Noght a word spake he moore than was neede,
And that was seyed in form and reverence,
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speech,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
--Prologue to the Tales of Canterbury, “The Clerk”
Geoffrey Chaucer, (ca. 1386, rendered in original middle English).
As Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Tales of Canterbury in the late 14th Century, he unwittingly chronicled an era that was about to vanish. The Tales are firmly set in Medieval England, as pilgrims travelled from London to Canterbury to visit the tomb of Archbishop St. Thomas Becket, who had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 A.D. after King Henry II had uttered the immortal words, “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The Tales are told by familiar Medieval figures, from the Knight, to the Prioress, to the Franklin, to the Maunciple, to the Pardoner. The occupations of many of the Tale’s story-tellers have receded into history, including the Knight himself, who Chaucer gave the honor of telling the first tale and whose values survive in our fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus.
When Chaucer wrote, Europe was in upheaval, both politically and religiously. Feudalism, the political organization of the Middle Ages, was crumbling, soon to be replaced by the modern nation state. The papal bull of 1302, Unam Sanctum, in which Pope Boniface VIII made the most extreme claim in Christian history for Church control over secular government, was a dead letter upon its issuance. For Philip the Fair, dedicated to creating a cohesive nation we now know as France, kidnaped Pope Boniface VIII shortly thereafter, forcing a 73-year sojourn of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon. During the Avignon Papacy, the Bubonic Plague struck from 1348-52, killing 25 million people in Europe. After the Papacy returned to Rome in 1378, the disastrous four-decade Great Western Schism soon occurred in which, at one point, three different men simultaneously claimed to be Pope and which was not resolved until the election of Pope Martin V during the Council of Constance in 1417, well after Chaucer’s death. Abuses in the Church abounded and the Protestant Reformation was but a century away. In short, when Chaucer wrote the Tales, Europe was experiencing its greatest instability since the invasion of the Vikings and Magyars had initiated the Dark Ages in the late 9th Century. Upheaval, instability and uncertainty: the late 14th Century during which Chaucer nostalgically wrote sounds much like early 21st Century western society, does it not?
Yet, the Tales also include a figure of utmost stability, seriousness and studiousness: the Clerk. In modern parlance, the Clerk would be a teacher or a professor. Note the characteristics which Chaucer attributes to the Clerk. Although the Host of the Tales, before allowing the Clerk to tell his story, warns him to say something interesting and not laboriously academic, the Prologue describes the Clerk as one who speaks seriously, with no wasted words. The Clerk’s words carry the ring of moral virtue. And, in the most commonly quoted words about the Clerk: “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Chaucer’s Clerk, now called a teacher, was committed both to acquiring and transmitting knowledge, leavened by moral virtue. He did so at a time of unremitting political, social and religious change.
We focus this month on that portion of Chaucer’s Prologue concerning the Clerk because late January marks Catholic Schools Week. In our own era of violence, unrest and unease, let us reflect upon the role of Catholic education and the roll that teachers play in providing quality Catholic education in a time of change.
Why does the Roman Catholic Church operate schools at all? Surely, the Church has no interest, consistent with its mission, of operating schools at considerable cost simply to compete with the United States’ system of public education. Nor does the Roman Catholic Church have an institutional interest in operating schools, such as our St. Sebastian day school, simply to help stabilize homeowner property values in a neighborhood, although that effect is a welcome by-product of the existence of St. Sebastian School.
No, the raison d’etre for Catholic schools runs deeper. If the Church is to operate schools, those institutions must provide our children with something that the public school system cannot provide. That “something” is well-articulated in terms of iconography: Catholic schools provide our children with a window to Jesus Christ himself.
Several years ago, Father Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, was beatified in France. Blessed Basil Moreau was first and foremost an educator of young people. He said some things that we ought to remember about the real reason for providing Catholic education to our children. For example, “if there ever existed a time when [Catholic] education should be an influence in the lives of young people, it is certainly now—a time when worldly and unchristian values seem to produce such confusion for the young.” Fr. Moreau uttered those words in 1856. Obviously, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
At the heart of his message, Fr. Moreau also said: “true education consists in forming the hearts of young people. Knowledge and scholarship have meaning only when placed in a context of values.” For Fr. Moreau, as for Chaucer’s Clerk, the best education in the secular disciplines is useless unless the whole person is formed both in mind and in spirit.
Human knowledge, by itself, is indifferent. With a map of the human genome, one can advance towards curing illness and disease—or one can engage in human cloning. With knowledge of advanced physics, one can build a nuclear power plant to supply needed electricity to millions of people—or one can build a thermonuclear bomb capable of destroying all life on the planet.
Knowledge, therefore, is not the question. The issue, rather, is what ought we to do with the knowledge we acquire? That question can only be answered, for Christians, by internalizing theology, moral principles and the person of Jesus Christ. Fr. Moreau was correct: the teaching of knowledge and Christianity must be inextricably linked. In Fr. Moreau’s words, “while we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.”
That is why the Roman Catholic Church operates schools. Although pursuing excellence in academics and extracurricular activities is a good thing, it is not good enough. We have a deeper vocation. As parents, we have a God-given responsibility to instill the faith and its values in our children. They will not hear that message from secular society. Catholic schools, like St. Sebastian School, exist to help parents discharge their obligation to raise their children in the faith.
Our present-day teachers, principals and aides, like Chaucer’s reliable Clerk of old, whether they teach English or mathematics, social studies or science, physical education or religion, are blessed and charged with the duty of helping our children to internalize the Gospel so that it informs their minds, touches their hearts and penetrates to the marrow of their bones. Christian concepts of faith and virtue must attend the teaching of human knowledge. A principal, teacher or aide at St. Sebastian School does nothing less than help you, as parents, bring your children closer to Jesus Christ. And so, next time you see the principal, or a teacher or an aide, take a moment to thank them for helping you to fulfill the most serious obligation which you face: teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to your own children.
Bernard A. Smith
January 15, 2012