By Fr. Simon Henry
Fr. Simon Henry is Parish Priest at the Church of St. Catherine Labouré in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. Ordained in 1991, he blogs on mostly liturgical issues at offerimus tibi domine. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Theology from Durham University and a master’s degree in Pastoral Liturgy from Heythrop College, University of London. He is the Director of the Petrus Trust, a not-for-profit company that runs Saint Peter’s.
“If young people are educated properly, we have moral order; if not, vice and disorder prevail. Religion alone can initiate and achieve a true education.”
St. John Bosco’s understanding of Catholic education seems far from the prevailing view in any western school today. Sadly, this same observation applies equally to the vast majority of schools that proclaim the name “Catholic” on the sign at the gate.
To use my own local experience as a template that finds an echo in most western nations: The United Kingdom is often held up as a great exemplar of Catholic education, in that there are Catholic schools in every town, attached and associated with every Catholic parish. Yet the truth is that while this proclaimed Catholicity was a truth in times gone by, it is now an embarrassing and rather thin veneer over schools that have failed to teach the Faith and are so far away from Don Bosco’s vision that they seldom bare any distinction from their secular neighbors. Ask most parish priests on the ground and nearly all admit that the Catholic school as we have it is a lost cause—a whitened sepulchre that says “Catholic” on the outside but is empty of the Faith within. The name given to this philosophy of a Catholic fig leaf is that a school has a “Catholic ethos.”
Again, using Great Britain as a paradigm that I’m most familiar with, even the great private schools set up by the Religious Orders, such as the Benedictines and the Jesuits, have given in to the pressure to cut back on religion in the pursuit of attracting pupil numbers and have caved in to the liberal secular agenda.
It was in this alarming background that two priests and a Deputy Principal made the bold decision to set up a new international English-speaking Catholic school in the picturesque village of Saint-Pierre-de-Maillé in the Vienne region in the heart of France. Little did we know as we started out that we would have to fight not only the challenges of raising funds and of active rancor from some parts of the establishment as well as the bureaucratic mountain but also the shutdown and malaise of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, last autumn, Saint Peter’s International College opened its doors to the first group of young men whose families were looking for a more rigorous Catholic Education.
Faith is present in all aspects of College life as we guide pupils to critical thinking; we strive toward each pupil growing in confidence to set the world alight by their zeal for Christ. We are formed, just as in a family, by good example, regular practice, and open hearts. By establishing Faith and prayer as ordinary aspects of our daily life, we seek to cultivate values of compassion and faithfulness, challenging our pupils to respond positively to whatever God calls them to be. The primary mission of Saint Peter’s is to allow students to “encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (Pope Benedict XVI). Our Catholic Faith permeates our common life. Pupils and staff pray, work, and eat together. We recognize that our pupils will be formed by both the lived example of their peers as well as the best approach in the classroom.
The rhythm of each day is defined by the liturgy; we do not simply pay lip service to a “Catholic ethos.” The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, enriched by Gregorian chant, is the source and summit of our life each and every day. Within the timetable, we provide opportunities for private prayer, daily Rosary, Confession, Adoration, and Benediction.
The school teaches in English and the boys (aged 11-18) sit for British exams. We began with pupils from Canada, the U.K., Spain, France, and Germany, and we welcome boys from anywhere, including the U.S.
We have begun with just under twenty boys and have been blessed with both investors and donors from France, Germany, the U.K., Spain, and the U.S. The financial burden is still a challenge in this first year, but we continue to seek new investors and donors for this venture of ensuring that the young men who will be tomorrow’s leaders in industry and politics carry the Catholic Faith into the world. In this we seek to form our young men to follow the injunction of the Decree on the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 18th 1965: “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” (Chapter 2, #7). In the battle for Christian culture, those who live and work in the midst of the world need to be well prepared—a preparation that Catholic schools often seem to have failed to take seriously.
That there is need for a renewed vision in Catholic academic circles—from school to university level—can surely not be challenged. The increasing number of parents who choose to homeschool gives witness to this. Thus, our aim is not merely to prepare our pupils for a job or drill them in examination skills. Nevertheless, we recognize the need for formal accreditation for when our pupils leave us and embark on the next chapter of their learning. It is this stage that is often a challenge for those who have been homeschooled. As such, Saint Peter’s offers a bespoke Classical Curriculum that fosters a love of learning and an ability to think, with a provision for our pupils to excel in public examinations. We do this by teaching our bespoke Classical Curriculum alongside core GCSE’s and selected A-Levels from the Cambridge Exam Board.
We have begun in our own small way to join this battle to reclaim our culture for Christ and we believe we have been much blessed by providential grace. The school has been created in buildings originally built as a convent in 1807 by St. André-Hubert Fournet, who along with St. Jeanne-Élisabeth Bichier des Âges founded the Daughters of the Cross.
St. André-Hubert Fournet would often reassure the Sisters by saying, “Courage, we work for Heaven!” This is surely a message that must underpin any education worthy of the name Catholic.