Living the Calasanctian Spirituality in the Cultural Context of Europe

2014. július 23.

We, Piarists, are called by the cultural context of Europe to a fourfold adventure: to be experts in being human, in being non-violent, in living and working together in community, in rediscovering the sacred in our everyday reality. They are not four tasks. It is a fourfold task.

This is what I wanted to say at the Congreso Internacional de Espiritualidad Calasancia held in Bogotá in April this year.

Dedicated to Jaume Pallarolas and Javier Negro, Piarists in Europe


0.    Introduction

I am deeply privileged to have been asked to represent here my Piarist brothers in Europe. I must tell you I am perfectly aware of the immensity – or I should say impossibility – of this task, but it was precisely this that helped me say yes to it.

When talking about Europe, as I will be immediately, one can refer to it as a geographical entity, but also as a cultural one. I would like to take it as a specific cultural formation, which in this respect is coextensive with what scholars, like the French academic Philippe Nemo[i], call the West.

Piarists in Europe live in the cultural context of the West. It is this context that I want to take as my frame of reference.

Of course, it is not always with this intellectual sophistication that those who live in Europe look at themselves or at those around them. Yanko Tsvetkov, a Bulgarian journalist, published a book called Atlas of Prejudice where he shows some of the prejudices that we, Europeans, have when thinking about ourselves and our fellow Europeans. In one of these maps he shows 20 ways to slice this continent apart (here: It is not only funny but also very instructive to study these prejudices.

One thing that struck me when I first saw this map was how deeply divided we can be when thinking about Europe. We think in “us and them” terms. It is not that always we are the good, the normal, and they are the strange, the fools. Sometimes it is the other way round. What is remarkable for me is simply the presence of the divisions. Europe, European culture, Western culture is marked by divisions, tensions, and ruptures.



1.    Set upon ruptures


1.1.           “et”

As Piarists we are especially aware of the ruptures that are there in our cultural as well as social contexts. In my opinion this is because we were founded upon one very basic rupture of the Western cultural context.

Today the theology of religious life likes to speak about religious persons being placed at the frontline. I think our motto, Pietas et litterae puts us not simply at the frontline but rather on the dividing line. It is a different image which is evoked here. Frontline would suggest that we are to fight for the advance or perhaps for the protection of something which is at our back. Dwelling on the dividing line however evokes the image of a bridge or a passage, the image of something whose function it is not to fight but rather to associate, not to conquer but to connect two different worlds, and to establish bonds between them. This image suggests the necessity of being on the dividing line between two worlds, or two perceptions of reality, which are equally important to be upheld.

The Hungarian Piarist Antal Schütz used to say that the Catholic conjunction is this: “not only, but also”. I think it is a Piarist way of defining what Catholicism is about. I also recall a sermon in Szeged some twenty years ago by our then father General Josep Maria Balcells talking about the importance of the et in our motto. It was in a way the most important word of the three…

When we mention Pietas et litterae we, without doubt, talk about our special perception of reality and our deepest desires stemming from this perception. When we say Pietas et litterae we declare that reality as we perceive it is manifold. We declare that reality cannot be grasped from one point of view. Truth and true statements need several and different points of view, however exclusive they may appear at first sight. Truth is polyphonic. Truth is multi-coloured. Truth cannot be traced back to one source or one authority.

That’s why I agree with those of my European Piarist brothers who like to emphasize  that Calasanz also spoke about Spiritus et litterae, not only Pietas et litterae. It may be a specific problem of those who speak Latin languages, because they do not have the freedom of defining the content of the word Pietas by translating it into something other than the attractive loan-word piedad. But the problem of how to translate Pietas also exists in other languages.

Is it simply piety? Is it devotion? Does it refer to religious practices, and a certain religious attitude? Is it religious observances that it means?


1.2.           Rich and poor, old and new

When Calasanz founded the Pious Schools, he was aware that children needed more than just the specific inner-ecclesial culture. They needed the emerging secular culture as well. And so the schools he initiated were as it were placed at the borderline, or upon the borderline, of these two cultures. The institution’s very name, Scuole Pie, or Pious Schools, already carried in itself the same tension that was later expressed in the motto Pietas et litterae.

Originally pious may have meant to refer chiefly to the school being free of charge. But as Ernesto Balducci never failed to point out in his remarkable studies, the fact that children from poor families were given access to the cultural goods that beforehand only the upper classes could get hold of was in itself a revolutionary act. Balducci talks about the spontaneous character of Calasanz’s school (“scuola spontaneistica”), where this spontaneity means independence of and freedom from the established system[ii]. But it is also clear that Calasanz wanted his students from poor families to be immersed in both religious and secular or human studies.

From this original double tension we traditionally seem to have omitted the first part, that is the tension created by Calasanz’s school within the church. We traditionally mention only the second part, which is why sometimes we translate the motto Pietas et litterae  as Faith and Science, or Piety and Letters. We have to be aware, however, of the tension that Balducci wanted to draw our attention to.

Today we all have heard about Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan girl, who was shot by a member of the Taliban for fighting for the possibility of education for girls. This is how Malala explains she believes the Talib’s motives were for trying to murder her.

“When we were stopped from going to school, at that time I realized that education is very important, and education is the power for women. And that’s why the terrorists are afraid of education. They don’t want women to get education, because then women would become more powerful.”[iii]

It was the same situation in our church at the time of Calasanz, and the same kind of reaction on the part of those holding power at that time.

The poor, or more generally those excluded from power in a society or in a given social and cultural framework, present a threat to the existing system, and at the same time reveal the inherent injustices of that system. To give power to the poor is always disruptive, because it means giving voice to a radically different point of view. The presence of the poor calls for transformation and conversion. Calasanz was aware of it, and I think that his insistence on the priority that poor students should always have in his institution, came from this conviction.

So that’s why I call it a double tension that our community was founded upon. On the hand, and at a more easily addressable level, we can speak about the tension between faith and science, that is the tension between two ways of accessing reality: a religious way, and a more analytic, perhaps more rational way. And on the other hand we have a tension existing at a deeper level  than the first one. This tension could seem as if it, too, were extraneous to the church. As if it had been created by the presence of another, a secular culture. But, in my opinion, this is not the case.

What it reveals perhaps is that the Gospel remains always free from any culture that gives it forms into which it is to be incarnated. The encounter with the Gospel creates a radical tension within any culture or system, and proves it to be old and out-dated, closed and unjust. I would like to speak a little bit more about this tension.


1.3.           Faith and culture, faith and life

I have just mentioned that traditionally we like translating Pietas et litterae as Faith and Science. And when doing so we want to emphasize the importance of complementary ways of approaching reality.

It is quite interesting, while also heart-breaking, to see in academic circles today how representatives of humanities have to fight for sufficient funding for their departments. In the utilitarian perspective characteristic of today’s decision-makers, the humanities are of too little benefit to the world. Listening to the arguments of the representatives of humanities, however, can make us Piarists feel a little relieved. We are not alone in defending the validity of approaches to reality other than the scientific ones. The arguments that we would like to bring for justifying the necessity of faith beside science are little or no different from the arguments that, say, Martha Nussbaum uses for defending the importance of the humanities.

What is important from this for us is that “Faith and Science” as a motto no longer seems to express our specific concerns. What appears to be more important for us today is the cleavage between faith and culture, faith and life, as the Congregation For Catholic Education expresses it[iv].

If we want to measure the real depths of this rupture, we can recall what Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his great book Introduction to Christianity[v]. Talking about the situation Christians find themselves today, the later pope says:

“Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world” (p. 20).

The rupture, the dividing line, the border between faith and unbelief is not between countries, or cities, not even between people. The borderline between belief and unbelief is right across our hearts.

Ratzinger says the believer lives in the temptation of unbelief. So we could infer that this temptation is something bad, something to be avoided. But Ratzinger adds this as well:

“It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident” (ibid).

In other words, this temptation belongs to the human condition, and, as Ratzinger emphasizes, “there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man” (ibid.).

So there is, it seems, a tension inherent in the human condition, a tension between belief and unbelief, which is not something transitional, nor does it belong to specific cultures only, but comes with what it means to be human. And in my understanding, it is this tension upon which we as a religious community, as an order, have been founded. For me, it is this that religious life, or consecrated life, is about. To be a religious, a consecrated person, means to be fully human. It means to be especially sensitive to this tension that makes up our human existence. Maybe it is this that our mission ultimately is about.

It is in this perspective that I would like to place what is felt in today’s Western culture a great problem by Christians, and more generally by religious people. This problem is what is called secularization.



2.    The tensions brought about by secularization

We live in a secularized society and culture in Europe. Secularization can mean lots of things. Here I would like to mention two aspects of it: a disenchanted worldview and the separation between church and state.


2.1.           Disenchantment

Disenchantment refers to an altered perception of reality, as opposed to how it was perceived in earlier ages. As Charles Taylor puts it: “We no longer, in the West, feel that we live in a world in which there are spirits of the woods that could threaten our cattle or could take us over […]”[vi]

There are negative aspects of the disenchanted world-view; it is mechanistic, deterministic, closed, and flat. The arguments that I mentioned above for the equal respect for humanities at universities, and the struggle for their proper financial sustenance, also belong here. But worst of all, disenchantment comes with a terrible loss of meaning. As Taylor says[vii]:

“Although we respond to it very differently, everyone understands the complaint that our disenchanted world lacks meaning, that in this world, particularly youth suffer from a lack of strong purposes in their lives, and so on. This is, after all a remarkable fact. You couldn’t even have explained this problem to people in Luther’s age. What worried them was, if anything, an excess of “meaning”, the sense of one over-bearing issue—am I saved or damned?—which wouldn’t leave them alone. One can hear all sorts of complaints about “the present age” throughout history: that it is fickle, full of vice and disorder, lacking in greatness or high deeds, full of blasphemy and viciousness. But what you won’t hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong, that is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning. This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t “get to” it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it.


There was indeed, a predecessor condition with some analogies to this one, and that was “melancholy” or “acedia”. But this was, of course, enframed very differently. It was a specific condition, one might say, a spiritual pathology of the agent himself; it said nothing at all about the nature of things. It cast no doubt on the ontic grounding of meaning. But this ontic doubt about meaning itself is integral to the modern malaise” (p. 303).


Disenchantment can perhaps also have positive aspects. It can help us to progress in the personal process at the end of which there is something like a more mature faith. In a disenchanted world and culture belief is no longer self-evident, and so what Ratzinger said about the temptation that the believer has to go through can perhaps be more acceptable for us today.

Ours is not a victorious world-view, but is as hard-won as anyone else’s among our contemporaries. It is not that we are the proud proprietors of something that we could generously share. What we have as a plus, so to speak, is a special sensibility to the difficulty. Our advantage is our thirst. Our advantage is the “et” which places us at the centre of the quest for meaning.


2.2.           Separation between church and state

The second aspect of secularization that I want to mention is the separation between church and state. The negative part of this is perhaps that religion is thrown out of public life. It can even go to extremes.

We Piarists in Europe have lived in the near past under authoritarian regimes. In Spain it was the right wing dictatorship of Franco, in Central and Eastern Europe it was first Nazism’s right wing and then communism’s left wing totalitarian regimes that provided the experience. Italy wasn’t much better off with Mussolini’s fascism. This experience was not like getting a vaccine against ill forms of authority and collectives. It is true that after these regimes it is difficult not to be reminded of authoritarian excesses of power or of collectivistic forms of community life whenever such instances appear. But it is quite naïve to think that dictatorship is something that strengthens your spiritual immune system. Dictatorship is destructive in every possible aspect. You can only get out of any form of dictatorship deeply injured and deformed. It is difficult to assess to what extent these injuries are still present in our Piarist communities in Europe, but they certainly are.


The positive consequence of the separation between church and state is that the Church was divested of its power. Let me quote Charles Taylor again[viii]:


"Somewhere along the line of the last centuries, the Christian faith was attacked from within Christendom and dethroned. In some cases, it was gradually dethroned without being frontally attacked (largely in Protestant countries); but this displacement also often meant sidelining, rendering the faith irrelevant to great segments of modern life. In other cases, the confrontation was bitter, even violent; the dethroning followed long and vigorous attack (e.g., in France, in Spain, that is, largely in Catholic countries). In neither case is the development particularly comforting for Christian faith. Yet, we have to agree that it was this process that made possible what we now recognize as a great advance in the practical penetration of the gospel in human life” (p. 18).


It is the last sentence that I want draw to your attention to. It says that the dethronement of the Church helped the advance in the practical penetration of the gospel in human life. Taylor puts it in a playful way as well when saying: “a vote of thanks to Voltaire” (ibid.). And what he is grateful for is:

“[…] allowing us to live the gospel in a purer way, free of that continual and often bloody forcing of conscience which was the sin and blight of all those »Christian« centuries. The gospel was always meant to stand out, unencumbered by arms. We have now been able to return a little closer to this ideal—with a little help from our enemies” (p. 18-19).


The forcing of conscience. If we acknowledge this, if we acknowledge that there has been, even in our recent ecclesial history, this forcing of the conscience then we can perhaps understand better the enormous changes in our mission and in our community life. It is this that I want to continue with.



3.    Living and working together


3.1.           Power and violence

My argument is that all in all we are in a better position today to see how corruptive for the preaching of the gospel power can be. The great Hungarian Piarist György Bulányi went so far in this respect as to reduce Jesus’ teaching to non-violence. Even if we don’t want to agree with him, I don’t think we can seriously deny that freedom of conscience is a precondition for accepting the gospel, or any truth for that matter.

In my opinion, this is the ultimate basis why we see the need for changes in the way we teach and educate, but also, and more radically, in the way we run our schools. Ultimately, what is needed is a change in the culture that we have in our schools.

Just to give one example, the whole problem of abuses against minors, whether in educational institutions or in church communities, as Timothy Radcliffe illuminatingly commented somewhere, has more to with the misuse of power than with sexuality. There is at the roots of it a problem with the culture of the institution as we could clearly see in how unable we were at first to respond to incidences of abuse.

The cultural changes that are needed must come from our communities. Unless they start from there, they won’t be lasting or deep enough.

And to put it positively, we can surely hope to have gained something for the benefit of our institutions if we are able to live and shape our communities in terms of exercising authority non-violently. Let me be clear here. When I am talking about the exercise of authority, I don’t have in mind only leaders. Anyone with a little experience of community life knows exactly what I am talking about. So what we have to learn is how to live together non-violently. That’s what changing the culture of our community life is ultimately about.


3.2.           Individualism and collectivism

When talking about the difficulties of community life in the Order in Europe, we often hear complaints about individualism. I think it is only one side of the coin. There is also what could be called collectivism.

The root of the problem is not individualism in itself. The problem is the unresolved relationship between the person, the individual, on the one hand, and the community representing a cause, on the other. What we mean when we mention the plague of individualism in religious life, is in fact the result of something like the forcing of conscience in the context of community life, which perhaps could be called collectivism or communalism. The countries that had to live under dictatorships in Europe, as I have already mentioned, can testify to this. Collectivism and individualism go hand in hand.

For this reason, I think it is always one-sided to say that we are individualistic in our religious life. Surely, there is something there that deserves to be criticised, something that in my understanding would be better called privatism.  But if all we have to say amounts to pushing people together in the name of community, we will not overcome the disaster of the forcing of conscience. Communities which are called “enmeshed communities” by Gerard Arbuckle produce, almost by necessity in my understanding, the kind of secrecy, reserve, and emotional distance that make the group atomised. It’s not the “one for all, and all for one” of the Three Musketeers, rather it is the “everyone for the cause”, which is but at an inch from “every man for himself”, which is the essence of privatism.


3.3.           Why are we here?

I think that this kind of community life is not a just a theoretical threat but has become reality in our Piarist history in Europe. It has even produced great results. So much so that a great deal of what can be seen of us externally, and what we are to be proud of, our heritage, our giant buildings, and our giant personalities also, are in fact the result of individuals working hard and alone. If we are to find models of community life worth following, I don’t think we will find many. Our historical consciousness, in my opinion, has not reserved any form of exemplary community life or communal achievement. It is the individual that has produced worthwhile things. It is particular people that we can mention in relation to great accomplishments. It is our heroes that come to our mind.

As in the poem of the Hungarian Piarist Sándor Sík, entitled “The Steelman” (Az acélember), we have the image of the telegraph pole. The first line says this:

“There’s standing, upright, alone

The steelman on the hillside, above.”


The last verse goes like this:

“We’re carrying the unknown Word,

Having been set here, we stand.”


Mystical involvement in something greater than ourselves, even if unintelligible, dedication to the cause, commitment, perseverance, heroism: these are the values even in spiritual life that we have inherited. Loneliness is not simply a trouble to be endured, but rather the climax to be aspired to.

This kind of spirituality not only leaves the individual exposed to being misused, and forced in his conscience, but can easily lead, and I think has in factled, to the privatism we normally call individualism.

The solution, however, is not to be found through breaking the individual. It is found through creating communities that are able to help its members become mature and adult persons. It is through creating a more balanced structure between the cause, or the mission, the community, and the person.

The cause that we are here for and that we are to strive for, the why of our communities, has to be inherently related to what we as persons are about. Our mission, evangelization, cannot be something added to or coming after our becoming human. Preaching the gospel to others begins by us becoming human. It is in this sense that I understand one of Henri de Lubac’s paradoxes[ix]:

“Humanize before Christianizing? If the enterprise succeeds, Christianity will come too late: its place will be taken. And who thinks that Christianity has no humanizing value?”



3.4.           Person and community

That’s why we need a different way of living together, a different form of building community, and a different culture of community life.

When our father General speaks about the necessity of creating “estructuras personales comunitarias”, or personal community structures, he speaks, in my understanding at least, about these endeavours of creating a different culture of community life. It is a different spirituality which is needed for this.

At this point I would like to mention briefly what Scott Peck said about the stages of spiritual growth[x]. Peck establishes 4 stages. The first he describes as chaotic, antisocial; those who belong here are frequently pretenders. The second stage is what he calls formal, institutional, fundamental. Those belonging here are legalistic, parochial, and dogmatic. They are those who have the “truth”. Stage 3 is the sceptic, individual, questioner, including atheists, agnostics. “Although individualistic, they are not the least bit antisocial. To the contrary, they are often deeply involved in and committed to social causes” (p. 191). Stage 4 is the mystic, communal.

What I find very interesting is Scott Peck’s description about the transition from Stage 2 to 3. He says this:

“One of the greatest challenges, in fact, facing the Church is how to facilitate the conversion of its members from Stage II to Stage IV without them having to spend a whole adult lifetime in Stage III. It is a challenge that the Church has historically avoided rather than begun to face. As far as I am concerned, one of the two greatest sins of our sinful Christian Church has been its discouragement, through the ages, of doubt. In so doing, it has consistently driven growing people out of its potential community, often fixating them thereby in a perpetual resistance to spiritual insights. Conversely, the Church is not going to meet this challenge until doubt is properly considered a Christian virtue – indeed, a Christian responsibility. We neither can nor should skip over questioning in our development (pp. 199-200).

In this respect, it is also interesting what the Hungarian sociologist Gabriella Pusztai, who is an expert about religiosity and Church schools in Hungary, uses in her studies as a category established by the late sociologist Miklós Tomka. This category comprises those who are “religious in their own way”. Pusztai emphasizes that when people classify themselves or others, for example children speaking of their parents, as “religious in their own way”, we have to be cautious. She mentions cases when children referred to their father like this because the father sometimes yelled at them. Also young people can think of themselves as not believers according to the Church, and categorize themselves as “religious in their own way” because they do not think they fit in with what the Church teaches. Pusztai warns us that this can be very dangerous, because we can lose young people just because we do not let them identify with the Church when, for example, they have certain doubts or questions.

If we have Piarist communities that are learning better and better how to facilitate the transition or conversion from Peck’s Stage 2 to Stage 3, then we can clearly see that our contribution to society and the Church is really and predominantly through our community life and not simply or exclusively through our work or our accomplishments. This is what I mean by a more balanced structure between the cause, the community, and the person.



4.    Searching for the transcendent in the immanent

For the creation of this more balanced structure, we need more than just a different kind of organization. It is not a management issue. It is a spirituality issue. It has to do with what I have been trying to talk about so far.

As I see things, this different spirituality presupposes different beliefs. It has a different image of God and the sacred at its foundation. The difference perhaps could be grasped by distinguishing two kinds of the sacred, as the French Dominican theologian Claude Geffré does in an interview[xi].

The one conception he calls sacrificial sacred (sacré sacrificiel), and the other “existential sacred which is related to what is authentically human” (“sacré existentielqui renvoie à l’humain authentique”).

For me, this spirituality, this experience of the sacred, is most explicit in Pope Francis’ gestures and words. Some say that the message didn’t change, it is only the form that has altered. I think they completely miss the point. For what is important is that it is a completely different paradigm with completely different sensibilities. Just think for a moment of what he has said about the kind of shepherds with the smell of sheep. Instead of the fragrance of the chrism which according to traditional religious aesthetics is the appropriate anointment of priests, we are encouraged by the Pope to have quite a different consecration. It is a different sensibility, a different imagery, a different spirituality.

In countries where disenchantment, as we have already seen, has led to societies that can rightly be called desacralized, the importance of this new sensibility and spirituality cannot be overemphasized.

I think that if in today’s Europe we feel especially attracted to experience and to rediscover “the sacred in the immanent, the spiritual within the secular”[xii], then we can, through our community and personal life, give a fairly good translation of our motto Pietas et litterae.


[i] Philippe Nemo: Qu’est-ce que l’Occident?, 2004 PUF: Paris.

[ii] „Vita o morte del professore”: Educazione come liberazione, 93.


[iv] Educating Together In Catholic Schools, 3.

[v] 21990, San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

[vi] From a television interview – cf. Transcript for Charles Taylor on the Secular:

[vii] A Secular Age.

[viii] “A Catholic Modernity?”: James L. Heft (ed), Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture, with responses by William M. Shea, Rosemary Luling Haughton, George Marsden, and Jean Bethke Elshtain. 1999, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York.

[ix] Paradoxes of Faith. 1987, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, transl. by Ernest Beaumont. p. 69.

[x] The Different Drum, 21998 Touchstone, New York, pp. 187-203.


[xii] Harvey Cox: The Future of Faith. 2009, Harper Collins:New York,  p. 2.