“Formation, Freedom, and Family”: An Interview with Fr. Joe Evans (Part I)
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 I of our recent interview with Fr Evans, he answers questions about his background and work, St Josemaria Escriva, and the role of parents in education today.
Q: When and how did you become involved in the field of education?
Fr. Joe: I began teaching catechism to younger children when I was 14 and then when I was 17 I helped do the same in a Catholic project promoted by a priest in a rough part of London, Brixton. People in England will know about Brixton and its bad reputation, at least until recently. I would say, however, that my real inspiration was my mother who had been a teacher all her life, including some amazing years in Nigeria teaching girls in the Muslim north of this country. She had a passion for education and something of this has rubbed onto me. Having said that, although I have been involved in education in many ways as catechist, youth worker, student leader and chaplain, I have never actually been a teacher. Education is more than formal teaching, something which St Josemaria Escriva and, I would add as an Englishman, Blessed John Henry Newman, both understood very well.
Q: In your article, you explain the “coordinates” of St Josemaria Escriva’s vision of education: formation, freedom, and family. How do those coordinates manifest themselves in your approach to teaching and spiritual direction?
Fr. Joe: I see the first two of these coordinates as being very closely linked. As St Josemaria insisted, and I quote him in my article on this, the great enemy of faith is ignorance. Ignorance gives birth to a whole series of “illegitimate” children particularly indifference and fanaticism. Faith transcends reason but a faith without reason is very harmful or soon ceases to be faith. People need formation, instruction, to know clearly both what they believe and why. Faith is a leap into the dark, not into the absurd. As Pope Francis explains so beautifully in his recent encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), faith is our rock but in a sense faith itself stands on the rock of reason: true faith is logical, it makes sense, it is above and beyond reason but not against it. “Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing,” the Holy Father writes. Good formation, with a sufficiently good understanding of Catholicism to both explain and defend its tenets, helps us stand firm in our beliefs, on solid rock so to speak to make that leap of faith. Ignorance or a superficial, sentimental belief are quicksand and you cannot leap from quicksand.
And this is where freedom comes in, the willing choice to make that leap. True faith cannot be imposed. It must be chosen freely. The job of spiritual direction, as St Josemaria used to say, is “hacer que el alma quiera”, to lead the soul to want to. And good formation supports this. The more someone has reasons why, the more he or she can choose to act – and to love, which is what Christian life is all about: loving Christ.
Regarding the family, I will simply say that I easily spot when someone comes from a good family. I spoke above of good formation as firm rock but I should have mentioned a solid family background too. So, family and formation constitute the firm rock on which a soul can choose freely to make the leap of faith and love towards God. Naturally, following the same metaphor, a lack of secure family life only adds to the emotional and spiritual quicksand which many people find themselves in. Christ can redeem this but, to put it humanly, He has to work harder to do so – and so must the spiritual director in His service!
Q: Why is a discussion about St Josemaria’s vision of education so relevant right now, particularly as we continue to confront the battles for religious liberty and education in our world?
Fr. Joe: I can only really judge from my experience in Great Britain, though I do hear from different people about the situation in other countries. Although in Britain there is a great respect for freedom, a wrong understanding of this freedom is paradoxically ever more eroding true religious and civic liberty. In the name of respecting people’s “rights”, the rights of others are denied. A good example of this is the whole question of “gay rights”. On the basis of the supposed “right” to follow this lifestyle choice, the right of people to question this is increasingly under threat.
It is essential to educate people in true liberty and to teach them what true liberty is. In fact, this is becoming more and more difficult in Britain because people have ever more confused ideas about freedom. By and large young people in State and most non-Catholic schools are being taught that freedom is to do whatever you like as long as it doesn’t obviously harm others. There is no connection made between freedom and truth, the true nature of the person. If you do not know what the person is, you cannot understand what that person’s freedom is, because freedom is to be truly and authentically human, oneself, to be what you were made to be. Only the Catholic Church really sees this clearly and in that sense only the Catholic Church can really offer an authentic education in freedom. It goes without saying that Catholic schools have to be faithful to this vision. Alas, this is not always the case, so there is “work in progress” even in Catholic education.
St Josemaria offers a beautiful vision of education because he saw it as helping people to achieve their authentic humanity by learning to make the right use of their freedom. This sounds a bit abstract but it is also very practical and nitty-gritty: for example, we have to fight hard against those negative things in ourselves and in society which stop us being ourselves, seeking help if required, and it usually is. Thus, as a very concrete example, the growing tendency today among many men in particular to access computer pornography and violence is hindering their authentic humanity and destroying their freedom as it weakens their will and cuts them off from real life. Education thus involves forming people to learn how to say “no” to such things so they can say “yes” to life’s great challenges and values. For St Josemaria, education very much included teaching people that necessary interior struggle to rise above what holds them down in order to strive for their full potential. This is not the sort of vision of education one will find in contemporary educational theories which either encourage simply accepting everything one discovers in oneself, including giving into one’s base instincts, or which denies the very notion of “virtue education”: nobody, this vision claims, has the right to impose a series of values on another. The young person must simply be left to discover them him or herself. This is naïve in the extreme as people find it very hard to discover and live good values unless they are guided towards them.
Q: As you explain, freedom is essential to the “parent’s right and mission to educate their children—the school should be an extension of their home and should not teach anything that goes against the faith they try to inculcate in their children.” What can parents do if that freedom is threatened and the environment in their children’s school is radically different from what they are taught at home?
Fr. Joe: It is essential that parents speak out, loud and clear. This is normally best achieved by mobilizing other parents to speak together so that they are not lone voices. I remember a case some years ago when in a Catholic school – it is very sad to have to say this especially as this is by no means an isolated case from the past – girls were being taught how to use contraceptives. A good father heard about this and was rightly horrified and brought the matter to public attention. Even more concerning is the sex education given in State schools which, as I say in my article, is often more education in sexual immorality. Parents – Catholics and otherwise – have to unite to speak out to say this is not on and they will not accept it. Having done this, parents then need to accept the responsibility and have the courage to give this education to their children themselves. The State sometimes encroaches into parental territory not out of a positive desire to take over but because parents somehow allow and want it to, thereby abdicating their own role.
Q: Many parents today admit that they often don’t feel they have the necessary formation to properly instruct their children in the faith or to instruct them in the virtues, like temperance, patience chastity, and truthfulness. What do you recommend to parents who feel challenged in this way?
Fr. Joe: I would say first of all that a parent who is ready to admit that he or she feels unable to instruct the children in “virtues, like temperance, patience chastity, and truthfulness” has begun well. At least he or she knows what these virtues are and is aware of his or her own lack in these areas. So many people today simply don’t know what virtue is – the concept of virtue and virtuous living is not on their “radar”. So, I would say to parents: if you feel challenged in this area, well done! You’ve started well. Keep on struggling! Your own struggle to live these virtues well is the most important thing. Keep trying to grow in your own formation, both in terms of knowledge of the faith and then in its application in your daily life. For this latter, personal spiritual direction will be of great help to you. And finally, don’t be afraid to challenge and make demands on your children, but based on your own personal struggle, which doesn’t necessarily have to mean always your own personal success. A sick doctor can heal patients. A possible rule of thumb to help you could be: for every three personal struggles to grow in virtue yourself, make one demand on a child. For example, once you have struggled three times not to be lazy yourself, encourage and urge your child once to fight the same vice.
Q: Along similar lines, a sore point for many parents today is the amount of time they have to dedicate each evening helping their children with their homework. If an hour study is an hour of prayer, as St Josemaria taught, can parents also transform those hours into prayer? What other benefits can they draw from those daily challenges?
Fr. Joe: This hour of your child’s study turned into prayer can most certainly be an hour of study and prayer for you too. And if the child is showing reluctance to study it can be an hour of penance for you as well! Of course, this doesn’t dispense you from living those times of prayer which you have committed yourself to each day. It is precisely these appointments with Christ which enable you to convert your other activities into prayer. There are so many virtues you can acquire by dedicating time to your children: patience, leadership and motivational skills, fortitude, gentleness, and so on. The effort to help your children grow in virtue will lead you to grow in virtue too. And the more you try to grow in virtue yourself the more your children will be inspired to imitate your example. It is a virtuous circle, and it goes back to my answer to the first question. If I am giving these answers to questions about education, it is because I have been inspired by the example of my mother. Parental example inspires more than anything else.
The Educational Vision of St Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei | Download PDF