When we begin reading the many texts of Fr. d’Alzon on education and teaching, and then we consider the testimony left by his contemporaries, we can begin to get a sense of the importance that he gave to education. Initially, the Congregation of the Augustinians of the Assumption was founded by teachers, priests and laity united in the "Association of the Assumption," for the teaching and education of youth. With Marie-Eugénie, the foundress of the Religious of the Assumption, Father d’Alzon developed a vision of education of great theological depth which retains all its value to this day. This is what I will try to present, briefly, by addressing successively the context in which he lived and, the practices that he put in place at the Assumption College in Nimes, and then, finally, I will provide a synthesis of the thought of our founder.

The historical context

France had just gone through an extremely difficult period of its history: the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, and the Restoration of the monarchy accompanied by the dream of restoration of the former social order characterized by the alliance between the Church and the political power. Together with other Catholic intellectuals, Fr. d’Alzon was convinced that it would be impossible to return to the alliance between the monarchy and the Church. He belonged to the school of thought which believed that the Church must regain its freedom from political power, including freedom of education.

This was the time when Europe was destabilized by more or less bloody revolutions against powers which often proclaimed themselves to be of the divine law; this also included the temporal power of the Pope. An industrialized society, socialism and democracy were gaining ground, but not without violence. Just think about this for a moment: Fr. d’Alzon lived through a time of six political regimes, three revolutions and one war. He saw a middle class, materialistic and hard-working, replace the aristocracy which at a certain level he idealized. He saw the misery of common people; he knew wars, revolutions and massacres. It was a time when the philosopher Hegel developed the mystical vision of Progress, when everyone, or almost everyone, believed that positive science would provide every possible answer and would drive out all obscurantism. It was a time when an economic reading of history and the premises of Marxism were born, together with anticlerical secularism and extraordinary technical innovations.

Fr. d'Alzon repeatedly denounced the damage caused by the moral and spiritual deficiencies of families, by the liberal middle class, and even by the Christian education in place at the time. He was concerned about the growing gap between society and the Church: a society that was moving away from Gospel values ??to the detriment of the weakest. He was concerned about a science which criticized and undermined the traditional way of faith and about the lack of Christian scholars and intellectuals able to reformulate Christian beliefs. He was concerned that the working-class as well was moving away from the Church. He was concerned about a certain kind of freedom that led to violence and the uncontrolled power of the strongest.

Faced with this reality, Fr. d’ Alzon lamented the timidity of Christians, that they had an insufficiently educated and thoughtful faith. He underlined the risks posed by a faith confined to their devotions. He deplored the fact that Christians were deserting the public square and intellectual debates. It seemed urgent for him to rise above a lukewarm and devotional concept of faith and to return to a faith that was intelligent, studied and based on solid arguments, deepened within, a faith based on Scripture and on the great authors of the patristic and philosophical tradition. For Fr. d’Alzon, as for Marie-Eugenie, Christian action based on Gospel values was the answer to the challenges of a society in turmoil.

D'Alzon thought that it was urgent to train men and women of character, in order to develop intelligence enlightened by faith, able to assume responsibilities at all levels: ecclesiastical, political, economical, scientific. What he aimed at was the holistic education of youth: the liberation of every person and social transformation through the Gospel. This is really the core, the foundation of the Assumptionist educational project.

Now, let us take a general look at how this was implemented at the Collège de l’Assomption in Nîmes.

2. Collège de l’Assomption

The Professors

Naturally, Fr. d’Alzon emphasizes the competence and motivation of teachers. This is what Fr. Tomas Gonzalez will develop in the following presentation. In founding the College, Fr. d’Alzon worked with his teachers to develop the programs, the teaching methods, the organization of the educational process, and the educational project. At their request, he agreed to provide training sessions for them himself. Through what we know from these conferences, and also those he gave to the Religious Sisters of the Assumption, we can clearly see the portrait of the Assumptionist teacher as conceived by Fr. d’Alzon: the professional competence, the pedagogical creativity, the capacity to adapt to the needs of students, the quality of the relationship with students, a clear vision of the type of human being that the teacher is to form, and the spiritual meaning he gives to his work.

To teach in order to form

At the College in NImes, the goal of the education was the formation of intelligence, judgment, sensitivity, commitment, and freedom. To express this Fr. d’ Alzon often used the expression "to form the men of character."

Sometimes the official curriculum was expanded in order to study the history of the Church, the Fathers of the Church, Christian authors and philosophers. Students were encouraged to take an interest in political, social, ecclesial and international matters. Evenings of philosophical discussions were founded. Students were asked to prepare for their comrades public lectures in literature, history and philosophy on issues related to the faith. One of Fr. d’Alzon’s great concerns was to show that science and intellectual pursuits are not opposed to faith and that the latter enlightens every human reality.

Fr. d’Alzon himself gave courses to students on Saturdays during the academic year 1876-1877. He presented teaching and education as realities that transform all aspects of the human person: memory, intelligence, will, passions, character, the life of faith, etc ... He likes to talk about teaching as liberation because it allows students to acquire freedom of judgment and to overcome a certain preconceptions.

I would summarize Fr. d’Alzon’s thought by this expression: he wanted "an education that lifts up the lives of people”. This is the exact meaning of word "to educate".

Life at the College in Nimes

If the courses were demanding, the rules of life in the College were as well, at least in their broad principles. In practice, their application was subject to intelligent adaptation in specific situations, allowing students some freedom. Here are two quotes.

The first is from Fr. Charles Lawrence during the awards ceremony of 1875: "The disciplinary method which we use ourselves is rarely a question of following something a priori; it abhors any pre-fabricated mold that requires that everyone fit into the same form without any concern for the variety of individual differences. Although its principles are fixed its advance, our discipline does not pretend to be so as for its applications. "

One year earlier, on the same occasion, Fr. d'Alzon said: "I would simply like to call to mind that we must provide our children with a great spirit of faith, of openness, of sacrifice, of initiative. After that, we give them a certain freedom to develop. We cannot crush them in order to give them some kind of identical form; this principle, I believe, is absolutely essential. (...) Let us start with the conviction that children in our care are not perfect. If they were, why would they be entrusted to our care? Would it be in order to teach them a little bit of Greek, of Latin, of history or physics? If that were so, hired teachers who only work to make money would be quite sufficient."

Fr. d'Alzon had established at the college a “spirit”, an “atmosphere” that one would call “family" --- characterized by simplicity of relationships, trust and delicacy; but he also insisted on transparency and openness, loyalty, generosity and strength of character. He was saying that these are the character traits of a person formed by Gospel inspiration.

A solid Christian formation

Fr. D’Alzon’s goal in this area could be summarized by these adjectives: a frank and genuine faith (that is to say a faith that is not afraid to show itself), "enlightened" (that is to say, educated and thoughtful), Catholic and active.

The formation of students was based on the Bible (primarily on the Gospels, the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles), the Fathers of the Church and the history of the Church. In these matters, teachers sought to provide a kind of culture, to make students think and to learn to perceive the beauty of Revelation. What we should teach, Fr. d’Alzon said, is the Father, Creator, the Son, Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier. Most important of all was to know Jesus Christ, to learn to love him and to act like him. There was no other model than Jesus Christ. Let's talk about Jesus Christ, let us make Jesus Christ loved! "Faith forges souls and not the sentimental education that is in fashion today." There were four levels to the education system. The last, in the final year, was dedicated to a serious treatment of modern culture, to the analytical skills and to discussions.

Fr. d’Alzon insisted on the skills that adults should have. "It is easy to repeat to children a few devotional ditties, but as for getting to the heart of the matter, to find Jesus Christ everywhere ... to show that Jesus Christ is at the heart of every single question, at the center of everything and that everything should always return to him, this requires work, prayer and a lot of instruction.”

At the College in Nimes, there were no special devotions. What was emphasized was the need to express and to develop the great Christian virtues: faith, hope and charity. The tradition of the Assumption is the Catholic tradition. The Roman liturgy and sacraments held an important place in college life. "Our goal is not to educate men for the cloister, but to prepare them to live in the world, who act in a way to make others love and respect their faith, who are deeply attached to the cause of God. Why then introduce them to habits, holy in themselves, that are not suited to the path that one day they will be called upon to follow? … It’s in this spirit that we shape the piety of our students.

Students but teachers as well, were invited to act within the framework of associations, such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, for visits, donations of food, meals, providing means for heating and for the recreational activities of children from lower-class families. They would also support the missions in foreign countries, outreach to workers and to other associations supporting the conversion of Protestants, vocations, or the People’s Army to defend the Papal States...

Dalzonian vision of education

"My passion, what is very close to my heart, is the manifestation of the God-Man and the deification of humanity by Jesus Christ, and that would be also my philosophy" (letter to Marie-Eugenie, August 5, 1844).

The fundamental vision of Fr. d’Alzon is hopeful. Whatever the situation might be, nothing is lost: young people are capable of being educated, their intelligence and character formed. By means of education through teaching, it is possible to train men of character and convictions, intelligent and educated, who hold a strong and enlightened faith, who are active in debates and engaged in the life of society.

Fr. d'Alzon constantly called to mind that this task is not a job but a mission that stems from a faith commitment. In his Saturday Instructions and also those destined to his teachers or to the Religious of the Assumption, we see his concern to make to all of them discovery the richness of the teaching experienced as an educational mission. This is the living out of one’s baptism. It is like a continual Pentecost because it has something to do with the outpouring of the Spirit on youth. It is a mission that participates in the work of the Creator himself: "Before each child, I have to repeat the words of the Creator: ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’ "; this makes it possible to engrave the image of the Trinity in every young person: by means of "the great and wonderful work of education by which we reshape the human being. And in a certain way we come to the aid of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist by communicating the power of life by the Father, intelligence through the Son, and love through the Holy Spirit. "

The concept of education that Fr. d’ Alzon has, therefore, is rooted in faith. One might risk the following summary: man was created in the image of God, but sin disfigured his features. Jesus-Christ, through his death and resurrection, wished to restore all creation in God. Christ, perfect image of God and the perfect image of the human being, allows man to reach his full humanity. Man and creation are called to communion with Christ and, through him, with the Holy Trinity. To know and to love Jesus-Christ is for man to reach humanity; to acknowledge dependency on God is to access freedom. To recognize the rights of God is for men and women the path to happiness and salvation because the truth of God is the truth of the human being; Jesus-Christ is the Truth, the beginning and the end of all knowledge. Education is, therefore, for Emmanuel d'Alzon, a form of cooperation in the work of salvation of humankind.

The Church, bearer of Christ’s message and of the sacrament of his presence among humankind, transmits him from generation to generation. In order to remain free and not misrepresent its mission, the Church must not be subservient to any political regime or government. The Pope is the keeper and guarantee of this freedom and this loyalty beyond cultural and political contingencies. This is why the loyalty of the Assumption to the Church and freedom of the Catholic institutions are so important.

This faith is not just a private affair of which nothing should be expressed openly. No, it is a faith that manifests itself in individual and collective behavior, in the public square, at many levels: social, political and ecclesial. It is like leaven in dough. For Fr. d’Alzon, as for Marie-Eugenie, the Gospel is the condition of a just society.

In conclusion

What should we remember from this rapid overview? We can begin to see taking shape any number of traits of an Assumptionist vision of education. This vision is not a goal in itself. It is at the service of education of the whole person that involves teaching (content and methods), life in and outside the classroom, relationships, school-wide policies, socio-cultural activities, spiritual life activities, etc...

To be more specific, the goal of an Assumptionist education is to train people with a sense of the common good, people able to get involved in those societies that are theirs, to play an active role in the social and cultural development of the people to which they belong so as to make this world more coherent with God's plan.
Education in the faith, in the Assumptionist way, goes straight to the essentials of the Catholic faith. This education aims at forming believers with a solid and thoughtful faith that enlightens their personal and professional lives. It has some special accents: knowledge of the Scriptures and especially of the Gospels, the sacraments, the prayer of the Church, a Marian piety connected to Christ, and love for the Church ...
An Assumptionist education fosters collaboration between lay people and religious based on a common spiritual and theological vision: education as the way of humanization and cooperation with the salvation of humankind.

by Brother Jean-Michel Brochec, A.A.