When Pius XI promulgated his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri on December 31, 1929, it became the most important papal document to date on the Christian education of youth—a distinction it has retained to this day. With good reason did contemporaries dub the encyclical the “Magna Carta” of its subject, admiring its thoroughness, penetration, and lucidity.
All who are sincerely concerned with the education of youth, says Pius XI, realize that human happiness is not automatically procured by an abundance of material goods or by their mere enjoyment; character formation is required, with a view to abiding goals beyond the fleeting present. The pope’s citation of the famous opening line of Augustine’s Confessions, “Thou didst create us, O Lord, for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee,” could be taken as the encyclical’s motto. The modern world is like a drawn-out experiment in cultivating this restlessness and directing it to as many creatures as possible, with no connection to their Creator, and with predictable results.
All educational theories, congresses, reforms, programs, and budgets will be fruitless until they recognize this elemental truth about man’s nature, fashioned after the divine image, fallen into misery, restored to grace by Jesus Christ. Since good education forms the whole person in reference to things that will truly fulfill him, culminating in the vision of God, “there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education” (7; cf. 58), having as its aim “to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is, to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by baptism” (94). Christian education thus concerns not only the content of what is handed down, but also the method by which it is given, the supernatural means drawn upon for assistance, and the intention behind the activity (cf. 93ff.). The devoted Christian educator imitates Christ, who loved children with a special affection and wished to lead them safely into His kingdom (1, 9, 88).