Pope Francis’ 3 Essentials for Catholic Colleges

Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University
Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University

Today Pope Francis spoke to a consortium of Jesuit institutions in Rome. What he said is essential for every Catholic college.

Pope Francis addressed the communities of the Pontifical Gregorian University (my alma mater,) the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which Pope Pius XI brought together into a consortium in 1928. They are all run by the Jesuits. He spoke specifically about their mission as theological institutions within the Church, but his words can easily be applied to any Catholic college, anywhere. He underlined three essentials.

  1. Value the place where you work and study. This is especially true of Rome, with so must history and such a legacy of apostles and martyrs. But there is also a local Church with a mission for today. Catholic colleges must be open to serve those needs, and not be isolated.  When I was in Rome, I must admit I did not get very involved in my parish. I was centered on what I was doing. That was a missed opportunity.  Every Catholic college has a local Church that it must serve.

But the Holy Father also spoke of what the different students bring. I loved studying with people from all over the world, Catholics from all over, with different traditions and ways of living the faith. Pope Francis spoke of going from the outskirts to the center, and back out again. It is like the circulation of blood, in and out of Rome, the heart of the Church. I can say that I left Rome with a greater appreciation for the universal Church.

“This is one of the inestimable riches of the Roman institutions. They offer a precious occasion of growing in one’s faith and of opening one’s mind and heart to the horizon of catholicity.  Within this horizon the dialectic between ‘center’ and ‘outskirts’ assumes a form all its own, an evangelical form, according to God’s logic that arrives at the center from the outskirts and to return again to the outskirts.”

  1. He also spoke of the relationship between study and spiritual life.  According to Pope Francis, study at a Catholic college will be better the more it is animated by love for Christ and the Church.  Studying theology doesn’t mean amassing volumes of knowledge, but being able to show others a way to understand life as a whole.

“Philosophy and theology allow us to form convictions that strengthen and structure our intellect and enlighten our will… but all of this is fruitful only if done with an open mind and on one’s knees.”

What Pope Francis means by an open mind is an intellectual maturity that doesn’t think it has all the answers. He calls such a theologian “mediocre” and more: “The theologian who doesn’t pray and adore God ends up buried in the most off-putting narcissism.”

A Catholic college is where one can and should fall in love with truth, and begin to live “always open to the maius [more] of God and of truth, always developing.”

  1. Finally, the finality of studying in a Pontifical institution (and I argue that same is true of any Catholic college) is ecclesial. Where statements about this in the past would underline fidelity to the Magisterium, Pope Francis description of “ecclesial” is more wide-reaching and challenging, but without lessening in any way the importance of fidelity.

“Research and study must be integrated with one’s personal and community life, with missionary commitment, with fraternal charity and sharing with the poor, with care for the interior life in one’s relationship with the Lord. Your institutions aren’t machines to produce theologians and philosophers; they are communities where one grows, and growth happens within a family.”

Pope Benedict XVI, in Deus Caritas Est, spoke of three things that the Church does and always must do: liturgia (worship of God), kerygma (proclamation of God) and diakonia (service of God in others.)

Pope Francis, without commenting on the liturgical aspect, seems to say that it is not enough for a Catholic college to proclaim the truth. They must also serve, and service is done within a community and by a community. And this must be lived from the president to the cafeteria staff.

“In the university family there is the charism of governance, entrusted to the superiors [he is speaking to institutions run by religious communities] and there is the diakonia of the non-teaching personnel, which is indispensable to create a family atmosphere in daily life, and also to create an attitude of humanity and concrete wisdom, which will make the students of today persons  capable of building up humanity, of transmitting truth in a human dimension , of knowing that if the goodness and beauty of belonging to a work-family is missing, one ends up being an intellectual without talent, an ethicist without goodness, and a thinker lacking the splendor of beauty and merely wearing the ‘cosmetics’ of formalism.”

Catholic colleges must therefore be places where everyone understands and lives a mission to God, to each other, and to the world. They are to be families where the Faith is known and lived each day in openness and service. They are to be communities of faith and scholarship.

I can humbly admit that I work at a place that holds this up to all personnel as an ideal. I may not live it perfectly every day, but I am encouraged to live this mission by the example of my faculty colleagues, by my students, and by everyone, from the president to the cafeteria staff.

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.