It is a reality that in the Asian continent alone affects some ten million students and constitutes a privileged area of action for the Catholic Church. Educating Together in Catholic Schools. A Shared Mission between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful, a paper published by the Congregation for Catholic Education (for Seminaries and Institutes of Study), confirms it.
"The lack of interest in the fundamental truths of human life as well as individualism, moral relativism and utilitarianism" but also the growing "gap between rich and poor countries" and growing population movements and the problems related to the stability of the family" are typical phenomena of our society.
In this context, the aforementioned paper says that it "becomes particularly urgent to offer young people an educational path" that "is not reduced to an individualistic and instrumental use of a service for the purpose of getting a degree." Instead it should provide an opportunity "to meet a true educational community, built upon the basis of shared values and goals."
Catholic schools represent a "privileged place" to shape minds and show a model of life to be followed in order "to build a world founded on dialogue." And at the same time it is "an educational community in which ecclesial and missionary communion can deeply mature and grow."
In illustrating the paper Card Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, stressed that globalisation is today's "most significant phenomenon," not "only in economic terms but also cultural, political and educational. It favours meeting and exchange between peoples, but can also produce a dangerous cultural homogenisation, a sort of cultural colonialism."
In addition to this kind of problems, modern schooling has experienced "a loss in terms of meaning as to what it is supposed to be because of a loss of values, especially those that support life, namely the family, work, and moral choices. Thus education suffers from the ills that afflict our society: widespread subjectivism, moral relativism and nihilism."
Faced with all this, argues the document, "the educational experience of Catholic schooling constitutes a formidable barrier against the influence of a widespread mentality that leads many, especially among the young, to consider life as a set of thrills to enjoy rather than something to accomplish. Furthermore, it contributes to forming strong personalities that can resist a debilitating relativism whilst living coherently" with one's faith.
Lebanon, India, Thailand, Nepal and the Holy Land are but a few of the places on the Asian continent that Mgr Angelo Vincenzo Zani, under-secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, cites as examples.
"Catholic schools," he said, "operate in all geographical areas, including those in which religious liberty does not exist or that are socially and economically disadvantaged." And they have "an amazing capacity to respond to emergencies and educational needs despite great difficulties at times." Not to mention the fact they are open to everyone.
In Lebanon, for example, the main goal of Catholic schooling is to bring young people together in the pursuit of dialogue and co-operation between Muslims and Catholics." Here "out of 210,000 Catholic school students from the country's 18 religious denominations, Catholics are 63 per cent, 12.6 per cent are from other Christian groups, and 24 per cent are non-Christian, mostly Muslim. In some areas of the country, non Catholics represent 99 per cent of the total student population."
In the Holy Land (Israel, Palestinian Territories and Jordan), "out of a [combined] population of 11 million Christians are only 280,000; of these 140,000 are Catholic. Christians represent 55 per cent of the Catholic school population compared to 45 per cent who are non Christians, mostly Muslims, but also a few Jews."
Mgr Zani illustrates the situation by citing two examples. "In El Mutran Nazareth there is St Joseph School, home to about 1,200 Christian and Muslim students. The basis of its educational project is peace, learning to live together and accepting [one another's] differences." In Jerusalem we find the Schmidt's Girls College, founded in 1886 and open to girls and young women, from the ages of 4 to 19, two thirds of which are Muslim.
Similarly, in Nepal, "where the majority of the population is Hindu, Catholics are but a mere 6,000 in a population of 23 million." Yet in "2004 the king awarded a prize to two missionaries for their work in the area of education, namely the principal at St Mary's School and the founder of St Xavier College, the only Catholic college in Nepal."
In India "there are seven million students enrolled in Catholic schools. The proportion of Catholics is only 22.7 per cent and 5.6 per cent are from other Christian denominations; 53 per cent are Hindu, 8.6 per cent Muslim and 10.1 per cent from other groups. About 45.1 per cent of the schools are run by the dioceses and the remainder by religious congregations."
For his part, Cardinal Grocholewski mentioned that he personally had some experiences of this type; for instance, he was in Thailand where "Catholics numbers 297,000, less than 0.5 per cent of the population, and yet where students attending Catholic schools are almost 400,000."