Service Learning Model

The foundation of a service learning model is that service is more than doing. It is becoming. Through direct action, we embrace encounters with “the other” and gain intimate knowledge of the realities they face that may be different than our own. By engaging deeply with social issues, we are challenged to question the status quo and reflect on what we can do personally within our community to advocate for the poor and marginalized.

Please use the following resources to help guide your service journey.

Example of This Service Learning Model in Practice:

After observing a homeless man begging for money on her way to work, a woman decided that she wanted to help – not simply by giving him money, but by really understanding the realities he faced as a homeless person in her community.

Learn: First, the woman researched local data on the extent of homelessness in her community. She learned that during the recession, many people in her community lost their homes to foreclosure. She also learned that many of the homeless are actually working-poor, employees whose minimum wage doesn’t cover local rents. The woman dove into Catholic Social Teaching and was uncomfortable knowing that the inherent human dignity of the homeless in her community was compromised due to circumstances beyond their control.

Serve: After learning about homelessness, the woman decided to spend time at a local homeless shelter. The shelter told her that they were in need of Adult Basic Education Tutors. She accepted this opportunity, though the tutoring was just the beginning. Throughout her initial experience (and the several others that followed), she got to know the people she tutored: who they were, how they became homeless, how they spent their days, what they hoped for in the future. Often times, she left feeling that she learned more from the people she tutored than they learned from her. She came to understand the reality they faced as homeless people. None of the people she met had been homeless their whole lives. She learned about the way they felt judged; how they worked hard but simply didn’t make enough money to pay for housing; and how they did everything to make ends meet, but it never seemed like enough. She heard stories about feeling cold and being hungry that made her question if she’d ever truly been cold or hungry. She heard from mothers who didn’t eat so that they could save money to buy their children shoes and clothes.

Reflect: Each night after leaving the homeless center, the woman felt humbled and full of emotion. She found it helpful to write down her thoughts, so she committed herself to spending ten minutes each night reflecting on the people she met and her feelings after each experience. She challenged herself to engage with the reality of the homeless and write about things she had previously taken for granted. Most importantly, the woman spent time reflecting on what she personally could do to improve the lives of the homeless in her community and what local initiatives she could promote or engage with to actively pursue systemic change.

Each story of service will be different. The intent of this model is to help frame the act of service with the underlying issues which necessitate it and reflect in a way that encourages us to become people unwilling to sit idly and wait for others to fix the problem.

As you collect your own stories, please consider sharing them with us


Catholic Social Teaching
"To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren" - Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1397

Catholic Social Teaching is built on a commitment to the poor; it is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and dignity. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains, “Every human being is created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect of a member of the human family.” The seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching get to the core of what it means to meet Christ in one another. They are intended to help form our consciences in order to evaluate the framework of society and to provide criteria for prudential judgment for current policy and action. These principles are:

1. Dignity of the Human Person

We are all made in the image and likeness of God, so all life is precious and sacred, from conception until natural death. Respecting the basic human dignity of others is the foundational core of Catholic social teaching. Human dignity is so universally recognized that it is listed in the first sentence and the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the most translated document in the world. Human beings need to be considered in their fullness. As Genesis 1:27 reminds us, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
  • Choose life. – Dt 30:15-20
  • The Lord secures justice of all the oppressed. – Ps 103:6-10
  • Christ empowers us to continue his work. – Lk 24:49
  • Put on a new self, created in God’s way. – Eph. 4:23-24
  • EVANGELIUM VITAE Encyclical of Pope John Paul II on Human Life

2. Community and the Common Good

Catholic social doctrine says it is in and through community that we come to be saved. As Vatican II pointed out, “God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity. So also, it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people.” The community is where we are held accountable to make sure we love our neighbor. It also provides us a place where we can see God’s face through our neighbor, especially those who are hurting and in need. In acting for the common good, our communities are changed for the better, and we can get a glimpse of the reign of God.
  • Treat your neighbor with justice and mercy. – Lv 19:9-15
  • Act justly and walk humbly with God. – Mi 6:8
  • Love one another. – Jn 13:34-35
  • Learn how to live true Christian community. – Acts 4:32-35
  • PACEM IN TERRIS Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace

3. Rights & Responsibilities

We not only care about life; we also care that people have quality of life so that their human dignity is respected. We are called to respect the rights of others. Quality of life is key to living a fruitful existence. When people do not have their basic needs met, like food and shelter, they are deprived from building up the community. We each need our basic rights respected and interests met so that we can answer our vocation to live God’s call. Because of the recognition of each person’s human dignity, the community is called to provide the basic necessities. According to Catholic social teaching, people need more than just food, clothing, and shelter. The tradition states that issues like health care, education, and employment are also required to live a full life.
  • To know the Lord is to act justly. – Jer 22:16
  • God does not want empty religious exercises, but true conversion. – Am 5:21-24
  • Be a servant. – Mt 23:11
  • Combine prayer with action. – Lk 6:46-49
  • MATER ET MAGISTRA Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Christianity and Social Progress

4. Option for the Poor

The option for the poor comes from the Christian understanding that those with the greatest needs require the greatest response. The teaching of this concept developed from Pope Leo XIII through Vatican II. The particular articulation of the principle emerged in Latin America. At the Medellin Conference of 1968, the Latin American bishops emphasized solidarity with poor people and preference to the poorest in order to allow their own development. In Puebla in 1979, they coined the term “a preferential option for the poor.” The U.S. bishops picked up on the term in “Economic Justice for All” with their emphasis that wherever there is structural injustice, Christians are called to oppose it by making an option for the poor. Pope John Paul II furthered this in his teachings. “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2446)
  • Rescue the victim from the oppressor. – Jer 22:3
  • Exercise hospitality; make friends with the poor. – Rom 12:10-18
  • Jesus announces his mission to liberate people. – Lk 4:16-30
  • POPULORUM PROGRESSIO Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on Develop of Peoples

5. Dignity of Work

The ability to work allows humans to participate in the expression of their dignity. “Work has a place of honor because it is a source of riches, or at least of the conditions for a decent life, and is, in principle, an effective instrument against poverty” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #257). According to Catholic social teaching, the government and civil society need to promote opportunities for people to work that do not infringe upon basic family needs and do allow for rest from work. The best way to assist working poor families is for employers to provide living wages that meet family needs, including child care and health care.
  • Do not grind the face of the poor. -- Is 3:13-15
  • The unjust trample on the heads of ordinary people. – Am 2:6-7
  • Justice in the workplace is an example of showing the Christian way. – Lk3:10-18
  • Riches obtained unjustly bring misery. – Jas 5:1-6
  • RERUM NOVARUM Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor

6. Solidarity

We are all part of one human family, whatever our national, racial, religious, economic, or ideological differences. Justice is more than material needs and requires active participation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and Catholic Social Teaching call people everywhere to work toward the elimination of poverty, to speak out against injustices, and to actively shape a more peaceful and just world. Solidarity is not just about empowerment and teaching folks to fish, but allowing poor and low-income people access to the pond.
  • Listen to the poor. – Prv 21:13
  • Justice will bring peace. – Is 32:16-17
  • Christ is identified with all people. – Mt 25:31-46
  • If one suffers, all suffer. – 1 Cor. 12:24-26
  • CARITAS IN VERITATE Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI on Charity in Truth

7. Care for God's Creation

From Genesis, we learn all creation is holy and a gift from God that deserves our respect by being good stewards. We are co-creators with God. Stewardship relies on the development of a spirituality of justice. One’s conversion of heart occurs through stories, scripture, and the words of those in poverty. Each baptized person is called to be a disciple of Jesus, which calls for conversion. Discipleship is a lifelong conversion process. Discipleship sees stewardship as a recognition that all things come from God as gift. Stewardship honors human dignity in that it challenges us to respond to God’s call.

Stewardship of the earth. – Gen 2:15
All the earth blesses God. – Dan 3:74-81
Learn to trust in God as does nature. – Mt 6:25-34
All creation awaits redemption. – Rom 8:18-25
SOLLICITUDO REI SOCIALIS Encyclical of Pope John II on Responsibilities to Natural World

Additional Resources on Catholic Social Teaching
Catholic Social Teaching in Action
Catholic Social Teaching 5 Minute Video

Resources on Various Social Issues
Hunger in America
World Hunger
Campaign to End Extreme Poverty
A Catholic Charities Reflection on Hunger

Homeless in America
Homeless in America 2
Homeless in the World
Personal Reflections on Homelessness

Human Life and Dignity
Reflection on Hospice

Tough Choices
The Many Faces of Poverty
Prayers for those in Poverty

Brian Farrell- Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Video Series- On the Path to Christian Unity

Climate Change and the Common Good- Notre Dame Blog
Renewing the Earth- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis
Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment

Faith Seeking Food: Animals, Factory Farms, and Catholic Social Teaching
Catholic Social Teaching and Animal Rights
For the Love of Animals


“This college will be one of the most powerful means of doing good in the country.” – Father Sorin

To find an opportunity to serve in your area, please browse our directory of service opportunities.

To recommend a service project, please visit our Share Opportunities page.


Through reflection, we are able to process what we encountered in the context of what we know about the issue. Below are some suggestions on how to engage in meaningful reflection, as well as some suggested reflection questions.

Reflect in a Group: If you participated in service with others, consider use of the following model. If possible, hold the reflection immediately after participating in service. If not, try to hold it within one week.

Total Time: 1 hour

(5 minutes) Welcome. Prayer.

(5 minutes) Introductions. Ask each person to introduce him or herself and share one word that describes their feelings after participating in service.

Journal: For a more personal reflection, consider keeping a reflection journal. From time to time, read past entries. What has changed? In what ways do you still wish to grow?

Share your Story: Consider sharing your experience with the Notre Dame community.  

Questions for Reflection
What happened?
What did you observe?
What issue is being addressed, or what population is being served?
How does what you experienced relate to Catholic Social Teaching?
Were you able to establish a personal relationship with anyone during the experience?

So What?
When did you meet Christ during your experience?
What in your personal background may influence the lens through which you see the issue?
What did you like/ dislike about the experience?
What was meaningful about this experience?
Was there anything that made you uncomfortable?
What did you learn about the people/ community?
Was there anything that surprised you?

Now What?
What do you know or feel now that you didn’t before?
Will you let this experience change you?
How will this experience impact other areas of your life?
How can best use this experience as an opportunity for growth?
How can you sustain the relationships you built?
Are there people or initiatives in your community that you can get organized around addressing systemic change related to social concern/ injustice?

Reflection Questions In light of Catholic Social Teaching