In his Message for the Launch of the Educational Pact, dated September 12, 2019, Pope Francis invited all those working in the field of education at different levels (academic, institutional, pastoral and social) to Rome on May 14, 2020, to work together to develop a global educational pact. The event was then postponed due to Covid-19. The pandemic has made the Holy Father’s appeal even more pressing; it is necessary to unite efforts for the common home, for education to be a creator of fraternity, peace and justice.

For this reason, on October 15, 2020, a virtual meeting took place, open to all and broadcast on Vatican Media’s YouTube channel, which included a video message from the pope[1] and testimonies and international experiences aimed at looking ahead with creativity.[2]

In the course of his pontificate Francis has repeatedly urged the need for such collaboration at the educational level for the maintenance of our “common home,” as, for example, in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Nos. 23 and 87), in the encyclical Laudato Si’ (Nos. 215 and 220), and in his speech of January 9, 2020, to the Diplomatic Corps at the Holy See: “All change, like the epochal change we are now experiencing, calls for a process of education and the creation of an educational village, capable of forming a network of open and human relationships. That village should put the human person at the center, investing creatively and responsibly in long-term projects that train individuals willing to offer themselves in service to the community. What is needed, then, is an educational vision that can encompass a broad range of life experiences and learning processes, in order to enable young people, individually and collectively, to develop their personalities.”[3]

Education was also the basic theme chosen by the Italian episcopate for its pastoral focus in the decade 2010-2020.[4]

Some dramatic signs of educational failure

The places that have always been decisive for education (in particular, the family, institutions and schools) are today deeply in crisis, not least because society is unenthusiastic about them and obsessively withdrawn into itself. Hence there is a serious and growing fracture of the generational pact between adults and young people.[5] The pope has made explicit mention of the problematic situations in which parents find themselves, mostly abandoned to themselves and subject to an increasingly stressful rhythm of life, and also of the difficult task facing always underpaid teachers.

This fracture emerges dramatically in the demographic collapse of the West, and in particular of Italy, which for several years now has been among the lowest levels in the world. Statistics for the year 2019 show that in Italy the birth/death ratio is 67/100 (212,000 fewer people than the previous year; 10 years ago the ratio was 96/100). This is “the lowest level of natural turnover ever experienced by the country since 1918.”[6] Turnover is becoming increasingly problematic.

This is a worrying phenomenon that sounds an epochal warning: demographic crises have always been the first sign of a more general crisis of civilization. The Old Continent seems to be more and more an “old” continent; it is the only place on Earth where the elderly are more numerous than children. “According to the Population Division of the United Nations, children in 2050 will be just 2.8 percent of the Italian population. In the 14th century, an epidemic wiped out 80 percent of the Italian population. In the 21st century, it is disappearing by choice […]. An expert on demography at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Nicholas Eberstadt, argues that: “If this continues, there will be countries in a generation where the only blood relatives will be their parents.”[7] And the decline in births brings with it other disturbing issues: the lack of children in a society indicates the lack of desire for a future, of wanting to continue living through others, especially the awareness of having something beautiful to give to those who will come after us.

This distrust of the future is reflected in the growing difficulty in educating and in passing on to future generations an acquired heritage of a wisdom that is worth living for. The future is seen less and less as the goal of planning and hope, but rather recalls fears and worries. Increased wellbeing has not contributed to a better quality of life, but has increased the tendency to turn in on oneself, to the point of losing the zest for life.

The decision taken on January 18, 2018, by British Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint a “minister for loneliness” is extremely significant and worrying. Never before in history has this happened. “For too many,” explained May, “loneliness is a sad reality of modern life. I want to face this challenge for our society and for all those who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences.” According to data from the British Red Cross, “out of a population of 65.6 million, more than nine million people claim to feel always or often alone.”[8]

Research conducted by the Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah (USA) has shown that chronic feelings of loneliness have twice as harmful an effect on health as being overweight, and is comparable to the damage caused by alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness, the researchers conclude, is a deadly virus that is statistically detectable but destined to spread unstoppably. The World Health Organization (WHO) points out that in the course of 10 years (1987-97), the number of people with depression has increased by 300 percent; between 2005 and 2015 this figure further increased by 18 percent. This is the main cause of disability for people between 15 and 40 years old, and requires healthcare expenditure of 43 billion dollars per year. If the first depressive episode once occurred around the age of 30, it now appears at 13. The result is a significant increase in suicidal behavior. According to WHO data, in 2013, 842,000 people wanted to end their lives, an increase of 60 percent compared to 1960. But for adolescents the growth was 400 percent.[9]

The most disconcerting aspect is that these statistics concern a population that enjoys unique privileges, so much so that it is considered the luckiest in history: it has not known war, hunger, famine or extreme weather events. Western societies have recorded enormous gains for their members compared to those who came before in many respects: longevity, life expectancy, food supply, medical care, access to education, freedom of movement, gradually improving rights, care for the environment and protection of privacy. Despite this, the percentage of perceived unhappiness has increased significantly: we are a generation that is falling ill with loneliness. For these reasons as well as others, a global educational project urgently requires that we rebuild the school-family pact that has been crumbling in recent generations.

The characteristics of education

Pope Francis, addressing the participants at a conference held shortly before lockdown, pointed out that the term “education” should not be understood as a mere transmission of concepts, a completely abstract vision, a legacy of the Enlightenment. Rather, education aims  “to combine the language of the head with the language of the heart and the language of the hands. In this way, the student can think what he or she feels and does, can feel what he or she thinks and does, and can do what he or she feels and thinks.; a total integration”[10] in a pact that involves families, schools and institutions.

This unified vision is still present in the West, even if it has largely been lost. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, summing up his educational experience during an interview, stated that he grew up in contact with two antithetical worlds that characterized his youth: “Two realities, mutually antagonistic, determined my education long before I was able to read philosophy texts. My imagination as a child was first of all nourished by a Celtic oral culture, the heritage of farmers and fishermen, poets and storytellers, a culture largely already lost, but to which some of the elderly people I came into contact with still felt they belonged. The important facts of this culture were some forms of loyalty and the bond with relatives and the land. To be fair meant playing the role to which everyone was assigned by the local community. The identity of each person came from the place that the individual occupied in the community.”[11]

The “other world,” the one of Enlightenment modernity, is instead characterized by “theory” (not in its Greek meaning), by critical and consequential knowledge, as opposed to “history”: “The modern world was a culture of theories and not of histories. It was the framework of what was intended to appear as morality as such; its rights over us were not those of a particular social group, but those of universal and rational humanity.”[12]

For MacIntyre, to recover the ancestral tradition does not mean to deny the achievements of modernity, but to return to privilege the relationships and the great wisdom narratives: they occupy the prime place in education, and in their deficiency lies most of today’s problems. It is no coincidence that the children who succeed best in reading and learning are those who, from an early age, were lucky enough to have parents who told them, patiently and repeatedly, fairy tales or other fictional narratives.

The importance of dialogue, combined with storytelling, has also been detected by research carried out in a children’s hospital in Cincinnati (USA) on a group of 19 children aged between 3 and 5 years. Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers were able to observe how, while listening to the stories, a specific area of the brain – the one in which images are processed – was activated in the children’s brains, giving rise to the “mental film” that allows them to visually follow the story.[13] This process also occurs in adults, especially when reading novels or short stories: attention to the content of the text is accompanied by the flow of images that allow understanding.

When, instead, education is reduced to technique, it leads to a progressive and dangerous drying up of life, in all its expressions. It is the “artificial cage,” described eloquently by Jacques Ellul: “Everything is included in the technical process. There is a reading technique, a chewing technique, every sport becomes more and more technical, there is a cultural animation technique, a technique to conduct meetings.”[14]

As Umberto Galimberti observes, at the basis of youth anxiety there is above all the absence of an archive of stories capable of giving meaning and order to the events, identifying desires and discrepancies. Today many young people are sick, but they cannot even give a name to their malaise, because they no longer have narratives available that can offer an identity and a reading of life. They find themselves involved in a scattered set of experiences, events without a unifying project. Feelings and desires, in fact, are not biological facts, but are known and understood by being confronted with narratives, with the events and models present in them.

In his post-synodal exhortation on young people, Pope Francis takes up a thought of Maria Gabriela Perin concerning the precious task of narration as the ability to re-knit what is separate: “What I know is that God makes stories. In his genius and mercy, he takes our triumphs and our failures and weaves beautiful tapestries that are full of irony. The reverse of the fabric may look messy with its tangled threads – the events of our life – and maybe this is the side we dwell on when we doubt. But the right side of the tapestry displays a magnificent story, and this is the side that God sees.”[15]

Narration and feelings

Modernity has forgotten the language of the heart, limiting itself to “heads” and “hands.” But the increased mass of information available, even though it is a precious asset, has not made existence more comfortable, because the evaluation criteria are relational and emotional. Feelings are an element of truth in our relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. They are also a wake-up call for discomfort.

Biblical wisdom invites us to keep knowledge and affection, heart, intelligence and faith closely together. And it does so not in an abstract and theoretical way, but through narratives that give prominence to feelings: they are the places of evaluation and decision. Think of the joy of the Magi when they see the star (Matt 2:10), or the sadness of the rich young man when faced with the challenge to leave everything and follow Jesus (Luke 18:23), or Pilate’s fear when he hears that Jesus proclaim himself Son of God (John 19:8). The disciples on the way to Emmaus, rethinking the encounter they had with the Lord, initially unrecognized, are struck above all by the affective resonances of his words: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” (Luke 24:32).

This research opens up a dialogue with anyone who addresses the fundamental problems of life, whether they are believers or non-believers, a person to listen to and dialogue with. Significant in this regard is something Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini stated when inaugurating a series of dialogues with non-believers: “The non-believer who is in me disturbs the believer who is in me and vice versa […]. I believe that, in our times, the presence of non-believers who with personal sincerity declare themselves as such, and the presence of believers who have the patience to want to re-enter themselves, can be very useful to both of us, because it stimulates each of us to better follow our path toward authenticity. Performing this exercise together, without defenses and with radical honesty, can also be useful to a society that is afraid to look inside itself and that risks living in insincerity and discontent.”[16]

But how to rebuild the educational pact? Pope Francis offers in particular three tracks: 1) Establish a village of education; 2) Tomorrow asks for the best of today; 3) Educate to serve, to educate is to serve.

Establish a village of education

There is a need to foster dialogue among the various “educational agencies,” such as the family, school, religious and civil institutions: “To do so, we must agree to promote formal and informal educational processes that cannot ignore the fact that the whole world is deeply interconnected, and that we need to find other ways, based on a sound anthropology, of envisioning economics, politics, growth and progress. In the development of an integral ecology, a central place must be given to the value proper to each creature in its relationship to the people and realities surrounding it, as well as a lifestyle that rejects the throwaway culture.”[17]

This pact, as we noticed, has unfortunately been interrupted for some time, with serious consequences at all levels: think of the spread of phenomena related to intolerance, racism, violence and bullying. The massive use of social media is not a valid alternative at a time when it claims to substitute for the hard work and gradualness indispensable for an educational path. On the contrary, it can become a trap when one is under the illusion that a person’s formation can be traced back to a simple click.

The serious economic crisis and the climate and environmental changes are also a consequence of the “culture of waste” and are warnings that can no longer be ignored. The circumstances linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and its implications in every sphere of our societies show effectively and dramatically how much the whole of humanity is involved, for better or worse, in the events of the common home, which has been entrusted to the responsibility and possibilities of each individual and community.

Reconstituting the generational pact helps the young person to identify his or her deepest desire, and the elderly person to rediscover the precious role of a life memory to be transmitted to those who come after him or her: “If young people sink roots in those dreams, they can peer into the future; they can have visions that broaden their horizons and show them new paths. But if the elderly do not dream, young people lose clear sight of the horizon. Perhaps our parents have preserved a memory that can help us imagine the dream our grandparents dreamed for us. All of us, even before our birth, received, as a blessing from our grandparents, a dream filled with love and hope, the dream of a better life. [….] The very first dream of all is the creative dream of God our Father, which precedes and accompanies the lives of all his children. The memory of this blessing that extends from generation to generation is a precious legacy that we should keep alive so that we too can pass it on.”[18]

Tomorrow demands the best of today

Taking this perspective seriously means investing in the future and challenging the economy of “everything and now,” which destroys possibilities and impedes quality. It means investing in the new generations, but also in the awareness that the deepest and most effective changes cannot be rapid and immediate. Education requires time, gradualness and affection.

The secret of human intelligence lies in a trick of nature: having a slower and more rhythmic development and stages of growth than other living species is the basis of the extraordinary power and plasticity of our mind and makes it capable of marvelous and extremely varied operations, which introduce us into a larger perspective than the here and now.

British writer Terence Hanbury White’s novel The Once and Future King gave an idea in a moral tale, a sort of revisiting of the first chapter of Genesis, that has been developed to describe this peculiar characteristic:

“Once the universe was completed long ago, God wanted it to be populated by animated beings. So he created many embryos and asked them what kind of animals they wanted to become as adults. Who wanted to run, who wanted to fly, who wanted to swim. Big, small, fast, slow. Only one embryo was silent. Then God asked him why he had no preference. The small embryo answered that he wanted to remain as he had been created. If that was the case, there had to be a good reason. God praised the answer, and promised the embryo that it would remain as a child. Thanks to slower growth, he would be the only one capable of fantasies, and he would become the lord of the universe. As a child, playing, he would be able to imagine other worlds, modifying in his mind what he lived in […]. The great trick of man’s prolonged childhood created his great brain; in fact the period of great plasticity of man, a critical period, lasts several years, while that of animals is measured in weeks or months. In short, the embryo of man decided with great courage to stay for about ten years to form his brain both functionally and structurally. Fortunately evolution has made this choice possible by inventing the patient care of parents and basically the family. The man-child has managed, for better or for worse, to dominate nature. Evolution has chosen, in the construction of the human brain, the technique of slowness, while for other animals that of speed.”[19]

Learning, getting to know each other and reading go hand in hand – in step, in fact, slow and cadenced – they require time, gradualness, passion and dialogue with the other. It is an investment in the future.

Educate to serve, to educate is to serve

It is also necessary to prepare people who deal specifically with formation, with dedication, but also with competence, to reconstruct the educational pact: “Each generation needs to consider how best to hand on its knowledge and its values to the next, since it is through education that men and women attain their maximum potential and become conscious, free and responsible. Concern for education is concern for future generations and for the future of humanity. It is a concern profoundly rooted in hope and it calls for generosity and courage.”[20]

There is always a strong temptation to prepare educational programs based on the novelty of an approach, or inspired by ideologies and fashions of the moment, more attentive to political correctness than to the knowledge of a perennial heritage. The Cultural Project of the Italian Church clearly pointed to this risk 10 years ago: “We live in a society where everything seems to be possible indifferently; where any idea or lifestyle seems to have the same value; where the power of the technical-economic apparatus seems to want to emancipate itself from every human need; where desires seem to become rights and aesthetics seem to take the place of ethics.”[21]

Not everything is indifferent, deserving to be placed on the same level. Every choice, even no-choice, has precise consequences that history does not fail to detect, presenting the bill to subsequent generations. Competence in education remains indispensable, because not all paths are equally viable: they often turn out to be illusory mirages, which the young person may realize too late, when remedies are no longer possible.

The process must also be shaped to protect the educator: the complexity and vastness of today’s problems, without adequate support, risk crushing them. The phenomenon of burn-out shows how it is not easy to help others: good will and purity of intention must be accompanied by experience and competence. Our age has an urgent need for “people who are open, responsible, willing to find time for listening, dialogue and reflection, and capable of building a fabric of relationships with families, between generations and with the various expressions of civil society, so as to compose a new humanism.[22]

The service of the Church

But it is equally important that such a revival be witnessed first and foremost by the ecclesial community. The educational pact requires a renewed dialogue between culture and religion, a dialogue that has been broken several times, especially in the West, and which is a valuable service for all. Paul VI had pointed out the terrible rift between the Gospel and culture, calling it “the drama of our age.”[23]

It is also necessary in the Church to rethink the nature of the encounter between “heart, mind and hands,” an encounter capable of intercepting people’s lives, without merely lamenting their growing disaffection: “To repeat that our culture is ‘liquid,’ fragmented, a source of instability, can prove to be a boomerang: where were we while culture was changing? Why were we unable to put a stop to the failures we were denouncing? And when we launched accusations, did we find suitable strategies to repair the damage?”[24]

Dialogue between heart, mind and hands is desirable especially in the formation of pastors. Even there, the importance that it should assume has not always been recognized, especially in its value as a “hinge,” capable of bringing together the three aspects noted by Pope Francis.

Fr. Stephen Rossetti, who was for many years the director of the Saint Luke Institute (Maryland, USA), intended primarily for priests afflicted by problems and difficulties of various kinds, including sexual abuse, noted a common characteristic in those who came to the center. Despite the diversity of problems and events that had occurred, their spiritual life was disconnected from existence. He said: “They speak eloquently about their spiritual journey but their words are not rooted in their personal lives. In reality, their spiritual lives are empty. Sadly, we have seen the devastation of the Church and society when the human formation of our priests is lacking.”[25]

The new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis would like to respond to these needs. However, we know how the documents, in order to be implemented, require formators attentive to this integral dimension. Pope Francis, concluding the International Conference on the Ratio Fundamentalis, reaffirmed the centrality of this aspect in order that educators be credible: “It is necessary to dialogue more on the formation of priests, to overcome parochialism, to make shared decisions, initiate good formative paths together and thoroughly prepare formators who are capable of such an important task. Care about priestly formation: the Church needs priests who are capable of announcing the Gospel with enthusiasm and wisdom, of igniting hope where the ashes have covered the embers of life, and of generating faith in the deserts of history.”[26]

The “village of education” is built when everyone learns to recognize and occupy his or her place, making available the talents they have been given. An ancient African legend tells us that, because of a fire that broke out in the forest, all the animals fled, except for a small hummingbird, which flew in the opposite direction with its beak full of water. A lion accosted it ironically: “Have you gone mad? You don’t think you can put out a gigantic fire with four drops of water?” The hummingbird replied: “I do my part.”[27]

The educational pact is a matter of life or death. For everyone. Making oneself available to do one’s part perhaps will not put out the great fire, but will offer a future, not only to those who come after, but first and foremost to oneself: the sense of solidarity and fraternity is the only effective antidote to loneliness and the evils life may bring.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 11 art. 7, 1120: 10.32009/22072446.1120.7

[1].       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRww7R9BL9E

[2].    The event was organized by the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican dicastery of reference for the 216,000 Catholic schools that are attended by over 60 million students, and 1,750 Catholic universities, with over 11 million students. More information on the website www.educationglobalcompact.org

[3].    Francis, Audience to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See for the presentation of greetings for the New Year, January 9, 2020. See also A. Spadaro, “Seven pillars of Education According to J. M. Bergoglio”, in Civ. Catt. En. Sept 2018, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-seven-pillars-of-education-according-to-j-m-bergoglio/

[4].    Cf. Italian Episcopal Conference, Educare alla vita buona del Vangelo. Orientamenti pastorali dell’Episcopato italiano per il decennio 2010-2020, October 4, 2010; G. Cucci, “Che cosa significa ‘educare’?”, in Civ. Catt. 2012 III 483-495.

[5].    “The so-called ‘educational pact’ has been broken; the educational pact that is created between the family, the school, the homeland and the world, culture and cultures […]. A broken educational pact means that society, the family, and the different institutions that are called to educate leave the decisive educational task to others, and so the different basic institutions and the states that have renounced the educational pact flee their responsibility” (Francis, Address to the participants of the Conference on “Education: the global compact”, February 7, 2020).

[6].    See www.istat.it/it/files//2020/02/Indicatori-demografici_2019.pdf

[7].    G. Meotti, “Culle vuote a occidente. La crisi di una civiltà che non genera più vita e va verso la sua consumazione”, in Il Foglio quotidiano, December 3, 2012; cf. G. Salvini, “L’Italia diventa più anziana”, in Civ. Catt. 2017 II 400-403.

[8].    “La May ha nominato un ministro per ‘battere la solitudine’”, in Il Giornale
(www.ilgiornale.it/news/mondo/gb-theresa-may-nomina-ministro-solitudine-1484127.html), January 17, 2018.

[9].    See World Health Organization, “Depression” (www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en), January 30, 2020. For more information, see G. Cucci, L’arte di vivere. Educare alla felicità, Milan, Àncora – La Civiltà Cattolica, 2019.

[10].   Francis, Speech to the participants of the Conference on “Education: the global compact”, op. cit.

[11].   G. Borradori, Conversazioni americane, Bari – Rome, Laterza, 1991, 171f.

[12].   Ibid., 172.

[13].   Cf. J. S. Hutton et al., “Parent-child reading increases activation of brain networks supporting emergent literacy in 3-5 years-old children: An fMRI study”, in Abstracts Pediatric Academic Societies’ Annual Meeting (2015) (www.
abstracts2view.com/pas/view.php?nu=PAS15L1_1355.8); L. Wehbe et al., “Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses”, in PLUS ONE (2014) 9 (11): e112575. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112575; “Lettura e attività cerebrale”, in Psicologia contemporanea, No. 251, 2015, 36f.

[14].   J. Ellul, Il sistema tecnico. La gabbia delle società contemporanee, Milan, Jaca Book, 2009, 206.

[15].   Francis, post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit (CV), March 25, 2019, No. 198.

[16].   C. M. Martini (ed.), Cattedra dei non credenti, Milan, Rusconi, 1992, 5f.

[17].   Francis, Message for the launch of the educational pact, September 12, 2019.

[18].   CV 193f.

[19].   P. Legrenzi, “Declinazioni della lentezza”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, September 14, 2014. Cf. L. Maffei, Elogio della lentezza, Bologna, il Mulino, 2014, 21-23; T. H. White, Re in eterno, Milan, Mondadori, 1989.

[20].   Francis, Speech to the participants of the Conference on “Education: the global compact”, op. cit.

[21].   Committee for the Cultural Project of the Italian Episcopal Conference (ed.), La sfida educativa. Rapporto-proposta sull’educazione, Rome – Bari, Laterza, 2009, 2010, XIV.

[22].   Francis, Message for the launch of the educational pact, op. cit.

[23].   Paul VI, apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, December 8, 1975, No. 20.

[24].   G. Canobbio, “Leggere per formarsi”, in La Rivista del Clero Italiano 96 (2015) 666.

[25].   S. J. Rossetti, “From Anger to Gratitude-Becoming a Eucharistic People: The Journey of Human Formation”, lecture given at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome on March 26, 2004, manuscript.

[26].   Francis, Address to the participants of the International Conference promoted by the Congregation for the Clergy, October 7, 2017.

[27].   See G. Ravasi, “Breviario”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, January 5, 2020.