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The Importance of the Catholic College for the Church and the World

By Deacon Keith Fournier
August 2nd, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Catholic College is not a private College with a church affiliation. Catholic identity is not an "add on" to its mission but the very lifeblood which animates it. Catholic identity at a Catholic College requires that the academic community understand its ecclesial nature. In an institution, just as in persons, it begins from the inside and works its way throughout like leaven or yeast in a loaf. Catholic identity must be the beating heart of a Catholic College and provide the infrastructure for its entire educational mission. Catholic culture on campus becomes a fruit.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic online) - I had a wonderful experience Monday evening. I spoke to a local "Theology on Tap" group which meets in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I rarely do that kind of speaking these days but succumbed to the pressure put on me by the young man who leads the effort. He is the kind of Catholic man we desperately need in this hour. He loves the Lord, loves the Church, understands his faith and lives it out in a naturally supernatural way. He is also persistent. He would not take "no" for an answer. As it turns out, I am glad he didn't.

I arrived to a packed out restaurant filled with men and women in their twenties with the same kind of commitment to living the Catholic faith that my persistent host showed me. They listened attentively to my talk and when I opened the floor to questions, they would have gone all night! The quality of the questions they asked revealed that they are genuinely trying to live their Catholic faith and share it with others. The evening filled me with hope.

After the event ended many stayed to continue our dialogue. I found that many of them were the good fruit of new or renewed Catholic Colleges like Franciscan University, Ave Maria, Belmont Abbey and the growing number of others. It was obvious that they had been formed in the faith and prepared for life in the "real world". They had intellectually solid, humanly integrated and healthy living faith.

They were also filled with evangelistic fervor. They were ready to offer themselves as leaven within their world in order to effect its transformation. They were not afraid of the world but loved it with the kind of redemptive love which comes when one understands the implications of Baptism. They were integrating their faith in their daily life. It was obvious in the way they carried themselves and it was refreshing to behold. I witnessed again just how vital these Catholic Colleges are for the future of the Church and the world.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council addressed a "separation between faith and life" in their document on the Mission of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). They said this "split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age." Indeed it truly does! Western culture would not be in the current state of moral decline if Catholics understood and lived their Christian faith in an integrated manner, informing every aspect of their human experience and social participation with the principles and practices which flow from that faith.

It is to respond to this challenge that the Venerable John Paul II called for a "New Evangelization." That call has borne fruit throughout the entire Church. Included in this fruit are the new, renewed and restored Catholic Colleges preparing the next generation with missionary purpose. The young people I met on Monday evening are the "living stones" upon which this new missionary work of the Church will be built. These Catholic Colleges are the seedbeds of renewal for the Church and the world.

Before Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, they were referred to as "The Way".(See, e.g. Acts 22) Their lifestyle was different from that of the prevailing culture. Their faith informed how they lived their daily lives. To belong to Jesus Christ and to His Church worked its way into the every aspect of their lives, individually and collectively. This new way of living a vibrant and integrated Christian faith drew them together for worship and mutual support. It also made their evangelizing and sanctifying mission extraordinarily fruitful. 

This new way of living is still meant to be normative among those who bear the name Christian. Its' recovery is essential to the mission of the Church in the Third Millennium. Within the Catholic College, this malady of the separation between faith and life led to a serious erosion of Catholic identity on many campuses. Fortunately, the tide is turning. These new, renewed and restored Catholic Colleges have put Catholic identity at the top of their mission, not simply given it a sentence in an otherwise obscure mission statement. Their graduates prove how important that primacy of placement truly is.

Catholic identity at a Catholic College requires that the academic community understand its ecclesial nature. In an institution, just as in persons, it begins from the inside and works its way throughout like leaven or yeast in a loaf. Catholic identity must be the beating heart of a Catholic College and provide the infrastructure for its entire educational mission. When it does, the building of a Catholic culture on campus becomes a fruit. This Catholic culture then helps to ensure the integration of the faith in every aspect of the academy, through both word and witness.

Catholic identity flourishes when all who are involved in this educational mission, from the Catholic College President to the Professor in the classroom, first view themselves as disciples, lifelong learners, followers of the Teacher, Jesus Christ. The Christian life is lived within the Body of Christ, the Church, into which we have been incorporated through Baptism. The Catholic College is an expression of that Church.

The Church is by its very nature, a teacher. Those involved in serving at a Catholic College participate in the educational mission of the Church. Education is the very heart of the ecclesial mission. In speaking of herself, the Church often notes that she is an "expert in humanity" who "walks the way of the person". In the words of Pope John XXIII echoed in so many pronouncements of the Magisterium, The Church is, both "Mater et Magister" "Mother and Teacher." She is an educating community and institution.

Education is not something the Church adds something to, as though the process of educating were some kind of nakedly secular pursuit which the Church somehow makes "religious". Rather, education is the very heart of the Churches' mission. On August 15, 1990 Pope John Paul II, issued his apostolic letter  "Ex Corde Ecclesia" (At the Heart of the Church) affirming the vital mission of the Catholic College.

We will soon celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the release of that letter. The Cardinal Newman Society is dedicating the month of August to presenting once again the vital importance of this letter. We will be covering their effort throughout the entire month of August. In that letter John Paul II wrote:

"Since the objective of a Catholic University is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture, every Catholic University, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics:  1. a Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such; 2. a continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research; 3. fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church; 4. an institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life"

The Catholic College is not a private College with a church affiliation. It is a Catholic College. Catholic identity is not an "add on" to its mission but the very lifeblood which animates it. In his masterful letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul calls all Christians to a ".renewal of their minds". (Romans 12:2) This renewal of the mind is the essence of Catholic education. In an age which is being enslaved by the Dictatorship of Relativism, the catholic College affirms the existence of truth and insists that there is a constitutive connection between truth, freedom, education and the ability to form an authentically human and just culture. This commitment to truth characterizes the entire Catholic educational mission.

The Purpose of a Catholic College is to teach, form and prepare students in Christ, through Christ, and with Christ, who has been raised and continues His redemptive mission through the Church. It is that Church which is vested with His authority to teach the whole world concerning truth.

In the words of the great Western Bishop Augustine:  "Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God's grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man. . . . The fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does "head and members" mean? Christ and the Church."

The living Christ still teaches and directs His Church. Through that Church he continues to influence all of human culture. The faithful of the Church are called to inculcate and live the truth as articulated under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the teaching office of the Church. At the forefront of the mission of the Catholic Church is the education of the next generation of faithfully Catholic men and women who do just that. It is Christ the Teacher who teaches His children in the Catholic College. As the late John Paul II said so succinctly in an address to educators in 1979 "Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others."

In the midst of our struggling economy there have been several recent articles asking whether a College education is "worth it". They approach answering the question by placing increased earning capacity at the top of the analysis. In other words, a college education is reduced to equipping a student to make more money. Such a minimalist approach is tragic. Education is about much more than increasing earnings capacity. It is about cultivating character and instilling virtue. Catholic education is about even more, it is about preparing men and women to participate in the ongoing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.

The Catholic College serves a vital role in the mission of the Church in this critical time in history. Those young men and women I met Monday night are evidence of the importance of the authentically Catholic College. During the coming months we will be offering articles which highlight the growing number of Catholic Colleges and Universities taking their mission seriously. They are preparing the men and women who will carry on the mission of the Church in the Third Christian Millennium.

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