Christian Education Today: Perspectives

(Notes from a Lecture at I Congresso Latino de Filosofia da Educação, Rio de Janeiro, 11-7-2000)

Jean Lauand
(Universidade de São Paulo)

Translated into English by Diogo Rosas Gugisch


In a previous lecture we discussed the human foundation of Christian education. We recalled a basic principle: Grace not only does not go against nature, but also entails it. Therefore, there is no such thing as a specifically Christian moral teaching: a Christian takes for granted natural morality, the same morality that imposes itself on every man who wants to be good, a Man in the true essence of the word.

In this lecture we shall explain what a Christian education– or, more specifically, a Catholic education– means today, and we shall base our point upon the new Catholic Catechism, hereafter CC.

Of course, only by mentioning the CC as our basis, does it become immediately clear that we are not referring to external practices, like having a crucifix hanging in the classroom, saying certain prayers, etc. These can be all very good, but they do not reach the core proposal of the CC, which is an education coherent with the understanding of the meaning and the extent of Christian vocation.

This “meaning and extent of the Christian vocation,” the human and Christian stature to which all baptized are called, is actually the new fact and the foundation that underlies the entire message of the Church.

Anticipating the themes that we shall deal with in this lecture, we can say that we are talking about a true discovery (or rediscovery, if we think of the early Christians) of Christianity’s dimension in the world and in our daily life. Unfortunately, this revolution in the understanding of the Gospel is still very much unfamiliar to ordinary people, even though such a revolution presented by the CC is addressed specifically to the ordinary people (this is, to all of us), presenting unsuspected perspectives even in the concept of “Christian believer” itself.

And precisely because so many Christians ignore the meaning and the extent of Christianity, Catholicism appears as something void and meaningless, reduced to a few practices unconnected to the rest of our daily life.

Hence, it is worth recalling a few points of the Church’s doctrine concerning what exactly it means to be a Catholic. This is something very important and rich in practical consequences.

What does it mean to be Catholic?

What can distinguish a Catholic from someone who follows another religion?

In fact, the answer to these questions brings a total and radical distinction that makes Catholicism completely irreducible, incomparable to any other religion. Anyone who erroneously sees Catholicism as just another religion (which, in fact, is the perception of the majority of Catholics…), conceives it as a set of rules of conduct along with the participation in certain ceremonies with the community. Nevertheless, this would only marginally distinguish Catholicism from, let’s say, Judaism, Islam, or other Christian churches. As for the moral code of conduct, the Ten Commandments are the same for the Catholic, for the Koran and for the Torah, and one can hardly find a religion which commands envying, hating or doing harm to one's brethren. And while the Catholic child would become part of the community through Baptism, the Jewish boy would do the same through circumcision, and later confirm it in his Bar Mitzvah.

For that reason, we shall speak about a theme of the utmost importance to a Christian, namely, the essential difference that places us far away from other religions: Grace. It is precisely due to its peculiar understanding of Grace that Catholicism (along with some other Christian churches) is not merely another religious doctrine, nor does it consist of a set of precepts - more or less shared by other religions. There is a fundamental difference: in Catholicism, we are dealing with a new life, a true partaking in God’s intimate life, the life of Grace that begins with the Baptism. The extent and meaning of the Christian vocation are connected with the understanding of the extent and meaning of the Baptism we have received.

When we begin to deal with this subject it is important to start with a clean slate, to recall (or, even better, consider it for the first time) this overwhelming reality, the very essence of Christianity: Grace, the supernatural life. Everything starts when the Son of God becomes man and dwells among us, mysteriously communicating His divinity to us through Baptism in such a way that we are – and this is a very important way to phrase it – partakers of Christ, as mentioned in Hebrews 3, 14. Paul explains this doctrine in great detail.

As a matter of fact, since the very first moment of Paul's conversion, Christ appears to him and proposes the disturbing and remarkably suggestive question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?” And when Saul asks: “Who are you?” he gets the answer: “I am Jesus, the one you persecute.” This is precisely when the revolutionary revelation starts: to Saul, Christ had died, and he was persecuting Christians… Suddenly, he realized that Christ is God, that He had resurrected and was alive, not only at the right hand of the Father, but also within Peter, John, Andrew, Stephen… Within the Christians, as Paul wrote in the essential Galatians 2, 20: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” From this perspective, the CC states that through Baptism, we are like plugged to, on-line with Christ. Or, using the key word (Hebrews 3, 14): partakers.

CC – 1265: "Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte 'a new creature,' an adopted Son of God, who has become a 'partaker of the divine nature,'[2 Cor 5:17 ; 2Pet 1:4; cf. Gal 4:5-7 .] member of Christ and co-heir with him,[Cf. l Cor 6:15; 1 Cor 12:27 ; Rom 8:17] and a temple of the Holy Spirit.[Cf. l Cor 6:19.]"

CC – 1277: "Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ.”

Grace gives us an intimate union with Christ: through Baptism we become grafted in Christ (Roman 6, 4 and 11, 23), and the Trinity starts to dwell in us, which is called supernatural life. This new life neither eliminates natural life nor superimposes it; on the contrary, it embeds, informs, and structures it from the inside. Christian spirituality – and this is the novelty consecrated by the Vatican II – is directed towards the discovery and fostering of this interior life, also and specially in our daily, ordinary life. Through Baptism, Christ dwells in us, and the Christian life – nourished by the other sacraments – is nothing else than seeking the plenitude of the process – carried out by the Holy Spirit – of identification with Christ. The ultimate goal of this process is Paul’s  “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2, 20).

CC – 2813: "In the waters of Baptism. . . Our Father calls us to holiness in the whole of our life”

Christ lives in His “terminals”: each Christian is someone who not only follows a code of conduct, but also has received and possesses Christ’s life. Each Christian is called to be another Christ… One of the ways Christ perpetuates His presence in the world – every time and everywhere – is by being present in all Christians. This presence starts with Baptism, and it is what is called Grace: partaking of the life of God. This is precisely what other religions do not accept: that our life becomes (by partaking in) God’s own life.

CC – 108: "Still, the Christian faith is not a 'religion of the book'. Christianity is the religion of the 'Word' of God, 'not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living'.[St. Bernard, S. missus est hom. 4, 11: PL 183, 86.]

The fundamental concept is, consequently, Grace: a “technical” word that reaches the depths of theology. Grace, in its religious sense, has the same root as the words "gratis" (free of charge) and "gratuity", and this is not an accident: grace is a gift.

In order to understand this, let us compare creation (where God gives us Being in partaking)  and Grace (where God gives us His own life in partaking). Grace and creation: both are gifts, favor, and gratuitous love from God. Nonetheless, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, creation is amor communis – love in general - from God to what He has created, the Love with which God loves plants, ants and stars; beings that are by an act of Divine Love and Volition. However, besides this general love, there is also - again according to St. Thomas Aquinas - an amor specialis, a special love, through which God elevates us to a life above the capabilities of our own nature (supernatural life), and introduces us to a new dimension of being.

The Grace we receive in Baptism is a new reality, a new life, a new light, and a new quality that enables our soul to host the three Divine Persons. This absolute love (St. Thomas Aquinas) is a partaking of the life of God. The soul receives a new life, and in it dwells (or, to use the theological term, inhabits – inhabitatio, immediate dwelling, without any intermediary) the Trinity. Hence, when defining Grace, St. Thomas Aquinas employs the same comparisons of partaking in being. It is not pantheism, it is partaking: having, as opposed to being.

And the very concept of partaking, employed in this sense, the theology of Thomas Aquinas found it in texts from the New Testament, for example, the letter to the Hebrews (3, 14): we are partakers (participes, metácoi) of Christ. St. Peter also says that we are divinae naturae consortes, we share the divine nature (2 Peter 1, 4). Christ is the Son of God; we have divine filiation. Without going too deep in the technical details, partaking is having as opposed to being: the fire is heat; the metal – which partakes in the heat that is the fire – has heat. Similarly, the Filiation with the Word (which brings along the intimate Life of the Trinity) is given to us as a partaking in Christ through Baptism.

Hence being a Catholic is not only attending ceremonies, following practices and rules of conduct; but it is also the nourishing of a process of identification with Christ, so to speak, 24 hours a day. Thus, when the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares Baptism to be the sacrament of Christian initiation par excellence, it is presenting a very different concept from a merely “signing up for a club,” or “getting a Christian license.”

CC – 1212: "The sacraments of Christian initiation - lay the foundations of every Christian life. The sharing in the divine nature”

Precisely this novelty, Grace conferred by Baptism (which, as stressed in the CC, embraces the totality of the daily life), is, and has always been, the unsurmountable difference between Christianity and other religions. This awesome reality is the true essence of Christianity: Grace, the supernatural life, and the partaking in the life of God.

Certainly the doctrine of Grace is not recent, it has been always taught by the Church. What is new then?

What is new is the extension, the deepening that the new Catechism gives to it:

CC – 533: "The hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life

What is new is the statement that our identification with Christ takes place – to the great majority of the Christians – through the imitation of Christ’s hidden life, which was not even mentioned in the previous Catechism – the Catechism of Trent – and now has an entire chapter dedicated to it in the new Catechism. Christ, source of the Creation and author of the Redemption, assumed all human reality and all the reality of our world. And since Adam’s sin caused a general debasement of human and world realities, in Christ, the new Adam, there is a revival – Christ is the Pontiff – builder of bridges – the advocate, the firstborn, our peace, our integrator.

Paul develops this theme in Chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians. Not only with Adam, but also with Christ, all creation is affected: He is the Head of the Body represented by the Church. He is the Firstborn, the source of everything. Through Him God has reconciled with Himself all creatures. It is the Christ of Nazareth, in His 30 years of hidden life, years in which He performed no miracle, and lived a life (also divine and redeeming) that in all aspects resembled a normal life: a regular family life in the home of Nazareth, regular work in Joseph’s workshop, normal social relationships, a normal religious life, etc.

CC – 531: "During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor. His religious life was that of a Jew obedient to the law of God,[Cf. Gal 4:4 .] a life in the community.

CC – 564: (…) by his humble work during the long years in Nazareth, Jesus gives us the example of holiness in the daily life of family and work. "

Christ, alive within all Christians, all the Baptized…

Christ, alive within the ordinary people…

The great rediscovery of the infinite responsibility of the lay people…

Christ who wants to take His redeeming work to the family life, to the work, to the great social issues… This was not part of the Old Catechism, which after mentioning the way we are plugged in to Christ through the Baptism, only brings up that through Baptism the Christian becomes apt to carry over the tasks of the Christian piety. It is correct to say that Baptism is the door to the other sacraments, but the Old Catechism does not mention anything concerning our identification with Christ through our ordinary lives.

Old Roman Catechism, II, II, 52 — By Baptism we are also united to Christ, as members to their Head… qualifying us for the performance of all the duties of Christian piety.

(Per Baptismum etiam Christo capiti tamquam membra copulamur et connectimur… quae nos ad omnia chistianae pietatis officia habiles reddit.)

The Church today invites each Christian, every one of us, to have a whole spiritual life, not despite the world, but precisely because we are in the world, working, with our families, our social relationships, etc.

It is through Baptism that each Christian is called – it is a vocation – to impersonate in his or her life the life of Christ (Galatians 2, 20). Creation and Redemption are projects that extend to the Christ that is each Christian. Once the Incarnation has taken place, the world – the world of work, ordinary, family, political, economical and social life – becomes something of religious interest, as mentioned in Romans, 8 and Colossians 1: creation longs for the manifestation of God’s children, as Christ wants to reform it – Creation – in Himself. Of course this is in no way related to any sort clericalism or integrism, as we have explained at length in other lecture: .

God, who has the power to raise up children unto Abraham from stones (Luke 3, 8), wants to rely on the love between ordinary men and women to create new lives. God, who could make the children come to this world knowing English and Algebra, wants to rely on teachers to educate. God wants to rely on engineers for construction, physicians to identify viruses, etc.

The rediscovery of the Church is the rediscovery of the ordinary life as a call to a full Christian existence. Christ, who spent 30 years living a common life, without performing any miracles, is the model for the “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” The engineer, the cab driver, the businessman, the mechanic, the housewife, the teacher… It is a model for each Christian who has answered the call made through Baptism. The whole proposal of the Church is reformulated from the standpoint of the reach of this Divine Filiation that we have because it has been given to us as partaking in the Filiation that is in Christ. If we think of the four major parts of the CC, the doctrine of the faith is centered on this fundamental fact; and so are the liturgy and the sacraments, as well as the moral and the praying life.

CC – 1692: "The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God's gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become 'children of God,'[Jn 1:12 ; 1Jn 3:1 .] 'Partakers of the divine nature.'[2Pet 1:4.] Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life 'worthy of the gospel of Christ.'[Phil 1:27 .] They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer."

Therefore, far from being a code or a manual, morality is an invitation to the recognition of the dignity of “Living in Christ” (title of the CC moral part): Agnosce, christiane, dignitatem tuam! Beyond prohibitions and punishment, morality is a matter of retribution of love to this presence of Christ in the Christian believer. What am I going to do with the Christ who lives in me? With what am I going to associate Him? With what am I going to blend into Him? “Know you not that your bodies are the members of Christ ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot ? God forbid.” (I Cor 6, 15). “Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (I Cor 3, 16). It is the new man frequently mentioned by the Apostle, to whom everything is allowed, but not everything is convenient (I Cor 6, 12).

CC – 1961: “Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God's own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. [St. Leo the Great Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3: PL 54, 192C.]"

In this world where so many suffer from lack of motivation, the life of the Christian – who knows that Christ lives in him and is interested in transforming the whole creation through the Christian people – becomes fascinating. Life without an awareness of these facts feels like the verse of Adelia Prado: “From time to time God deprives me of poetry and I gaze at a stone – and stone is all I see.” In this picture the importance of the Holy Mass is stressed: it is through it that our daily life is – through Him, with Him, in Him – delivered to the Father. The CC, addressing the Mass, concludes:

CC – 1332: "Holy Mass (missa), because the liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished concludes with the sending forth (missio) of the faithful, so that they may fulfill God's will in their daily lives. "

During the Mass, the union with Christ-the-Head happens in an absolutely unique way. “Through Him, with Him and in Him” we are taken to the Father. Likewise the Sun, which is light, gives participation in light to the air, and the fire, which is heat, gives participation in heat to a metal exposed to it, the Filiation to the Verb is given to us as a partaking in Christ. Through Baptism we are plugged into Him, and during Mass Christ unites us to his Sacrifice before the Father.

1367 — "The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: 'The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.' 'In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.'[Council of Trent (1562): DS 1743; cf. Heb 9:14, 27.]"

1368 — "The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church. The Church which is the Body of Christ participates in the offering of her Head. With him, she herself is offered whole and entire. She unites herself to his intercession with the Father for all men. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ's sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.”

It is interesting to notice that the word missa is the neuter plural participle of the verb “to send” (mittere) and it has the same root of the words missile (something that can be sent) emission, missionary, mission etc. This means that our day gains an altogether new value; the value of the Cross is sent to the Father “through Him, with Him and in Him”, and this confers a totally new meaning upon our daily life.

In fact, our most important title before God is this union with the Son through which we present to the Father our sacrifice of worship, of petition, of thanksgiving and of reparation. This is very clearly stated in the Holy Mass’s Third Eucharistic Prayer: "Respice, quaesumus, in oblationem, Ecclesiae tuae et, agnoscens Hostiam cuius voluisti immolatione placari...

This means that God the Father, Who has no reason to be interested in our offerings, receives them because when He beholds us He does not see us, but His Son Jesus and receives us as if we were carried by the Cross at Holy Mass. Christ, who loved me, and delivered himself for me (Gal 2,20), associates me to His sacrifice. St. Paul, who says that the sacrifice of Christ was superabundant ("And where sin abounded, grace did more abound." Rom 5, 18-20) also says – in a seemingly contradictory manner: "and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh" (Col 1, 24). And it is Christ who lives in the Christians: through Baptism we partake in His life and in his redemptory Cross. Christ received, on the Cross, not only the offences and consolations of those present; because He is God he could also see the attitude of each one of us today before His Cross: we can “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in our flesh”. For Christ has suffered in genere all the pains but he did not live our own daily pains, he lives such sufferings in me if I unite them to the Holy Mass.

The awareness of this partaking in the Divine Filiation, which can reach the most prosaic realities of our daily lives seems to me the very essence of the Christian Education for our times.