“Putting out into the (new) Deep:” A talk by Mary Ann Glendon

Below is a talk Mary Ann Glendon gave to Assumptionist educators during the recently-concluded Education Congress. 


July 25, 2016

World Congress of Assumptionists

Assumption College

Worcester, Massachusetts





                         PUTTING OUT INTO THE (NEW) DEEP


Challenges Facing the Church and Catholic Educators in the Globalized World


Mary Ann Glendon


  1. Introduction: Putting Out into the “New Deep”


  1. Challenges of the “New Deep”
  2. A (social) environmental crisis
  3. A perfect storm: faith illiteracy and indifference, militant secularism, relativism
  4. Formation for “The hour of the laity”


  • Meeting the Challenges: How are Our Boats and Nets?


  1. The Catholic intellectual heritage
  2. Catholic Social Teaching
  3. Truth and Beauty
  4. Globalization: Friend or Foe?


  1. “Making a difference”







  1. INTRODUCTION: Putting Out into the “New Deep”

I am greatly honored to have been asked to address you today, especially since it gives me the chance to express how much I appreciate the work that Assumptionist educators do in transmitting the Catholic faith to the next generation in every corner of the world.   I am also grateful for this opportunity to exchange ideas with you about my assigned topic: “Challenges Facing the Church and Catholic Educators in the Globalized World.”   It seems to me that those challenges are much the same whether we teach in religious schools or in secular settings. Indeed, they are much the same for Catholic parents who are, after all, the first teachers of children. And in fact they are the same for every Christian who takes seriously his or her baptismal vocation to “profess before men the faith they have received…and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.”[1]

Whether we like it or not, we are all religious educators. We are all in the same boat. Like Peter, James, and John, we’ve all been called by Our Lord to take our boats and “put out into the deep.”[2]







As I understand it, the purpose of this World Congress is to help each other steer our boats through the challenges ahead.   Many of those challenges are not very different from challenges Christians have always faced. But others seem genuinely new, at least in their scale and in the speed with which they are advancing around the globe. If I were to try to put a name to what makes the “new deep” different, I would say that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis. No, I am not referring to climate change. I am referring to a deterioration in our social ecology that is every bit as serious as, and a good deal further advanced than, the threats to our natural habitats. Pope Francis recognized this in Laudato Sì when he said:


We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental (Pope Francis, Laudato Sì, 139).[3]


All three of our most recent Popes, in fact, have warned us that we are in a social crisis. Pope Saint John Paul II called it “the culture of death.”[4] Emeritus Pope Benedict spoke of “a dictatorship of relativism.”[5] Pope Francis often refers to what he calls the “throwaway” culture, characterized by materialism, instant gratification, relativism, and “rampant individualism.”[6] Put that all together and it means our little boats are in a perfect storm.


  1. A PERFECT STORM: faith illiteracy and indifference, militant     secularization, relativism

Each element of this furious storm accelerates the others. A relativistic mindset fosters an atmosphere where more and more people feel free to “do their own thing”–regardless of the effects on others or on society as a whole. Relativism acts as a kind of moral anesthetic; it numbs the conscience and provides a rationalization for all kinds of behavior at variance with time-tested moral norms. Faith illiteracy and indifference encourage an increasingly militant secularism. This deadly combination of bad ideas with bad practices is hammering away at the rule of law, the marriage-based family, and every religion that makes strong truth claims and strong moral demands. No wonder that when we “put out into the deep” we often feel like the terrified disciples on the Sea of Galilee.




These changes in our social ecology are most advanced in the Western countries where they originated. But they are being carried everywhere on the winds of globalization, with the aid of mass media and international organizations.   Cardinal Robert Sarah has forcefully denounced the spread of moral pollution from the West, saying, “At the risk of shocking some people, I think that Western colonialism continues today, in Africa and Asia, more vigorously and perversely through the imposition of a false morality and deceitful values.”[8]

Hardly anyone has remained untouched by the effects of living in what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway society.” The ripple effects have spread from the fraying of family ties, to the weakening of the traditional support systems that families once relied on in times of need, and to all the mediating structures of civil society–schools, churches, and workers’ organizations. The cost of unlimited personal liberties for some has fallen mainly on the poorest and most vulnerable.

(In the United States, as the early enthusiasts for liberty without responsibility have started to die off, many have requested that the song “I did it my way” be played at their funerals. I must say that if I were their lawyer, I wouldn’t advise that as the best tune to be singing as they approach the Last Judgment.)


“Hello, Saint Peter”


It is strange, is it not, that we hear daily warnings of long-term damage to humanity’s natural environment, while hardly anyone speaks of the deterioration of our social ecology that is taking place all around us, right here and now. And there is no mystery about whether the crisis in our social environments is due to natural or human causes. It is entirely man-made!

What concerns us as Catholic educators is that these are the stormy seas into which we are called to cast down our nets. This “new deep,” this new mission territory is even more challenging than the pagan lands that Christians evangelized in former times, because paganism was at least open to transcendence. St. Paul could stand in a public square crowded with temples to various deities and he could preach to the Greeks about the “unknown God.” But today all religion has been increasingly banished from today’s public square. Pagan wonder and Christian faith alike are increasingly being displaced by a crippling relativism and militant secularism.

And a society that has banished transcendence, as Assumptionist Founder Emmanuel D’Alzon well understood, can be a pretty frightening place. All the developments against which he struggled in post-revolutionary century French society–increasing state control over education, hostility toward religion in some quarters, and a discouraging degree of ignorance and indifference toward the faith among Catholics themselves—have now spread far and wide.



At this point, I must acknowledge that many of you have come here today from places where you face far greater challenges than those I have outlined thus far. Having served for four years on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I am painfully aware that there are parts of the world where Christians live every single day in fear for their lives. I know that many your friends and fellow workers have lost their lives. I am deeply moved by your presence today, and humbled by your courage in putting out into the deepest of deep waters.

There is one challenge, however, that we all share, wherever we find ourselves. It is the challenge of forming a new generation of men and women who can play a leading role in the transformation of cultures that are bringing death and degradation to so many people around the world. We have been told by Church leaders that this is the “hour of the laity.” Ever since Vatican II we have been reminded with increasing urgency that this the time when the laity must “take a more active part, each according to his talents and knowledge and in fidelity to the mind of the Church, in the explanation and defense of Christian principles and in the correct application of them to the problems of our times.”[9]   Time and again, we have heard that, where public life is concerned, the job of bringing the principles of Catholic social teaching to bear on contemporary issues belongs primarily to the laity.   But so far as I can see, the laity has been slow to respond to that call.



The answer to “Who, me?” was, of course, made clear over 2000 years ago.











If we Catholic educators examine our consciences on this matter, I think we have to admit that no small part of the responsibility for the scarcity of laypersons who are ready to answer that call belongs to us.[10]   Pope Saint John Paul often emphasized the urgency of training “men and women who, in keeping with their vocation, can influence public life and direct it to the common good.”[11]   In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, he addressed himself directly to the role of Catholic universities, urging them to prepare students to “become people outstanding in learning, ready to shoulder society’s heavier burdens and to witness the faith to the world.”[12]

We all know that is easier said than done. But we can take a cue from Father D’Alzon who reminded his congregation that we have to meet people where they are. He told them that we need to teach in words that people can understand and to “be attentive to what is special in each student, …identify what is good in view of developing it, and mold character so as to give each person a certain stamp, while respecting the individuality of each one.”[13]

A century later, Saint John Paul II would give us similar advice. He said: “We must not hide the radical demands of the Gospel, but we must present them taking into account the needs of listeners.”[14] He advised us to try to learn from the example of Saint Paul who said, “I have become all things to all men so that I might by all means save some.”[15]   Paul didn’t mean that he had to pretend to be something he wasn’t. He meant that he had to put himself imaginatively in the place of the pagan Greeks and other non-believers. That enabled him to find the openings through which he could begin introducing them to Jesus Christ. Just as St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Irish about the Trinity, and just as St. Paul found a small “temple to the unknown God” amidst the pagan temples in Athens, we teachers need to keep our eyes out for openings even in surprising places like the films, music, and literature of modern society.




Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.[16]


In a sense, the challenge of faith illiteracy is nothing new, but I would suggest that it represents a special challenge today where education in other areas is relatively advanced. It’s hard to dispute what a prominent Catholic educator wrote recently: “Someone can attend years of ostensibly Catholic schooling yet end up knowing little of what it is all about and often not knowing that one does not know.”[17] How often do we encounter well-educated Catholics who are going through life with a kindergarten level apprehension of the Catholic faith!   How many have spent as much time deepening their knowledge of the faith as they have on exploring the wonders of information technology?

Meanwhile, other teachers of values in our societies are not standing still.   There is intense competition for the hearts and minds of young people from the mass media and aggressively secular government schools. Our students are bombarded every single day from all sides by messages that undermine much of what we are trying to accomplish. Today’s culture contains so much that is hostile to the principles that we are trying to pass on that we often feel overwhelmed.

Parents, too, often feel overwhelmed. Many parents for one reason or another are unable to be as supportive as they should be of the work that teachers do. Many parents lack an adequate faith formation themselves. As those of you who teach youngsters already know, when you provide children with a sound Catholic formation you may also be helping those children to evangelize their parents!

The combination of faith illiteracy with sophistication in other areas leads to further problems. If religious education does not come up to the general level of education in other areas, people are going to run into trouble defending their beliefs—even to themselves.   They are apt to feel helpless when the acid rain of relativism pours down on them and when they are mocked by militant secularists.

When that happens, many Catholics drift away from the faith. Many others start to keep their spiritual lives completely private, in a separate compartment from the rest of their lives. They are like turtles: they hide everything that’s most important inside their shells.


“Nothing to see here, folks”


Others are more like chameleons, that little lizard who changes his color to blend in with his surroundings. He accepts the teachings that suit the times, and ignores the ones that don’t.






  • MEETING THE CHALLENGES: How are Our Boats and Nets?

So how do we combat faith illiteracy and the timidity or indifference to which it often leads? Well, we might take another cue from Father D’Alzon who knew all about what he referred to as the “free-thinking Catholics, half-Catholics, Catholics of their times, Catholics by accommodation, and Catholics who think they are Catholics” that abounded in his day.[18] The advice he gave to the Assumptionists is still sound: “Avoid all those accommodations; attach yourselves to the Catholic, apostolic, and Roman Church.”[19] The world, he said, “needs to be penetrated through and through by a Christian idea; otherwise it will fall apart.”[20]

Now you can imagine some 19th century Assumptionist saying, “That’s all very well to say, Father, but just exactly how do we do that?”   And one can imagine D’Alzon reminding him that we Catholic educators are not without equipment. When Our Lord told the disciples to “put out into the deep,” He didn’t expect them to be putting out in leaky boats. And when He told them to put down their nets, He knew they wouldn’t be using nets with great big gaping holes in them. So, how are our boats and nets?


  1. The Catholic intellectual heritage


To start with, and most importantly, our boats are equipped with a sure compass in the words of Our Lord Himself. But we also have some very good equipment in our Church’s intellectual heritage and in her social teaching. Our intellectual inheritance is a cornucopia of resources that can help us to deal with the challenge of tensions between faith and reason, religion and science.   The mere fact of knowing such a tradition existed made a huge difference to me when I was a high school student in a small village in western Massachusetts. My encounter with modern secular thinkers like Freud, Marx, and Darwin raised many questions that troubled me. Then one day I happened to read an article in our local newspaper by the President of Notre Dame University where he said, “When you hear about a conflict between science and religion, you are either dealing with a bad scientist or a bad theologian.” That one sentence helped me to become a more discerning reader and a more critical thinker.

But it has to be said that like any other patrimony, an intellectual heritage needs attention and replenishment if it is to remain fruitful. That, it seems to me, is a challenge that Catholic educators can and must meet. But we will not succeed if we follow the path taken by those Catholic schools that have tried to model themselves on today’s elite secular institutions.   Those secular institutions are not enjoying their finest hour. Their leaders are increasingly unable to articulate a purpose for their enterprise. They cannot even maintain the atmosphere of tolerance, civility and free inquiry that once was the pride of liberal education. What D’Alzon wrote in 1871 could easily be said today: “In the name of tolerance we have tragically downgraded the sublime mission of teaching. With the pretext of making allowances for a variety of beliefs, all beliefs have been set aside. What a singular system, which in the name of respect for individual convictions produces indifference and scorn for all convictions!”[21]

In the world today, where relativism and political correctness rule the secular academy, this is the moment for Catholic universities to take the lead by insisting on excellence and preserving the spirit of free inquiry. This is the moment to take Father D’Alzon’s advice to the early Assumptionists:   “Try to restore true wisdom by the demanding and serious study of the disciplines.”[22] We Catholics have inherited a great tradition of fearless engagement with ideas. We should rejoice in that tradition—and resolve to build on it!

  1. The Church’s Social Teaching

Fortunately for us, our intellectual heritage today includes a tremendous asset that was scarcely developed in D’Alzon’s time. I am referring to the social teaching of the Church. What a gift! But it is a gift that is only a starter kit, because the social teaching, like the Gospels from which it is derived, does not prescribe specific programs or policies.[23] What it does is provide us with a moral framework that helps us to form responsible judgments regarding the whole range of contemporary social problems. Its great principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and its injunction to keep the human person at the center of concern often provide us with a fresh perspective. They often enable us to break out of the sterile political categories of left and right, liberal and conservative. And this body of thought is very accessible. One of the great joys I’ve had as an advisor to Catholic law students has been introducing them to the social encyclicals. They often say that this is just what they’ve been searching for–a vision and a set of principles that they can draw upon as they grapple with the challenge of living a lay vocation in the modern and postmodern world.


  1. Truth and Beauty


Even though I am a professor, I would not wish to over-emphasize the role of our intellectual tradition. We who labor in academic settings occasionally need to be reminded that, as Cardinal Newman put it: “The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history.”[24] Truth has a power of its own. It was not without reason that Emeritus Pope Benedict once said that the best arguments for the truth of the Church’s teachings are its art and its saints.[25] It may seem surprising that such learned theologians would defer to other ways of leading people to truth. But I am pretty sure that everyone here knows that the heroic lives of the saints and the great works of Christian art have a special power to change the way we see the world–and thus to change us!

Speaking of heroic lives, a teaching tool that I urge you to consider if you’re dealing with older teens is the film based on the life of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. What makes this film so pertinent today is that in the early part of her life, Dorothy Day drifted into a lifestyle that has become all too common in our own times. In the 1920s, while living the kind of life that was then called Bohemian, she became pregnant and had an abortion at the insistence of the father of the child who then left her in the lurch.   Later, still drifting, she had a child out of wedlock by another man. She was a struggling single parent when she came in contact with some religious sisters who were feeding the poor during the Great Depression. It was while helping those sisters that Dorothy found her true vocation and her true love—the “love beyond all telling” that is Jesus Christ. Her life became one of such holiness many are now urging her cause for sainthood.



Those who knew Dorothy Day personally say that she would have been mortified by this film because she hated to think about the life she lived before her conversion. But I believe that a posthumous blessing from her life will be to give hope and encouragement to many of today’s young women who have been caught up and cast out by the throwaway society–and who feel that God doesn’t want anything more to do with them. These girls need to know about Dorothy Day and the power of God’s love in her life. So please think of that film—it’s called Entertaining Angels”; and it’s available in video.

  1. GLOBALIZATION: Friend or Foe?


As I have mentioned, globalization has facilitated and even accelerated the spread of many harmful practices and ideas that make our role as educators increasingly difficult. It is one of the many factors that have contributed to the breakdown of the fragile social environments upon which human beings around the world depend for dignified living. But we should not forget that we Catholics are old hands at globalization. Today’s globalization has provided us with a more vivid sense of what we already knew: that every one of us is linked in the mystical body of Christ with men, women and children of every race, nationality and walk of life in every corner of the world. Our Church’s vast network of health care, educational and relief agencies circles the globe, serving mainly the poorest people in the poorest countries. Each of you here today is part of the world’s largest educational system, a system that has brought hope, learning and opportunity to generations of men and women, often in places where women would have had no opportunities for education at all. And it is no coincidence that a Church whose embrace is so capacious has become the foremost institutional defender of human dignity and human rights in international settings. So from one perspective, increased globalization has amplified opportunities for spreading the Good News to all the nations.


At the same time, however, no one should be surprised that a world-wide Church with a message that challenges habits of indifference to human suffering, self-indulgence, and excessive attachment to worldly goods is often the target of attack. It is precisely because of her courageous stands on key, culture-defining issues that a strong and united Catholic Church is the last thing some people want to see.

Yet too often we simply keep quiet when the Church is attacked. Consider the shameful silence in the West concerning the violent persecution to which Christians are subject in many parts of the world. We Catholic educators also need to help our young people to recognize and deal with more subtle forms of anti-Catholicism that are so pervasive in Western societies.   My late husband, who was Jewish, used to ask me: “Why do you Catholics put up with that kind of thing?” I think that is a question we educators who live in places where we enjoy cnsiderable freedom really have to ask ourselves. Why are we so careless about the faith for which our ancestors made so many sacrifices? What’s wrong with being proud to be a Catholic? I sometimes think it would be a good idea to bring back the old confirmation rite where the bishop slapped us on the cheek to remind us that there are times when we’re supposed to defend the faith!

Make no mistake: The militant secularists who are getting bolder every day will not be satisfied until they silence Catholic voices in the public square and force Catholic institutions to give up their own identity. They are rewriting history as fast as they can, making the Church the main villain at every wrong turn.

I am not suggesting that we Catholics should ever be afraid of legitimate criticism. But there is such a thing as exaggerated self-criticism. At a time when the Church is under siege from many directions, including violent persecution in many parts of the world, I believe that we Catholics do a great disservice when we fail to contest the myth that the history of Catholicism is a history of patriarchy, worldliness, persecution, or exclusion of people or ideas. When I hear these rants against the Church, I find it helpful to ask: Compared to what? Is there some other institution that has done more to advance human freedom and dignity?


To sum up, then, it seems that we really have all the equipment we need for putting out into the new deep. What we sometimes forget is what the disciples forgot when their boat was being tossed about the sea and Christ was sleeping peacefully in the stern. Like them, we sometimes feel as though God is just sleeping while we are perishing. Like them, we sometimes forget that the battle is already won. We need to remember what Jesus said to his terrified friends: “O ye of little faith, why are you so afraid?”






A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind died down and it was completely calm. Then, He said to his disciples, “O ye of little faith; Why are you so afraid?”[26]


  1. “Making a difference”

It is time to bring these remarks to a conclusion, so let me offer just one final reflection about our vocation as teachers. Many teachers will tell you they chose the teaching profession because they wanted “to make a difference.” But the awful truth is that we will make a difference, for better or for worse. The only question is what kind of difference we will make. That is the question we should ask ourselves with fear and trembling. That is why we should say a little prayer every day before entering the classroom.

On days when things get tough, I like to remember these words of encouragement from Saint John Paul II: “There is a temptation which besets every spiritual journey: that of thinking that the results depend on our ability to act and to plan. God of course asks us really to co-operate with His grace….Remember that when the disciples after toiling all night and catching nothing were told to put out in the deep, Peter said, ‘At your word I will let down the nets.’[27] That was the moment when Peter opened his heart to the tide of grace and allowed the word of Christ to pass through him in all its power.”[28]





I close with the hope and the prayer that today and always we educators will seek to open our hearts to that “tide of grace.” It only takes one good teacher to liberate a person’s mind. Only one good teacher can make an enormous difference in a person’s life. I pray for all the Assumptionists that your numbers will increase and that each one of you will touch thousands of lives. Thank you for being here today.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 1270.

[2] Luke 5:5.

[3] See also, Address to Participants in the International Colloquium on the Complementarity Between Man and Woman, 17 November 2014, where the Pope said: “[S]ocial environments, like natural environments, need protection. Although humanity has come to understand the need to address the conditions that threaten our natural environment, we have been slow — we have been slow in our culture, even in our Catholic culture — we have been slow to recognize that even our social environments are at risk. It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology and make it move forward.”

[4] Evangelium Vitae, 12.

[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, April 18, 2005, Homily at Mass before Conclave.

[6] Laudato Sì, 162.

[7] Mark 4:38.

[8] Robert Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing (Ignatius Press, 2015),   158-59.

[9] Apostolicam Actuositatem, 6.

[10] See Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow : A Renewing Passion (2014).

[11] Ecclesia in America, 44.

[12] Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Introduction, 9..

[13] D’Alzon, 7th Letter to the Congregation, 13 July 1874.

[14] Novo Millennio Ineunte, 40.

[15] 1 Corinthians 9:19.

[16] Acts of the Apostles, 17:23.

[17] James V. Schall, S.J., The Theological Foundation of Catholic Education, Crisis Magazine, February 11, 2016. The portrait of Catholic teenagers that emerged from a recent large-scale survey in the U.S. showed an alarming degree of ignorance and indifference concerning the core teachings of the Church. Christian Smith and M.L. Denton, Soul Searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 194, 272-91.

[18] D’Alzon to the Religious Sisters of the Assumption, IV Cahiers d”Alzon, pp. 42-45.

[19] D’Alzon, Aspects de la pédagogie chrétienne, p. 45.

[20] Quoted in Fr. John L. Franck, “Penetrating the World with a Christian Idea,” in Teaching After D’Alzon: Essays on Education Today (Bayard, 2011), p. 1.

[21] Revue de l’Enseignement Chrétien, vol. 1, May 1871), pp. 60-61.

[22] D’Alzon. Letter to the Assumptionists in Nîmes, 11 April 1870.

[23] The social doctrine aims “to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act [in accordance with justice] even when this might involve conflicts with situations of personal interest.” Deus Caritas Est, 28a.

[24] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Notre Dame Press, 1979), 89.

[25] Elizabeth Lev, Pope Benedict Sees Beauty at the Service of Truth, http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/pope-benedict-sees-beauty-at-the-service-of-truth/#ixzz47GNqs92U

[26] Mark 4:40. This and the previous image of Christ on the Sea of Galilee are two of at least nine renderings of this story by Delacroix.

[27] Luke 5:6.

[28] Novo Millenio Ineunte, 138.