Counsel to Teaching Sisters

Author: Pope Pius XII


Pope Pius XII

An address by His Holiness Pope Pius XII given September 15, 1951 to the first International Congress of Teaching Sisters.

1. We particularly welcome the occasion offered by your presence at the Congress of Teaching Sisters to express Our heartfelt and paternal praise for the activities of Sisters in the school and in education both in Italy and throughout the Catholic world. How could the Church have fulfilled her mission of education and charity during these last few years, especially in the immediate past, without the aid given, with so much zeal, by hundreds of thousands of Sisters. How otherwise could the Church fulfill her mission today?

2. No doubt, there are many other useful and energetic women working with or beside nuns or dedicating themselves to the apostolate of the laity. We have in mind especially the good Catholic women teachers in the State schools. But even they must not wonder if, today, We turn to you, beloved daughters, gathered around Us as representatives of the religious orders and congregations devoted to the apostolate of the school and education. May the dedication, love, and sacrifices that more often than not you bear in obscurity for the love of Christ and the benefit of young people bring forth fruit a hundred-fold in the future as they did in the past. May Our Lord reward you and shower upon you the abundance of His Divine favors.

3. We hope all the more fervently that this may be so because with you We are aware of the crisis through which your schools and educational institutions are passing. It is a question of the youth of today and convent schools. In your congress you have doubtlessly had the opportunity of treating this subject fully. Many points concerning you no less than priests and Brothers in religious orders have already been discussed by Us in Our address of December 8, 1950. For this reason, We can confine Ourselves now to those aspects of your problem which, in Our opinion need more consideration.


4. If it be your painful experience that the teaching Sister and the modern girl no longer understand each other well, this is not a thing peculiar to you. Other teachers, often parents themselves, are not in a very much better position. It is not using empty words to say that young people have changed, have become quite different perhaps. The chief reason for this difference in the young people of today may be that which forms the subject of the frequent lament: young people are irreverent toward many things that formerly from childhood were naturally regarded with the greatest respect. But young people of today are not solely to be blamed for their present attitude. In childhood, they have lived through horrible things and they have seen many ideals formerly held in high esteem break down miserably before their eyes. In this way they have become distrustful and aloof.

5. It must be remembered also that this complaint about lack of understanding is not something new. It is one made in every generation and it is mutual between maturity and youth, parents and children, teachers and pupils. Half a century ago and even a little before that, there was a good deal of sentimentality. People were fond of believing that they were "misunderstood" and said so. Today, the complaint, not devoid of a certain amount of pride, is more concerned with the intellect. The result of this misunderstanding is, on the one hand, a reaction which may sometimes exceed the limit of justice, a tendency to repudiate anything that is, or appears to be, new, an exaggerated suspicion of rebellion against any tradition. On the other hand, it is a lack of faith that shrinks from all authority and, spurning every competent judgment, seeks solutions and counsels with a sort of infatuation more ingenuous than reasoned.

Strive for Understanding

6. To try to reform young people and convince them by making them submit, to persuade them by force, would be useless and not always right. You will induce them very much better to give you their confidence if you, on your side, strive to understand them and to make them understand themselves—save always in the case of those immutable truths and values which admit of no change in the heart and mind of man.

7. Understanding young people certainly does not mean approving and admitting everything they maintain in their ideas, their tastes, their whims, their false enthusiasm. It consists fundamentally in finding out what is solid in them and accepting this trustfully without remorse or anger; in discovering the origin of their deviations and errors which are often nothing but the unhappy attempt to solve real and difficult problems; and, finally, in following closely the vicissitudes and conditions of the present time.

8. Making yourself understood does not mean employing words that are not sanctioned by good usage and constructions that are ungrammatical leading, as they do, to inaccuracy and vagueness of thought. It rather means expressing clearly one's own thoughts in different yet always correct ways, striving to fathom the thoughts of others, always keeping in mind their difficulties, their ignorance, and their inexperience.

Young People Capable of Appreciation

9. On the other hand, it is also true that young people of today are fully capable of appreciating true and genuine values. And it is precisely at this point that you must assume your responsibility. You must treat young people with the same simplicity and naturalness you show among yourselves: you must treat them according to their character. At the same time, you must all show that spiritual seriousness and reserve which even the world today expects from you, that spiritual seriousness and reserve through which it must sense your union with God. When you are with young people, it is not necessary to speak continually of God. But when you do so, you must speak in a way to command their attention: with genuine feeling arising from profound conviction. In this way, you will win the confidence of your pupils who will then allow themselves to be persuaded and guided by you.


10. And now We come to that which concerns you particularly: the religious life, your habit, the vow of chastity, your rules and constitutions. Do these render you less fit or downright incapable where the instruction and education of today's young people are concerned?

11. In the first place, We say that those who have the (primary) right in education, the parents, are not of this opinion. Sisters' schools are still sought after and preferred even by many people who care little or nothing for religion. In many countries, vocations to the life of a teaching Sister and the number of Sisters' schools are much below the demand. This does not happen through mere chance. Therefore, We may add—and not only in regard to Italy but speaking in general: from those who have a part in drawing up school legislation, We must expect that determination for justice, that—so to speak—democratic sense which corresponds to the will of the parents in such a way that the schools founded and directed by religious institutes be not placed in a worse condition than the State schools and that they be given the freedom which is necessary for their development.

12. And now, let Us briefly discuss the religious life in itself. The religious habit: choose it in such a way that it becomes the expression of inward naturalness, of simplicity and spiritual modesty. Thus it will edify everyone, even modern young people.

13. Chastity and virginity (which imply also the inner renunciation of all sensual affection) do not estrange souls from this world. They rather awaken and develop the energies needed for wider and higher offices beyond the limits of individual families. Today there are many teaching and nursing Sisters who, in the best sense of the word, are nearer to life than the average person in the world.

Constitutions and Customs

14. Followed in letter and spirit, your constitutions, too, facilitate and bring the Sister all she needs and must do in our time to be a good teacher and educator. This also applies to purely mechanical matters. In many countries today, for example, even Sisters use bicycles when their work demands it. At first this was something entirely new, though not against the Rule. It is possible that some details of the school schedules, certain regulations—simple applications of the Rule,—certain customs which were, perhaps, in harmony with past conditions but which today merely hinder educational work, must be adapted to new circumstances. Let superiors and the general Chapters proceed in this matter conscientiously, with foresight, prudence, and courage and, where the case demands, let them not fail to submit the proposed changes to the competent ecclesiastical authorities.

15. You wish to serve the cause of Jesus Christ and of His Church in the way the world of today demands. Therefore, it would not be reasonable to persist in customs and forms that hinder this service or perhaps render it impossible. Sisters who are teachers and educators must be so ready and so up to the level of their office, they must be so well versed in all with which young people are in contact, in all which influences them, that their pupils will not hesitate to say: `We can approach Sister with our problems and difficulties; she understands and helps us.'


16. In this way, We come now to the needs of the school and education which We particularly wish to recommend to your care.

17. Many of your schools are being described and praised to Us as being very good. But not all. It is Our fervent wish that all endeavor to become excellent.

18. This presupposes that your teaching Sisters are masters of the subjects they expound. See to it, therefore, that they are well trained and that their education corresponds in quality and academic degrees to that demanded by the State. Be generous in giving them all they need, especially where books are concerned, so that they may continue their studies and thus offer young people a rich and solid harvest of knowledge. This is in keeping with the Catholic idea which gratefully welcomes all that is naturally good, beautiful and true, because it is an image of the Divine goodness and beauty and truth.

19. Most parents entrust their daughters to you because their consciences bid them do so. But this does not mean that the children should suffer by receiving in your schools an education of inferior value. On the contrary, you must do all you can to assure parents that their children are getting the best education right from the elementary classes.

20. And then, do not forget that knowledge and good teaching win the respect and consideration of the pupils for the teaching Sister. Thus she can exercise a greater influence on their character and their spiritual life.

Object of Education

21. In this respect, there is no need for Us to repeat that which you know well, that which has certainly been the object of ample discussion during your Congress. According to the Catholic concept, the object of the school and of education is the formation of the perfect Christian, that is—to apply this principle to your conditions—to exercise such spiritual and moral influence and to so train girls and young women that when they are left to themselves they will remain firm in their faith as Catholics and put this faith into daily practice. At least, there must be the well-founded hope that the pupil will later on lead her life according to the principles and rules of her faith.

22. Your entire school and educational system would be useless were this object not the central point of your labor. Our Lord wants you to strive toward this aim with all your strength. He has called you to the vocation of educating girls and making them perfect Christians. In this He demands your complete dedication, and one day He will ask you to render an account.

The Modern Girl

23. The modern girl! You can measure better than many others the still unsolved problems and the grave dangers resulting from recent changes in the woman's world from her sudden introduction into all walks of public life. Was there ever such a time as the present when a girl had to be won on and trained interiorly, according to her convictions and will, for Christ's cause and a virtuous life, remaining faithful to both despite all temptations and obstacles, beginning with modesty in dress and ending with the most serious and distressing problems of life?

24. Let it never happen that material advantages, personal authority, wealth, political power or similar considerations induce you to renounce your educational ideals and betray your vocation! An examination of conscience during your Congress may have salutary effects. This paternal exhortation is motivated solely by Our benevolence for you, because your cares are Ours also, your happy success is Ours too.

25. In obtaining favorable results, harmony and generous accord between the different religious congregations can play a big part. Mutual knowledge and encouragement, holy emulation can be but to your mutual advantage. The most encouraging steps have already been taken in this respect. All you have to do is to continue them.

Vocation an Ally

26. Like Christian education in general, which today is not an objective easily to be achieved, your mission is not an easy one. But regarding the inner formation of the young girl, your religious vocation is a powerful ally. Living faith, union with God, the love of Christ with which each of you has had the chance to fill herself in the spirit of the Congregation from the first day of the novitiate; the vow, not only of chastity, but especially that of obedience; a common task under one guidance in the same direction—all these things act strongly on young minds, always supposing, of course, that you live up to your vocation.

27. May Divine Providence direct and lead you in all that you propose and undertake. May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ fill your minds and hearts. May the Blessed Virgin, Mary our Mother, be your model, protectress, and advocate. Together with the expression of these wishes, We most cordially impart Our apostolic blessing to you, beloved Sisters, and to all the young people entrusted to your care.

Sept. 15, 1951