Divine Pedagogy for Divine Mercy Sunday!
As I heard the first reading being read this morning it reminded me of a study I made of how RE
works in a Catholic school. The expectation is that 10% of curriculum time is dedicated to this core
subject but I believe classroom RE only works when it is coupled with the experience of ‘doing the
faith’ and ‘praying the faith’. I was once told that Acts 2:42-47 is the biblical definition of religious
education and, as it is the Word of God, then this definition is, therefore, divine. This was the first
reading for today, the second Sunday of Easter:
The Fellowship of the Believers
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread
and the prayers. 43
came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done
through the apostles. 44
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45
were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they
received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47
praising God and having favor with all the
people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
A few years ago I unpacked the impact of this passage for the specific purpose of making sense of
religious education in Catholic schools. So here it is …
CIC The Code of Canon Law (1983) (Codex IurisCanonici)
CSTTM The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium
CS The Catholic School
LC Lay Catholics in Schools
RD The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School
The distinctively Catholic nature of our school is located in the context of a holistic vision of
education which addresses the physical, moral and intellectual formation of the child (GE 6 and CIC
795) and aims to prepare him or her for a fulfilled life in this world and their ultimate end which is
‘man’s final destiny’ (DI 7). In our school we seek to provide this holistic education by integrating
four distinctive features of Catholic schooling:
1. The CognitiveAnd they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching
This refers to how Religious Education is ‘the core subject’ of our Catholic school. In RE,
students should have the opportunity to reason through their religion and engage in a
process of rational justification for their personal beliefs. This is not an exercise in
abstracting children and their lives from the reality of life outside the cosseted environment
of school; rather it is an education for their life in this world and the world to come:
‘Education is not given for the purpose of gaining power but as an aid towards a fuller
understanding of, and communion with man, events and things’ (CS 56).
The main challenges to this aspect of our provision are twofold. Firstly, to be able to provide
an adequate amount of curriculum time under pressure from other internal constraints such
as budget and breadth of choice of courses available. Secondly, an obvious challenge is to
ensure this subject attains the high profile it deserves (LC 38) when there are fewer suitably
qualified teachers applying for the positions advertised.
This cognitive aspect to the child’s religious development also implies that there should be a
‘cross-curricular’ element to the concept of ‘person’ so that ‘Teachers dealing with areas
such as anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology and philosophy all have the
opportunity to present a complete picture of the human person, including the religious
dimension’ (RD 55). The challenge here is obvious: to communicate a Christian anthropology
that can be shared and integrated into schemes of work without compromising the Christian
philosophy of education but, at the same time, avoiding a view of these subjects as if they
were ‘mere adjuncts to faith or as a useful means of teaching apologetics’ (CS 39).
2. The ExperientialAndthey were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the
proceeds to all, as any had need.
This refers to the working relationships within our school as a whole which are distinct, but
complementary to the RE lessons. More specifically, the pastoral experience each child
receives should manifest our Catholic Christian concern for justice, forgiveness,
reconciliation and a holistic concern for the individual. In our school it is hoped that the
children will see in the behaviour of their teachers towards them, each other and those from
outside the school community the practical, lived-out experience of the distinctive character
of our Catholic school (CS 78). It is interesting how research has identified a ‘person-centred’
approach as one of the key factors to the success of Catholic schools:
‘Personalism calls for humaneness in the hundreds of mundane social interactions that
comprise daily life. Key to advancing personalism is an extended role for teachers that
encourages staff to care about both the kind of person the students become as well as the
facts, skills and knowledge they acquire’ (Bryk, 1996, p.30).
Research into the factors that make Catholic schools more effective indicate, above all, it is
the values they promote based on a Christian anthropology and a concern for the interests
of society at large: ‘Fundamental to the operations of Catholic schools are the beliefs about
the dignity of each person and a shared responsibility for advancing a just and caring society.
... Absent this value system, however, a very different pattern of effects seems likely’ (Bryk,
The greatest challenge to this is for all teachers to share and sustain this vision (LC 34) so
that what truly emerges is ‘ethos’ rather than ‘aspiration’. In connection with this, teachers
will need to be sustained in their efforts by regular opportunities for ‘re-creating’ their zeal
and inspiration for the task they have chosen. However, different members of staff are at
different stages on their own faith journeys and many may need to be invited to focus on
their own spirituality as part of a process lasting into the longer term. This challenge also
pertains to the next point.
3. The SpiritualAnd day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their
homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47
praising God and having favor
with all the people.
This refers to the entitlement each child has in our Catholic school to a breadth of liturgical
experience ranging from the prayers said at registration to the ‘whole-school’ Masses for the
feast of Blessed William Howard, Christmas and Easter. In our school all children should
receive, by entitlement, an opportunity to engage with and develop in the context of their
‘cultural inheritance’ (CS 26) and to grow in ‘a faith-relationship with Christ in Whom all
values find fulfilment’ (CS 53).
The recurring challenge in this regard is that our school, like so many of its size, was not
designed for the community to assemble altogether at once. In particular, our policy to offer
Mass to all children whenever we can is fraught with the perennial practical challenge of
4. The Ministry of Witness
This is the most challenging but potentially the most effective feature of our school. It seems
we increasingly live in an age when young people are more likely to respond to our moral
teaching by saying ‘But what do you believe Miss / Sir?’ For the modern world it is crucial
that people are willing to be clear and committed to their beliefs and for their lives to
exemplify them (hence the popularity and impact of Mother Teresa, M. L. King, the present
pope, etc.). In the context of our school, the ‘extent to which the Christian message is
transmitted depends to a very great extent on the teachers.’ (CS 43) and ‘... faith is
principally assimilated through contact with people whose daily life bears witness to it’ (CS
This is arguably the greatest challenge to our vision of Catholic education: to provide the
children in our care with role models in the faith. Just as our vision for the maturing and
developing individual is holistic we, as teachers, would hope to be holistic in the example we set.
However, our staff and student bodies are not homogenous ‘Catholic wholes’. Under 25% of the
teachers in our school are Catholic and 66% of the children the same. While this is by no means
meant to devalue the promotion of the school’s values brought about by our non-Catholic
students and colleagues, it could be seen to provide grounds to argue for our holistic model to
be adapted along pluralistic lines. The ultimate challenge may be to foster a commitment among
our staff to a shared understanding of our work as ‘apostolate’ and its concomitant - ‘vocation’
As a final thought I would want to align my vision for the distinctively Catholic nature for our school
to that of the Congregation for Catholic Education at the dawn of the third millennium:
‘In the Catholic school, ‘prime responsibility for creating this unique Christian school climate rests
with the teachers, as individuals and as a community’. Teaching has an extraordinary moral depth
and is one of man’s most excellent and creative activities, for the teacher does not write on
inanimate material, but on the very spirits of human beings.’ (CSTTM 19)
Congregation For Catholic Education (1977) Catholic Schools, Costello, 1982
Congregation For Catholic Education (1965) Declaration On Christian Education, Costello, 1975
Congregation For Catholic Education (1982) Lay Catholics In Schools: Witnesses to Faith,
Congregation For Catholic Education (1998) The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third
Millennium, Veritas 2002
Congregation For Catholic Education (1988) The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic
School, Veritas 1998
Pope Pius XI (1929) DiviniIlliusMagistri, Maryvale Institute 1999
BRYK, A.S. ‘Lessons from Catholic High Schools on Renewing Our
Educational Institutions’The Contemporary Catholic School pp.
25-41 London: Falmer, 1996.
FLANNERY, Austin (ed.). Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents
New York: Costello 1975.
FLANNERY, Austin (ed.). Vatican Council II. Volume 2 More Post Conciliar Documents
New Revised Edition. New York: Costello 1982.
MARYVALE INSTITUTE. ‘The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary: Canons 793-
821’, Reader in Vision and Leadership for Catholic Schools pp.
104-113 (Maryvale Institute: 1999)