools here.
Pope Francis also gave the participants a homework assignment: to think about how to fulfill the corporal and spiritual works of mercy through education.
“Think about it in this Year of Mercy: is mercy just about giving alms or how can I do the works of mercy in education?” he said.
Schools in the diocese have adopted TEAM or teaching everyone about mercy as a theme for this year and each school is trying to embrace the Jubilee year in its own way.
(Maureen Smith contributed local content to this story)
By Junno Arocho Esteves