A student attends class before a large crucifix at the Catholic school of Nuestra Senora de Covadonga in Norena, Asturias, Spain. Catholic schools in Asia are often seen as foreign institutions. (Photo: AFP)
On Oct. 5, World Teachers’ Day, Pope Francis hosted 20 representatives from the world’s religions “to put education and the human person at the center of the international agenda.”
The meeting discussed how religions can promote an open and inclusive education for the common good through education.
Religions contribute to promoting the human person, and they aim to cooperate actively with international organizations to educate young people to achieve a culture of peace and fraternity, the Vatican said in a statement after the meeting.
The idea is simple but its success depends largely on how the Catholic Church seizes the opportunity to practice it Asia, where the world’s largest populations of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and Zoroastrians live.
As explained in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be), the pope is taking religion and interfaith harmony beyond diplomacy, tolerance, friendship, peace and harmony to shape the spiritual and moral values of future generations by seeking changes at policy level with governments.
As a “peace pope,” Francis has met leaders of all major religions in Asia. His ties with the Sunni branch of Islam have brought great strides since his meeting with Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, and their inking of the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates’ capital.
The meetings have already brought rich dividends for the entire Middle East, a hotbed of sectarian violence
The world has already taken note of the efforts of the grand imam and the pope in intercultural dialogue. Starting this year, the United Nations General Assembly will observe Feb. 4 as the International Day of Human Fraternity.
It was on Feb. 4, 2019, that the pope signed the historic document. The request to declare the international day was presented before the UN General Assembly by the UAE, supported by 34 countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
On Oct. 4 this year, the pope and the grand imam met again in the Vatican on the sidelines of the “Faith and Science: Towards COP26” meeting and stressed that they are keen to continue their constructive dialogue and cooperation.
The pope also met top Shia Muslim cleric Ali Al-Sistani during his visit to war-torn Iraq at the height of the pandemic in March amid growing Islamophobia in Asia. The meeting helped bring Shia Muslims to the table of global interfaith dialogue.
The meetings have already brought rich dividends for the entire Middle East, a hotbed of sectarian violence, and have put the ties between all the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — on right track.
By making the differences in beliefs a source of peace rather than violence, Pope Francis has cemented ties with other Asian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
The pope has met Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong, supreme patriarch of Thailand's Buddhist community, and Ndu-Kurukkal Siva Sri T. Mahadeva, a Hindu leader, in Sri Lanka.
By holding the first-ever meeting dedicated to education and religion at the Vatican this week, the pope, who was a high school teacher in his native Argentina for a few years, and leaders from different backgrounds want “to educate young people to a culture of peace and fraternity.”
Asia, as home to more than half of the world’s youth, offers a sea of opportunities for Catholic schools. Though Catholics constitute only 3 percent of Asia’s population, the Church runs thousands of educational institutes.
In India alone, the Church runs more than 54,000 educational institutes, including 400 colleges, six universities and six medical schools, according to Indian bishops’ conference data. Thus, the Asian Church enjoys the moral authority to influence educational changes at policy level.
Religions collaborating in education could help bridge the urban-rural gap in education. While those in urban centers are reaping the benefits of globalization, marginalized and socially disadvantaged villagers lose out on education. Resource pooling of religions could help plug this gap.
Education is still not centered on personal development in much of Asia, particularly in South Asia. It is a means to make people employable, a practice inherited from the colonial days. Richer Asian parents are deserting state education and opting for private education, which is mostly sponsored by religious groups or business establishments.
Economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, but millions go to sleep on empty stomachs, some without even a roof
If Asia’s religious leaders make a policy decision to collaborate in making people the focus of education, quality of life in Asia could improve. That would meet the ultimate meaning of evangelization: make humans better persons.
Asia is passing through an economic miracle of creating millionaires. Economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, but millions go to sleep on empty stomachs, some without even a roof. The extreme social inequality is widening.
Yet education systems in Asia remain undisturbed by this social inequality. The present school systems, oriented solely toward academic excellence, prevent them from being a catalyst for a social change. A change is necessary and it can come faster if initiated by religious leaders.
The education system that Catholic schools follow does not foster critical reflection of the unjust social situations and structures which govern students’ lives. This has prevented Catholic educational institutions from becoming a voice for the voiceless and the environment.
Currently, there is no known collaboration between Asian religions in education. In fact, most schools sponsored by religions see each other as competitors and threats. The latest papal meeting is a good chance for the Asian Church to initiate a change of mindset.
In many Asian countries, Catholic schools are wrongly perceived as being part of “foreign” enterprises. Close collaboration with schools managed by other religions could help Christians become more acceptable in mainstream social life.
Based on their social moorings, Asian religions such as Islam and Hinduism prefer to educate boys over girls. Some 15 million girls were already out of school in Asia before the pandemic struck, while more than 1.2 million girls are expected to drop out this year, according to UNESCO, the UN children’s body. The Church, which does not support gender-based discrimination in education, could help fight such Asian social ills.
The papal call to collaborate with other religions through education has given an opportunity for the Asian Church to approach other religions without hesitation. This sterling opportunity of true evangelization will be lost if local bishops fail to act, and act with precision.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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