Father Terence Henry, TOR, is the president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
During his visit to the United States in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities at The Catholic University of America. Perhaps it is because, as the president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, I was privileged to be among those assembled, but for me, that speech was a true highlight of Pope Benedict’s five remarkable years shepherding the Church.
Our Holy Father delivered a clear yet gentle message, outlining that which makes a Catholic institution Catholic. An educational assessment tool, if you will. He said the primary purpose of a Catholic university is to witness to Jesus Christ, and he called “fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth” in Catholic schools “indispensable.”
The Pope also reaffirmed the “great value” of academic freedom. He said, “In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you.” At the same time he noted that the principle of academic freedom cannot be used to justify positions contrary to the Catholic faith without betraying the Catholic university’s identity and mission.
The search for truth is conducted in just this way at Franciscan University. Our professors freely investigate all subjects appropriate to their discipline, but they do not leave students in doubt about what the Catholic Church teaches. They uphold Catholic truth because, as Pope Benedict further said, for Catholic universities, as for individuals, freedom is not license to do anything you want, but demands personal responsibility.
Our Holy Father noted that a school’s Catholic identity is not a question of the number of Catholic students that attend or simply the orthodoxy of the course content. Catholic identity demands that “each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberate within the ecclesial life of faith.” From the classroom to the dorm room to the playing fields to campus ministry, Catholic universities must give witness to the truths of the faith. In short, he said, it is a question of conviction.
“Do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear?” Pope Benedict asked. “Are we ready to commit our entire self — intellect and will, mind and heart — to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation?”
I have reflected often on those questions in the two years since Pope Benedict spoke to us, grateful for the affirmation of what Franciscan University does well and concerned that we never grow complacent but always ask ourselves: Where is the Holy Spirit calling us to be of service to the Church? What, right now, is dear to the heart of the Church, and how can we respond to that need?
I expect to be reflecting on his words for some time to come, and I’ll conclude with one final quote from his talk highlighting the importance of a truly Catholic education in our day:
“Set against personal struggles, moral confusion, and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.”
About This Series
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of what a Pope is. On the rock of Peter our Church is built. To him and his successors — Christ’s vicars — have been entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Christ prayed for him that his faith might not fail, that he might strengthen his brethren.
The untold story right now in the media is how much God has worked through Pope Benedict XVI in his first five years as Pope. That’s why we began to commission short essays to honor him for his anniversary just a few weeks ago.
As the media tries in vain to pin the lion’s share of the blame for the developing abuse scandal on him, those essays are now taking on a meaning and depth we couldn’t have imagined. We’re fortunate to have this man leading us, and these tributes tell why.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.
— The Editors