Christians are Made, not Born: How Catholic Graduate Theological Education Serves Evangelization - Saint John's Seminary
Celebrating 140 Years of Mission!  

Christians are Made, not Born: How Catholic Graduate Theological Education Serves Evangelization

November 8, 2022

By: Dr. Anthony Coleman
Director of MAM/MTS Degree Programs
Saint John’s Seminary

I’m currently in my eleventh year of serving, in some capacity, Catholic graduate theological education. People will therefore, on occasion, ask me what the relationship is between this education and the Church’s missionary and evangelization efforts. It’s a great question, because while the two categories are related, they are not the same. The end of Catholic theological education as such is to come to know God, the end of evangelization is to live out the Christian experience in communion with others; especially liturgically. Catholic theological education need not have this further end in mind. It could simply have as its goal the increased knowledge of God in the mind of the student. But when Catholic graduate theological education does have the further goal of living a Christian life – and again, with the particular understanding that this life is by nature ecclesial – then it does serve evangelization. And when Catholic graduate theological education has as its goal the preparation of the student to serve the People of God in a particular apostolate, then it then it does serve the Church’s ministry efforts.

How does Catholic graduate theological education serve evangelization?

Given, therefore, that a Catholic graduate theological institution has these further ends in mind, i.e., those of evangelization and ministry, how might it differ from an education that does not? On this point the magisterium of the Church has provided some guidance in her adoption of a particular idiom to describe an education with evangelistic and ministerial ends. Specifically, the language of formation rather than simply education.

While I don’t want to parse this language with too much scrutiny, the Church’s use of the word formation emphasizes an education of the whole person in its human, spiritual, intellectual, and vocational dimensions. Especially in relation to those preparing for ordained ministry in the Church, the magisterial documents clearly indicate the need for formation of the whole person, and not simply education of the intellectual dimension.

Now, this is not to diminish the importance of intellectual formation in any way. In fact, the intellectual dimension is precisely what education and formation have in common, and is of the utmost importance. Writing about the importance of intellectual formation in relation to candidates for the priesthood, in particular, Pope St. John Paul II stated:

The present situation is heavily marked by religious indifference, by a widespread mistrust regarding the real capacity of reason to reach objective and universal truth [ex tempore], and by fresh problems and questions brought up by scientific and technological discoveries. It [i.e., priestly formation] strongly demands a high level of intellectual formation, such as will enable priests to proclaim, in a context like this, the changeless Gospel of Christ and to make it credible to the legitimate demands of human reason. Moreover, there is the present phenomenon of pluralism, which is very marked in the field not only of human society but also of the community of the Church herself. It demands special attention to critical discernment: It is a further reason showing the need for an extremely rigorous intellectual formation (Pastores Dabo Vobis 51) [emphasis added].

But beyond the intellectual dimension, true formation – as mentioned above – also has a deep concern for the development of the human, spiritual, and vocational dimensions of the human person as well. And here we’re finally getting at an answer to the question as stated above, namely: How does Catholic graduate theological education serve evangelization? Firstly, I would say – and accordance with several magisterial texts on the topic – that this education has to be formation. It has to involve all of the dimensions of the human person we’ve just mentioned in addition to the intellectual. In short, it ought to be integrated.

Again, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II: the aim of formation “must be that of promoting a general and integral process of constant growth, deepening each of the aspects of formation human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral - as well as ensuring their active and harmonious integration, based on pastoral charity and in reference to it” (Pastores Dabo Vobis 71). While the former Holy Father’s words pertain directly to the formation of those preparing for an ordained ministry in the Church, I would argue that these dimensions of formation, in fact, pertain to every Christian, to the Christian vocation, as it were, since all of the baptized are called to be evangelizers. As the great Latin theologian, Tertullian, once wrote: Fiunt, non nascuntur Christiani, i.e., “Christians are made, not born” (Apologeticum 15.4).

Secondly, it ought to always be remembered that Catholic graduate theological education is mystagogical. In other words, even in its intellectual dimension alone, because this formation is theological, it’s goal is to draw the student closer to and deeper into the mystery of our triune God. It is not the mere accumulation of facts. As a former professor of mine was fond of saying: “theology is about transformation, not information.” Even, and perhaps especially, in its dogmatic formulations, Catholic theology serves as a guide, a kind of Virgil, for the student in order to enable him or her to pursue the truth about God.

As Flannery O’Connor wrote in her personal correspondence: “Dogma is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom” And elsewhere: “dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind” (F. O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 365, 92). But just as Virgil, at a certain point in the pilgrim Dante’s ascent up Mt. Purgatory, must give way to a better guide, so too must study and diligence – which are a sine quo non for theological study – give way to grace. For the one who has the deepest and most profound knowledge of God need not possess the keenest or sharpest intellect, but will be endowed with the grace to know God; a grace which works upon the intellect and is given by God in order to know Him. So, secondly: remember, theology is mystagogical.

Lastly, and now that I’ve given one response that is formational, if you will, and another that is mystagogical, I will end with one more practical. Catholic graduate theological education serves the Church's evangelization efforts by “discern[ing] what is best” (Phil 1:10). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in an address to the Catholic University of America in 2008, described clearly and succinctly the process by which Catholic educational institutions can draw those within them closer to Christ and his Church. “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4). This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of our Lord’s disciples, the Church.”

With Pope Benedict’s words in mind, Catholic educational institutions, and in particular by virtue of their specific missions, Catholic graduate theological institutions, ought to continuously explore, examine, and discern the most effective means of communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ; both to those already within their fold and in order to attract others into this dynamic process of encounter.

Making use of the tools of modern communication in order to evangelize and serve the people of God was already noted at the Second Vatican Council and has been repeated frequently since. To give just one example, Pope St. Paul VI, in Evangelii Nuntiandi, wrote that “our century is characterized by the mass media or means of social communication, and the first proclamation, catechesis or the further deepening of faith cannot do without these means” (EN 45). By extension, I would argue to include pedagogical tools and technological platforms now available to educational institutions in what Pope St. Paul VI refers to as “means of social communication,” and likewise argue that Catholic theological graduate education “cannot do without these means.” Indeed, the former Holy Father continues that “the Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means that human skill is daily rendering more perfect.” Catholic theological education, therefore, needs to “discern what is best” from among the vast array of media that are available in graduate education in order to proclaim Christ’s Good News and to foster an encounter with the Risen Lord.

In brief, Catholic graduate theological education serves evangelization when it is integrated, mystagogical, and when it fosters an encounter with the Lord using effective means. I am reminded here of the famous passage at the end of the Gospel according to St. Luke, the Road to Emmaus. In this passage, the Risen Jesus appears to two of his disciples on their way to the village of Emmaus. Unrecognized, he “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). Jesus instructs them, but he doesn’t simply instruct them. Though their “hearts were burn[ing]” (24: 32) while Jesus spoke, it was not until he “took bread and blessed and broke it” (24:30) that the disciples recognized the Risen Lord. Similarly, at its best, Catholic graduate theological education is journeying with the Lord. It is walking with him as he instructs us, and brings us into communion with each other through himself. If it does this, Catholic graduate theological education is also most certainly evangelization.

“The Road to Emmaus,” by Robert Zund. 1877. Public Domain.