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The Joy and Wonder of Catholic Education: The Meaning of Things


The following keynote address was delivered by Bishop James D. Conley at the 2023 Diocesan Teachers’ Institute on October 16, 2023. The Diocesan Teachers’ Institute brings together approximately 650 Catholic school teachers from across Bishop Conley’s Diocese of Lincoln for a day of learning, prayer, and fellowship. The full address may be watched or read below.

Welcome everyone to our annual Diocesan Teacher Institute. This is the first time I’ve had the privilege of delivering the keynote address, so this is a huge honor for me. Maybe the reason why I’m giving the keynote this year is because they couldn’t find anyone else, or Fr. Stoley wanted to save a few shekels for the education budget, but I am very humbled to be standing before you, and I ask the Holy Spirit to help me to encourage and inspire you with my words.

All Catholic educators share directly in the mission of Jesus Christ, the Teacher. In fact, the most common title for Jesus in the ancient world was Rabboni, which means “teacher” in Hebrew. And so, all of us here today, my brother priests, our dear sisters, you teachers, and administrators have all said “yes” to the call of the Lord to share in his “teaching mission” in our Catholic schools. 

And I believe this call, this vocation to teach, is a profound calling. Jesus was both a teacher and a healer and so the Catholic Church has been deeply involved in education and health care  — establishing schools and hospitals since apostolic times. There are few professions today that can claim to be so directly connected and grounded in the mission of Jesus Christ. 

I am firmly convinced that today, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment, a time of true renewal of Catholic education, and so thank you for answering this call to be an educator today and for being part of this exciting moment in history. 

And because the vocation of teacher is so intimately and mysteriously connected to the divine mission of Jesus the teacher, there is an inherent joy and wonder to be able to share in the mission of Catholic education. So, I want to focus my remarks this morning first on “the joy and wonder of Catholic education” (both for teacher and student as a common enterprise) as well as: “the meaning of things.”

As you know, we are nearing the halfway point of a three-year Eucharistic Revival, an initiative of the US Bishops, to revive our love, understanding, and gratitude for the gift of the Holy Eucharist so that we might see the world through a true sacramental imagination. This second year of the Eucharistic Revival is called the Parish Phase, and it will culminate next spring in a National Eucharistic Procession that will travel through the heart of our diocese, followed by a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 17, 2024. It is my hope and prayer that our Catholic schools across our diocese will play a huge role in this Parish Phase of the Eucharistic Revival.

The mystery of the Incarnation, the Logos, Jesus Christ, is the lens through which we must look at the world and everything in the world. As St. John Paul II would so often say, “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human person.”  

The incarnation, in the first place, grounds us in a true Christian anthropology and then provides us with a clear roadmap in life. This is the worldview we must have as educators. We are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We have received a tremendous heritage that we must hand on to the next generation. Matthew Arnold, the great 19th-century educator, famously said that the role of education is to learn from “the best that has been thought and said.” 

No one will argue that we live in a hyper-information age. We have access to more information, more data, and more knowledge than ever before in history. These information streams are literally at our fingertips. Never have students been able to access every kind of knowledge on every possible subject: science, history, mathematics, physics, religion, literature, and theology, at such a rapid and nearly instantaneous demand than ever before in history. The possibilities are literally endless. 

At the same time, young people are experiencing anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation at an alarming rate. At a time when we should be celebrating the wonder of this progress and advancement of such an incredible wealth of technological advancement and the wonderful possibilities for the future, test scores of students in the Western world continue to decline.

Just last week, it was reported in the Lincoln Journal Star that the Nebraska Department of Education released the results of ACT test scores for students across the state that measure college readiness in English, reading, math, and science. Nebraska students were below the national average in all those subjects. This was part of a larger national report that showed high school students’ scores on the ACT college admissions test have dropped to their lowest level in more than three decades.   

There are, no doubt, many reasons for this decline. There is no simple answer. But part of the reason for this decline, I am convinced, is the fact that young people and their teachers are no longer experiencing the joy and wonder of learning. And I would submit to you that the reason for this is because students are no longer learning the meaning of things. They are not learning how everything fits together as a whole and gives meaning to reality and, ultimately, gives meaning and purpose to their lives. 

It’s like our students have been given a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box that shows them how all the pieces fit together. They have lost the sense of the whole or the ultimate end of what they are learning. Each subject is taught as its own separate, independent, and specialized discipline, disconnected from one another and without an integrating principle. When we fail to teach young people the ultimate meaning behind reality and how everything in the created world somehow points to the uncreated God, are we surprised that young people are struggling to find meaning in their lives?

This is why a curriculum that is integrated, interdisciplinary, and historically aligned, that seeks to develop the whole person, is a curriculum that is most truly catholic (or universal) in the best sense of the word. 

I truly believe that there is a correlation between the disconnectedness and disintegration of content in learning and the rise of mental health issues among young people. They are simply becoming overwhelmed with the tsunami of information coming their way in every form of delivery system without the understanding of an integrating principle to put it all together. They have become dispirited and listless about their education, devoid of the joy and wonder that should be there. Their educations have offered them no vision of life that is worthy of their desire. They have asked for bread and been given stones.  

This is why a Catholic education can and should offer so much more to students because we see the world through a sacramental lens, through a lens that can see the connection in things, the integration of knowledge, the ultimate meaning, destiny, and purpose of the human person, and how we fit into the big picture. We see the truth, goodness, and beauty in all things and in all subjects. 

And when I say this, I am not speaking simply of the need for Catholic identity in our schools, as important as that is. Yes, students in uniform, crucifixes on the wall, and access to the sacraments are extremely important. But we can have the very best religion classes in the world and still lose the students if faith is not “woven” through the entire curriculum. Faith cannot be “added on” as a stand-alone subject; it must be integrated into every class, subject, and activity in a school.    

This is why a Catholic education, in a very unique and marvelous way, can engender a true joy and wonder in the adventure of learning, the adventure of discovery as to the “why” behind everything. That’s what young people ultimately long for. They want to know why things are what they are. That’s what the soul was created for — truth, goodness and beauty, and the meaning of things. Catholic education must, above all, be in the “meaning” business. We must give our students a vision of life.

In Catholic education, there should be joy and a wonder in both the student and the teacher when something new is revealed and learned. I think we have all experienced this joy and wonder both as students and as teachers. The word education comes from the Latin verb, educare, which means “to draw out” — ex+ducere. 

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that all knowledge begins in the senses with the particular and ends in the intellect, in the universal concept. But it is not so simple as connecting the dots. Between the senses and the intellect, the memory, the imagination, and the emotions are all at play. Most of our work as teachers is trying to get our students in touch with created reality, to fill their memory and imagination with things based on reality, and to properly order their emotions. To “draw them out.” Only then can the intellect do its proper work of abstraction. 

This is where the sacramental imagination comes into play. The Catechism teaches us that the definition of a Sacrament with a capital “S” is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” As you 5th-grade teachers know, this is one of the 92 questions for the Sacrament of Confirmation. But in another sense, all reality is a sign or a sacrament of something greater, something more mysterious than itself. All reality is an outward sign that bears the fingerprints of the creator and points beyond itself. In the discovery of the truth, goodness, and beauty in things, both the teacher and the student share together a joy and a wonder at the revelation. All reality reveals the creator. I know you, as educators, have experienced this joy!

Wonder is the beginning of knowledge — a kind of reverent fear that beauty strikes in us. In my own life, as some of you know, it wasn’t until I began college that I first experienced true joy and wonder in learning. Up until that time, my elementary and high school education was uninspiring. There was no real joy or wonder in learning. Now, this was not entirely the fault of the school or the curriculum. I must confess that I was not a very good student growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s and I put little effort into learning during those years. 

But when I reached college, I enrolled in a program of humanities my freshman year, and everything changed for me. By the middle of my junior year, I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. If I were to distill it down to one thing that converted me to the Catholic Church, in addition to boatloads of grace, it was a liberal arts education based in the “great books” that made me a Catholic. And this, by the way, was at a huge public university. 

The course of studies was called the Integrated Humanities Program, and the motto of the program was “Let them be born in wonder.” The IHP, as it came to be known, was taught by three remarkable professors, Dennis Quinn, Franklyn Nelick, and John Senior. These three professors who team-taught the program discovered, after years and years of teaching at the university level, that modern college students had lost the sense of joy and wonder in their lives. 

And so, these three professors set out to design a two-year course of studies for freshmen and sophomores that would attempt to introduce the students to joy and wonder. It was their firm conviction that a true education should engender “a birth of the human spirit, an entry into a new world that excites interest because it is seen in the light of wonder. The passion of wonder itself arises from a consciousness of our ignorance before the mystery of being, and from that passion begins the lifelong pursuit of wisdom” (Dennis Quinn: Essay on the Muses as Pedagogues of the Liberal Arts).     

The IHP professors would often talk about “education by the muses” in reference to the ancient Greeks (the Muses were the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts). This was why learning and memorizing poetry was so important in the Integrated Humanities Program. They believed that “no intellectual knowledge is possible without the prior work of the imagination, and the imagination cannot work without sensation. The muses, then, between delight and wonder sharpen the imagination, to see things more distinctly.” What we might say as contact with the really real.

For example, each week, there would be two 90-minute lectures, and each lecture would begin with a song. These songs were usually traditional English ballads or American folk songs. Over the course of two years, the students would build up quite a repertoire of music, songs that we still sing today some 50 years later. Songs like “Home on the Range,” “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” and “My Ole Kentucky Home.”  

It is interesting that the word music comes from the root word meaning silence, as in “mute,” or “myth,” or “mystery.” Music is a kind of knowledge by emotion, a feeling of sympathy with the thing itself. Like poetry, music can be a direct and spontaneous experience of joy and wonder.  

One of the three professors, John Senior, who later became my godfather, wrote a letter in 1969 to his dear friend, Ronald McArthur, who became the founding president of Thomas Aquinas College in California, in which he said these words: “Liberal education, then, begins in wonder and aims at wisdom. But music, in the ancient sense, begins in delight and ends in wonder, while gymnastic (in the Greek sense of the word, meaning training as mind-body discipline) begins in the sensible experience and ends in delight.” 

The point that Senior was making was that the cultivation of the imagination must necessarily precede the cultivation of reason. 

Senior wrote in another letter to McArthur: “The seven liberal arts are a rational examination of the causes of what music presents, which is another way of saying that wonder is a condition of science.” 

My conversion to the Catholic Church, as I recall it now, came about primarily through the love of my teachers and the friendship of my classmates, joined with our mutual love and desire for truth, goodness, and beauty through the integration of what we were studying: poetry, history, music, philosophy, theology, art, architecture, and dance. This was what the professors meant when they spoke about “education by the muses.” 

When I discovered truth, goodness, and beauty in the great books, “the best which has been thought and said,” my heart began to sing for joy. Music and poetry train the memory, and they give the soul a direct experience of the joy of the thing itself. This joy is what caused my heart to sing. Saint Augustine once said that only the lover sings. The love that I discovered through the joy and wonder of learning certainly caused my heart to sing.

As teachers, we are more than information delivery systems. If we weren’t, then robots could do our jobs. We are engaged in much more than the transfer of information. We are called to participate in the transformation of souls. 

In that process of learning, from delight, to joy, to wonder, to wisdom, the student learns to order their emotions. They learn what to love and what not to love. They learn what is good, true, and beautiful while, at the same time, they learn what is bad, false, and ugly. St. Augustine, again, calls this the ordering of the emotions or passions, ordo amoris. And everyone should learn this at a young age — that they are loved and created good. 

Teaching is a type of friendship, and a school must be a faculty of friends; friends who have a common calling and a common mission — the transformation of souls. This means, it seems to me, that teachers and students must recognize together that the realities they teach and learn are offered and received through themselves in an atmosphere of trusting rapport or friendship. 

I believe that there must be a certain humility on the part of the teacher to be willing to accompany the student on their path of learning, not presiding over them as a master to a subject, but rather walking alongside the student in a mutual adventure of joy and wonder. 

In fact, the word “school” comes from the Greek word schola, which means leisure. If possible, there should be an atmosphere of leisure in every school. It is a sad fact today that the teaching profession has become very burdensome for teachers. The time and work spent outside the classroom that is expected of teachers today can drain a teacher of his or her creative energies, which are so important in teaching. Teaching should strive to be more like the activity of friends who enjoy each other’s company and who share themselves with one another and their students under relaxed circumstances. Sometimes, the most effective learning takes place spontaneously, outside of the scheduled lesson plan, worksheets, or talking points. 

Education is an encounter and engagement with things good, true, and beautiful in all subjects across the curriculum in the context of natural human interactions between teacher and student for the sake of human happiness. Students discover themselves more readily when the teacher can share their personal experiences in life. Teachers should feel confident to “teach themselves.” I realize that there are educational philosophies that are opposed to this, but human experience proves otherwise.

The great 19th-century English convert to the Catholic Church, St. John Henry Newman, who has been a huge influence in my own life, wrote a lot about education and the joy and wonder of learning. In a famous debate that took place through letters published in the Times of London in 1849 between Newman and a member of the British parliament, Sir Robert Peel, Newman argued that the liberal arts are necessary for a healthy, civilized, and happy culture. Peel argued for a hyper-utilitarian, career-oriented, and pragmatic educational system to feed the progress of the exploding industrial revolution. Peel argued that the liberal arts were no longer necessary in the modern world and should be abolished.   

This exchange of lengthy letters between Peel and Newman in the Times was eventually published as the Tamworth Reading Room Letters. Newman’s argument against Peel in favor of preserving the study of the liberal arts can be summed up as follows. Newman writes: 

The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.

Suffice it to say, Newman won the debate. 

As I mentioned in the beginning, we are experiencing a rediscovery of the liberal arts and sciences in education. The term liberal, of course, comes from the Latin word liber, which means free. A Catholic liberal education, then, is an education for freedom: freedom for students to live their life as much as possible in the truth of themselves made in the image and likeness of God. The formation provided by a Catholic education does far more than prepare a student for a job. It frees students to know, to love, and to live fully the joy and wonder of the Christian life. 

I have mentioned several terms today that I want to clarify. “Integrated humanities,” “liberal arts education.” “great books program,” and an “integrated, interdisciplinary historically-aligned curriculum.” These are essentially based on the same philosophy, a tried-and-true method instituted by the Catholic Church when formal education for the masses began. In truth, it is merely engaging students in an integrated learning plan that has a purpose in mind; that purpose is developing a whole, virtuous person. The renewal that I envision comes through the purposeful alignment of subjects so they can be interrelated in concepts that make sense and engage the student in learning. 

This is going on today in our schools. When students study American history and geography, visit the Capitol, memorize the Constitution, act out battles of the War for Independence, and learn to sing songs like the Battle Hymn of the Republic, they are experiencing an integrated curriculum that includes music, the arts, and the sciences. And it has a purpose in mind: a holistic education focused on engaging their minds and their souls. 

I want to “liberate” you to do more of these things, to organize and to align subjects, so they have a focus and you can inter-weave experiences that “frees” the students to learn in the deepest sense. 

I mentioned at the outset of my talk that we are experiencing a true renewal in Catholic education in the United States today. It is, indeed, an exciting time to be part of the mission of Catholic education. A challenge to be sure! But there is no need to be afraid. We were made for these times!

Let me conclude with something I heard recently from my good friend, Dale Ahlquist, who is the President of the G.K. Chesterton Society and the founder of the Chesterton High School Academies, and like G.K. himself, is a man filled with joy and wonder. 

When Dale Alhquist was asked, “Why do your students read the great books?” he answered:   

“We read the Iliad because all of life is a battle.

We read the Odyssey because all of life is a journey. 

We read the Book of Job because all of life is a riddle.

We read Canterbury Tales because all of life is a pilgrimage.

We read Don Quixote because all of life is a knight errantry.

We read Shakespeare because all the world’s a stage.

We read Dickens because all of life is a great expectation.

We read Dostoyevsky because we are all part of a family, and every soul is a battleground between heaven and hell. 

And we read Dante because all of life is a Divine Comedy. 

And we read Chesterton…  because all of life is a paradox.”

Thank you, and I hope you have a joy-filled and wonder-full day today!