Skip to main content

Pa. college presidents look forward to meeting with Pope Benedict XVI

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. (The Catholic Register) - When Pope Benedict XVI visits the United States this week, he will hold a special meeting with the presidents of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities, and Catholic school superintendents from every Diocese in the country.

Among the select group who will hear the Holy Father at the Thursday, April 17 gathering on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington DC are three persons from the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Father Gabriel Zeis, a Third Order Regular Franciscan Friar, is president of Saint Francis University in Loretto. Sister Mary Ann Dillon, a Sister of Mercy, is president of Mount Aloysius College, Cresson. Sister Donna Marie Leiden, a Sister of Charity of Seton Hill, is director of education for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. The two presidents of institutions of higher learning are particularly looking forward to the meeting with the pontiff, a former university professor.

“That of all the groups of people the Pope could meet with in the United States, he should choose presidents of Catholic colleges and universities, strikes me as a unique tribute of his recognition of the importance our institutions have in this country,” said Sister Mary Ann in a Wednesday, April 2 telephone interview.

“I was surprised that the Holy Father would ask for this meeting,” Sister Mary Ann continued. “There are various groups he could have asked to meet with, for a variety of very good reasons. I believe Pope Benedict recognizes, as a scholar himself, the impact and the power Catholic colleges and universities can have on this culture and this society.”

Praise for Ex Corde

Also speaking by telephone on April 2, Father Gabriel said that while some media commentators are expecting the Pope to deliver a “slap on the hands” to Catholic educators, he anticipates a speech and meeting in which “The Holy Father will follow up on the wonderful work Pope John Paul II did in issuing Ex Corde Ecclesiae (‘From The Heart Of The Church’).”

The 1990 document spoke about how to maintain the Catholic identity of institutions of higher education, and how those institutions were to be in relationship with the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority) on local and universal levels. “Ex Corde Ecclesiae asked us to maintain our Catholic identity by focusing on a Christ-centered educational program,” Father Gabriel explained.

“That’s something we raise with our faculty, staff, administrators and students,” Father Gabriel said, “and it’s an easy sell. How can you not sell Christ? Our job as stewards and administrators is to keep Christ at the very forefront of our institution.

“No, Christ is not a ‘tough sell,’ but it is tough to break through the materialism and secularism of our culture,” he went on. “Our culture is not an easy one. We deal with diverse populations.”

The power of the message

Being in dialogue with those populations is part of the Franciscan tradition that Saint Francis University has embodied since it was founded in 1847, making it the oldest Franciscan institution of higher education in the country. “Saint Francis was keen on dialogue with Islam,” Father Gabriel offered as an example. “He went to speak to the Caliphs of Egypt and told them ‘As a follower of Christ, I care for you.’ That’s true dialogue. Dialogue doesn’t mean that I have to give up what I believe in and value in order to be able to talk to you.”

According to Father Gabriel, “Catholic institutions of higher education are very aware of the power of our call and of our message.” Among his colleagues in the community of college and university presidents, he said, “I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t embraced the power of that call and that message, and who isn’t doing well with it.”

Sister Mary Ann is hopeful to think that Pope Benedict realizes the power and potential of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States “because no other nation has the network of such schools that the United States has.” Explaining that in Europe and other parts of the world all schools, even religious ones, are supported by the state, she said that the privately owned Catholic colleges and universities in the United States “are a unique group in the most powerful country in the world.”

She said “It’s not lost on me that Pope Benedict recognizes the potential we have to impact our culture. As an intellectual he knows how important a role that is. The Holy Father spent his earliest years teaching in a university in Germany. He’s a published scholar. He knows from experience the importance of these schools.”

The Mount Aloysius president continued: “It’s not easy to be Catholic in a diverse society. We know the Holy Father is very aware of the diversity of our society. I don’t expect he’ll be bringing us a call to personal piety when he speaks of our Catholic identity. Rather, I believe he’ll address the critical nature of our institutions in this very diverse and secular world.”

Mount Aloysius College grew out of Saint Aloysius Academy founded in Loretto in 1853. “All of our students are very conscious that this is a Catholic institution,” Sister Mary Ann said, noting that theology courses are required of all students. Beyond that, she added, “The art and the architecture of our campus speaks of our Catholic identity.”

She noted that religious paintings and statuary are prominent on campus and that Our Lady of Mercy Chapel is a well-known campus landmark. “It’s my experience that all students, whatever faith tradition they might come from, or even if they come from no faith background, are at the very least fascinated by the art and architecture that surrounds them, if not inspired by it.”

Christ at the center

Sister of Mercy Helen Marie Burns serves as vice-president for Mission Integration at Mount Aloysius and in interviewing prospective faculty and staff members discerns “their capacity to embrace the mission and identity of this institution,” Sister Mary Ann explained. A similar role is played at Saint Francis University by Third Order Regular Franciscan Father Daniel Sinisi, vice-president for Mission Effectiveness. “At Saint Francis, decisions among faculty, staff and administration are always made in a prayerful context,” Father Gabriel said. “We are always trying to raise our students to the awareness that Christ is at the center of all we do.”

Both Sister Mary Ann and Father Gabriel are appreciative of the opportunity to see the Holy Father in a more intimate setting than those offered by larger venues such as Nationals Park in Washington where Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass before thousands of people earlier that day. Despite busy schedules and the restrictive nature of security precautions surrounding the papal visit, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be present with the Pope, that neither of them would miss.

More than that, Sister Mary Ann hopes for good things for all those who will attend Pope Benedict’s meeting with Catholic educational leaders.

“I hope this experience will be unifying for this group of colleagues,” she concluded, “and that it will be inspiring and encouraging for us.”


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Register(, official newspaper of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa.



E-mail:       Zip Code: (ex. 90001)
Today's Headlines

Sign up for a roundup of the day's top stories. 5 days / week. See Sample

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article


Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Hebrews 10:1-10
So, since the Law contains no more than a reflection of the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 40:2, 4, 7-8, 10, 11
He pulled me up from the seething chasm, from the mud of the ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 3:31-35
Now his mother and his brothers arrived and, standing outside, ... Read More

Saint of the Day

January 27 Saint of the Day

St. Angela Merici
January 27: When she was 56, Angela Merici said "No" to the Pope. She was ... Read More