By Michele Dolz, Doctor in Theology and Education
Notes: (1) This is an outline, which also serves as an abridged version, of a study which appeared in ROMANA: Bulletin of the Prelatureof the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, January – June 2001, Seventeenth Year, No.32, English Edition, p. 110-123, (2) Throughout the outline, the title of “Blessed” has been updated to “Saint”, (3) The italicized portions are quotes from St. Josemaria.
Parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. “Parents have the duty to create a family atmosphere inspired by love and devotion to God and fellow men.” (Vatican II, Gravissimum Educationis, 3)
The Family in God’s Plan
a) Hebrew family
- In the ancient Israel, the family was the foundation of society. As families stressed tradition, they contributed towards the stability of society.
- The family was determined to be faithful to Yahweh. “These words which I –the Lord God—command you should be in your heart and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk to them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Deut 6:2-7).
- A Jewish father felt the moral obligation to transmit the deposit of faith entrusted to him. This transmission is essential for the family’s prosperity and happiness.
o He carries out an almost priestly role, for the family is a religious group. Holydays were celebrated in the household with a truly liturgical spirit.
o The religion of Yahweh was not centered on the priestly caste, but on the family.
b) Early Christian families
- Families were converted to Christianity through the father’s conversion: “he believed and all his household” (Jn 4:53).
- There are abundant examples of the sense of the responsibility of the early Christian families to transmit the faith in the family, with high aspirations to holiness. There is perhaps no better model for a Christian couple.
- These families were small Christian communities, centers for spreading the Gospel. They were the domestic Church. When they teach their children, it is the Church that teaches.
- The first Christians gave very clear witness to 3 important truths:
o Their goal was holiness – full identification with Christ
o Christianizing society and culture (bringing people one by one to Christ) is the task of each Christian in his own environment, beginning with the family.
o The origin of the above is Christian baptism, not a mandate from the hierarchy.
c) St. Josemaria taught that marriage is a divine vocation based on a sacrament.
- The purpose of marriage is to help married people to sanctify themselves and others…Christian couples should be aware that they are called to be apostles and that their first apostolate is in the home…The effectiveness and success of their life –their happiness—depends on to a great extent on their awareness of their specific mission.
- Through their parents, children learn to put God first and foremost in their affections.
- A child easily “captures” what is transmitted to him through the bonds of affection he has with his parents (also stressed by educators like Piaget, Baldwin and Bovet).
- Thus, one of St. Josemaria’s pastoral intuitions has spread widely: schools that work closely with parents efforts to educate their children and in which parents continue to exercise the role of principal educators.
- Be friends with your children. All true education is based on a relationship of friendship between child and educator. This might seem to be a key pedagogical technique, but in reality this is charity, love, the very core of our new life in Christ.
I. Education in Holiness
The true context of all Christian moral education is the life of Christ in the soul.
- Without this grace, it is impossible and absurd to educate sinful man in morals.
- St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is the Magna Carta for Christian educators. Christian life goes beyond a simple observance of precepts or moral codes. “My children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ is formed in you.” (Gal 4:19). This is holiness.
This high goal of holiness is in danger of being lowered or viewed in a worldly light: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked. For what a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows in the flesh, will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit, will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:7-8).
The lowering of expectations in family education is a result of “sowing in the flesh”—the failure of Christ in Christian families. This happens when parents do not accept God’s gifts: for example, the vocation of their children to a particular mission (e.g. priesthood), or simply the Christian’s baptismal vocation to a consistent life of sanctity and apostolate—the life of Jesus Christ.
Parents should (1) transmit the truths of the Catholic faith and (2) guide their children towards the means of sanctification provided by the Church. Nevertheless, parents teach their children mainly by their conduct.
Parents can teach children how to pray, so that God is not regarded as a stranger whom we go to see in Church once a week on a Sunday. He will be seen and treated as he really is, not only in church but also at home. Because our Lord has told us “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20).
- Jesus teaches how important prayer is for attaining sanctity. If you don’t make the boys men of prayer, you have wasted your time.
All apostolates of Opus Dei encourage people to set out on paths of mental prayer and to understand a full plan of spiritual life. St Josemaria feared mere external observance, but without interior openness to Christ. He applied the same criteria and demands to the family, because he knew almost all Catholics learn their prayers at home, but few truly become souls of prayer.
- The meaning of true piety should be taught first by example and then by word.
o False piety generally results from lack of doctrine…
o Piety takes root in young people when they see it lived sincerely…, when they understand that prayer is speaking with God, not anonymously, but personally, as with one’s parent or with a friend, in a heart to heart conversation.
o Parents should teach a few prayers that the children say regularly. What is essential is that they learn they are children of God and act accordingly. The age of the children should be taken into account. The young ones should not be bored by long prayers.
- It is important not to lose these wonderful traditions of family prayer, but don’t impose them. Let your children see you preserving them with affection. They should know when the rosary is said each day; and they will end up joining you. Tell each one separately: Look, this custom of ours is centuries old and ought to be continued because it pleases our Lady very much, and God is very pleased by it and blesses us. But say it when you want, with complete freedom.
- To foster union with God, the only path is based on freedom. You can’t force your older children to fulfill their religious obligations…Because, even though they are physically present at church, if they don’t want to be there, they won’t really be at Mass. But parents should tell their children what is wrong (e.g. it is a grave sin not to go to Mass on a Sunday).
II. Primacy of Grace
A Christian’s struggle for holiness is a matter of correspondence to God’s grace. St. Josemaria never fell into the classic trap of Christian educators who try to obtain with human means what can only be attained with the help of God. His catechesis focused on the need to have recourse to sources of grace, the sacraments.
The aim of parents in Christian formation is that the child’s life expresses God’s indwelling presence, Christ’s life in the soul. Sanctifying grace (1) enables one to believe in, hope in and love God, (2) gives power to live and act under the promptings of Holy Spirit, and (3) allows one to grow in goodness through the moral virtues (CCC 1265-1266).
Thus, the core of Christian education is to lead children to prayer and sacraments. Through Confession, they receive the grace of the sacrament, which is also the Holy Spirit in action. And Confirmation enables the Christian to fight, as soldiers of Christ, against selfishness and lust.
The foundation of all Christian formation is divine filiation, our being children of God, which enables us to focus events from the supernatural viewpoint of faith. We come to love all men as our Father in heaven loves them and, what is more important, we become more fervent in our daily efforts to come closer to God. The focal point of the formation given by parents is the knowledge that God is Father.
III. Human Virtues
Another central feature of St. Josemaria’s approach to Christian education is the importance of human virtues—like honesty, loyalty, compassion, and sincerity. Anyone possessing such qualities is ready to be generous with God, because the human virtues constitute the foundation of the supernatural virtues.
John Paul II: “The best way to sculpt the virtues in the heart of children is for them to see these virtues engraved in the life of their parents. Human virtues, in a harmonious and strong unity, makes the ideal seen in their parents attractive and spur the children to undertake its conquest.”
There are so many people who call themselves Christians…but then prove to be disloyal and deceitful, insincere and proud, and they fail to achieve anything…Our Lord wants us to be both very human and divine, struggling each day to imitate him who is perfectus Deus, perfectus homo, perfect God, perfect man.
· A Christian who does not strive to practice the virtues and does not perform his family, professional and social duties cannot be a good disciple of Christ. He harms the Church.
· God became man. Here is the focus of Christian asceticism. St. Josemaria was very demanding, first with himself, and then with others. People should develop their potentials with tenacity and optimism, as one who practices a sport seriously and who is tough like an ascetic.
· Families and schools should give a thorough education on the rights and duties of citizens, and must do everything possible to foster a climate of sincerity, generosity and loyalty, because we want the to be saints.
Christians should be second to none as human beings…True happiness, a genuine spirit of serving our neighbor, can only come, by passing through the Heart of our Redeemer, perfectus Deus, perfectus homo.