The scenic, sloping hills of Virginia’s rural Shenandoah Valley might at first appear an unlikely setting for the renewal of Catholic higher education. The predominantly Protestant region is dotted by small historic clapboard chapels and the occasional modern megachurch. The Catholic population is a distinct minority.
But not far from the unhurried main street of Front Royal lies the campus of Christendom College — and while it occupies an unpretentious 100 acres and enrolls 398 undergraduate students, the school’s impact upon Catholic learning since its 1977 founding has been anything but modest.
“Ultimately, history is made by committed minorities — people who know who they are, and what they’re about,” said Christendom president, Timothy O’Donnell. “Christ started with just 12 men, and look what happened. If we can graduate, every year, 100 or 115 students who are going to go out and become priests, religious, businessmen, attorneys, writers … that’s going to have a big impact on the culture.”
O’Donnell’s prediction is shared by those who assess the effectiveness and fidelity of Catholic colleges, among them, Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.
“Many Catholic colleges make the mistake of separating the academic life and academic studies from the rest of reality,” Reilly explained. “But as Catholics, we believe that our faith imbues every aspect of our life — and Christendom College makes a strong effort to ensure that a student’s development over four years has an impact on every aspect of their lives after graduation.”
The Cardinal Newman Society features Christendom among those institutions it profiles in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.
Fidelity to the Faith
Modeled upon the Christian Commonwealth Institute — a summer educational program formerly held at Spain’s San Lorenzo de El Escorial, and, from 1973 to 1975, under the direction of Christendom’s founding president, Warren Carroll — the Christendom ethos aims to saturate both curriculum and campus life with the breadth of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition. Each year, the entire faculty — not only those teaching theology — takes an oath of fidelity to the Pope and the Magisterium, a practice unique among American Catholic colleges.
“The students at Christendom expect to learn their Catholic faith as it is taught by the Church, without omission or distortion, and are enthused about doing so,” founding faculty member Raymund O’Herron said via e-mail. O’Herron, who teaches theology, stressed that Christendom’s atmosphere is permeated by forthright presentation of the faith. “This is the very air we breathe at Christendom,” he declared.
O’Herron is unsparing in his assessment that diluting the faith shortchanges a generation: “Those who claim that modern youth will not accept the traditional teaching of the Church, in its fullness, and without alterations in the pursuit of ‘relevance,’ are sadly mistaken,” he added.
Christendom’s rigorous core curriculum systematically examines Catholic doctrine, Scripture, moral theology, apologetics, philosophy, history, English, math, foreign languages, and science, both theoretical and political.
“Everything we study is from a Christocentric, Catholic point of view,” explained Kristin Burns, a founding faculty member and dean of Christendom’s graduate school. “So when we study political theories or different philosophers, for example … we can actually ask the question, ‘Is this theory right or wrong? Does it fit with what we know man to be?’”
Reshaping Catholic Academic Culture
The foundational courses are an intentional response to the state of Catholic higher education at the time of Christendom’s founding. O’Donnell recalled the devastating effect of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and “the deconstruction of Catholic education, the core curriculum.”
In the prevailing atmosphere of experimentation, not only tradition was suspect. “Religious authority was particularly an object of ridicule,” explained O’Donnell.
While Christendom’s model has been adopted by a host of recently launched Catholic colleges, it was thought radical at the time. “Back then, it was a very bold and courageous move,” noted O’Donnell. “Because basically, you’re saying, ‘We’re starting over. We cannot wait to reclaim these institutions. We’re going to start again, and we’re going to do what needs to be done in order to re-evangelize and recapture this age through a Catholic educational apostolate.’”
Upon meeting Pope John Paul II in a 1992 private Vatican audience with a Christendom group, founder Carroll experienced what he calls “the supreme moment of my life.” Following an introduction, John Paul told him, “You have done a great work for the Church.” The Holy Father’s words — recognizing the achievements both of Carroll and of Christendom — were especially meaningful in the context of John Paul’s call to renewal, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities).
Christendom is also praised by John Paul’s successor.
“I am well aware of the distinguished record of Christendom College and of the outstanding contribution which it has made to Catholic life in the United States,” Pope Benedict XVI once told O’Donnell.
Such acclaim may seem far removed from Christendom’s humble beginnings with 26 students, a former elementary school for classroom space, and plentiful financial challenges.
“We had to pay the whole heating bill for the winter — and they presented it to us in September, when we had practically no money,” Carroll recalled. Panic turned to prayer, and in the next day’s mail, a check for nearly the complete amount arrived, the gift of a young teacher.
‘Catholic to the Core’
A family mood characterizes the campus, with multiple siblings and relatives populating the college.
“The No. 1 reason people are attracted to Christendom is the Catholic culture,” said Tom McFadden, director of admissions. “One of our main goals is trying to help the salvation of the students — we’re trying to help them get to heaven.”
That family-like concern hit home for 2003 graduate Paul Jalsevac, who suffered a near-fatal car wreck in 2001. Christendom students prayed at the hospital while those on campus fasted. “The community rallied around me,” said Jalsevac. “I got taken care of.”
“This is not [just] about your career. This is about the rest of your life, and the person that you become,” stressed Kate McMahon, a 2002 graduate. Students past and present share their conviction that the Christendom experience is unique among colleges, whether Catholic or secular.
“When you’ve had this immersion in a Christ-centered education, it just helps you to see the world on a large scale as the missionary field,” said Emily Twaddle, a senior.
Sam Phillips, also a senior, agreed. “You realize what you’re studying is adding to this robust Catholic worldview that’s all-encompassing to every aspect of life.”
While Christendom plans to intentionally remain a small, vigorously Catholic liberal arts college, “it’s not designed for survivors of a shipwreck,” O’Donnell emphasized. “When the popes are calling for the New Evangelization, we want to respond to the call. But you do it by becoming the deepest person you can be — fully educated in the faith and in the truth of natural reason … as a believing, committed Roman Catholic who’s going to have an impact on the people God puts in your life.”
Kimberly Heatherington writes
from Fairfax, Virginia.