“Formation, Freedom, and Family”: An Interview with Fr. Joe Evans (Part II)
Based in London, Father Joe Evans has been working with young people and university students for over 20 years. Father Evans is Catholic chaplain to King’s College London and the Institute of Education, both part of the University of London. He helped found “Reach Out!” a mentoring project for children in disadvantaged urban areas. From 2002-2012 he was resident chaplain of Netherhall House, a residence for university students promoted by Opus Dei.
In 2012, Father Evans’ article The Educational Vision of St Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei was published by the academic journal International Studies in Catholic Education. The article explains how “for Saint Josemaria, education is to help people relate to God, the world and others” and introduces us to a vision for education founded on formation, freedom, and family.
In Part II of our interview with Fr. Evans, he answers questions about St Josemaria Escriva and education and about the spiritual lives of students today.
Q: You state in the article that people may find it shocking that “for St Josemaria, in any school following the spirit of Opus Dei, first come the parents, then the teachers, and only in third place the students.” Do you believe it could be shocking because so much emphasis today is placed on the student and their personal success? Why could that be a detriment to young people?
Fr. Joe: In the past there was an excessively strict attitude concerning the education of children but now children are idealized. We seem to have gone from one extreme to the other. One possible reason for this in some cultures could be the low birthrate. As parents have so few children, the one or two children they have are almost worshipped. This might in part explain the “Tiger parent” phenomenon seen in some cultures. If you only have one child, that child’s success becomes an obsession and too much expectation, and therefore demands, are placed on his or her shoulders. So, simply having more children would help parents acquire a bit more balance in the education of their children.
But the error is also linked to what I said above about the wrong idea of freedom and of the person. We live in a highly individualistic society. It affects us all. It certainly affects me! So, success is seen as personal glory, rather than contributing to the wellbeing of others. That’s why such incredibly important and valuable vocations as motherhood, work in the home, priesthood and the like are looked down on. These vocations are all about renouncing personal glory for the flourishing of others. True education should teach people what authentic success is. It is not necessarily human glory. It can also be finding fulfillment in the humble service of others.
Q: St Josemaria never established any schools, but he was responsible for promoting and encouraging the establishment of many schools around the world. What most inspired St Josemaria’s vision on parenting, family, and education?
Fr. Joe: I explain this with some detail in my article, so here I will simply say that it all came from his deep love for God and, as a consequence of this, his deep love for human beings. He wanted people to thrive, to find fulfillment in God, because he understood that we most fulfill ourselves by opening ourselves to God. St Josemaria had a fundamentally positive vision of Christian life. It was all about finding joy in God, even though life can be hard. Indeed, he would say that joy has its roots in the Cross. He wanted people to know about God’s love manifested in His wonderful works in creation and history. Education is a great means to discover this. It goes without saying that for Escriva all subjects had their value and he was the first to encourage an authentically Catholic education “across the curriculum”, to use the current buzz phrase. Biology and physics also tell us so much about God’s genius and love in creation, and secular history can also reveal His providential guidance of humanity. He saw the family as the best structure in which people can most flourish, not surprisingly because the family is a mirror of the Trinity’s own life, which is God’s own inner “flourishing”. Hence, parents must see this as their role: to help the children entrusted to them, and of course their spouse, to flourish, to create an environment in which their family members can flourish by opening themselves to God, each other, and people outside the family, in particular the poor.
Q: Based on your experience with young people and university students, what characteristics of the spirit of St Josemaria are most attractive or appealing to them? What challenges them the most?
Fr. Joe: Young people are very attracted by St Josemaria’s joy and particularly by his good sense of humour. This comes across in some of the filmed get-togethers with him. It is wonderful to see a saint making people laugh so much. But they also find it very encouraging to learn that all their noble human ambitions, including for example success in their studies and career or finding the right spouse, can also be part of God’s plan for them. Then the idea that they can sanctify, make holy, their study helps them a lot given that this is such a major part of their lives. On the other side of the coin, they can find St Josemaria’s insistence that they have to study (!) very demanding. Likewise, the very practical spiritual life he taught, including making a timetable and trying to do things – for example moments of prayer – at fixed times both appeals to young people and challenges them. The idea of getting up at a certain time and therefore of going to bed at a reasonable time can be very difficult for them, although once they struggle to do this, they find it very helpful.
Young people are not naturally ordered and tend to spontaneity. This is very good but they can find discipline and regularity hard to grasp. I try to explain to youngsters that while love certainly involves a lot of spontaneity, it also involves a lot of discipline. I often give as an example a young fellow who lived with me in Netherhall. Every single night, whatever he was doing, he would stop to go to ring his girlfriend (who was in another country) at 10pm, because that was the time they had agreed to speak. His love was shown by his commitment to keeping that appointment. As men we teased him a little bit for this but deep down we admired him a lot because we knew how much he loved his girlfriend and how much his commitment to the daily phone-call showed this. Not surprisingly the two are now very happily married.
Q: You explain that, “St Josemaria was very concerned to help young people make good use of their leisure time and to make formation fun and fun formative.” On a practical level, what are three things that every student can do each day to make better use of their time and to help their spiritual and personal formation?
Fr. Joe: I have partly answered this above. The effort to have a timetable, getting up and going to bed at a fixed time, is fundamental, even if the struggle to live this is accompanied by many failures. So, first of all, a timetable, including time for work, prayer and leisure. It is important to enjoy life and do non-work-related things. I am very grateful to my father for the love of sport he inculcated in me. As a young Brit, I spent many hours of my youth playing rugby, cricket and football, and I think this did me a lot of good. But I did my homework first, and, helped by Opus Dei, I learnt to find time for prayer, which has always helped me so much but was particularly crucial in my formative years. And then, seek help from spiritual direction. Finally, don’t get discouraged when you fail, and you will fail often. Begin again and again, helped by the Sacrament of Confession whenever necessary. This was another idea of St Josemaria which young people, and all of us, can find very attractive and helpful. As he would often say, the saints were not people who never fell, but ones who always got up after each fall. So, to summarise my answer, the three things I would recommend to young people are the effort to make and live a basic timetable, receive spiritual guidance, and always begin again after every fall, without getting discouraged.
Q: Spiritual direction can be a helpful and important part of the formation of young people. What does spiritual direction entail? When and how does a student begin going to spiritual direction?
Fr. Joe: Spiritual direction is seeking the advice and guidance of someone with more experience than you in the Christian life, someone who has the necessary formation and experience to help you. It does not necessarily have to be a lot more experience but as long as that person has a good knowledge of Catholic teaching, tries him or herself to live an authentic Christian life, and shows some human understanding and warmth, that person can guide you. Very often that person will be a priest but not always. He (for men) or she (for women) could be a lay person who is him or herself a person of prayer with good Christian formation.
A key aspect of spiritual direction is sincerity. You have to lay bare your soul to that person, open it up to him or her as you would to Jesus Christ Himself. That includes talking about embarrassing things – our stupidity and failures too, also in the area of sexuality. But it’s not just therapy. It is all about seeking to have a living relationship with Christ. Hence, one should talk about prayer and love for the Sacraments, how to offer one’s work to God, how to grow in those virtues which make us the person Jesus wants us to be (charity, humility, poverty, etc), how devotion to Mary can bring us to her Son, and also how to share our faith with other people in order to bring them closer to God. Naturally the question of vocation will also come up: we all have a vocation from God, be it to marriage or to some form of celibacy, and spiritual direction will help us to discover it.
When does a student begin spiritual direction? Whenever he or she wants to. How? By praying about who might be a good guide and then asking the person you think is the right choice. If that person says no (it can happen occasionally, perhaps for good reasons), keep on praying and searching until you find the right person to guide you. The Holy Spirit will lead you to the right guide if you ask Him.
The Educational Vision of St Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei | Download PDF