National Catholic Register


At Magdalen, a Mission to Save Youth

To educate means to empower the laity

BY John McCormack

January 12-18, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/12/97 at 2:00 PM


John Daniel Meehan, 61, has been president of Magdalen College in Warner, N.H., for the past 19 years. An educator and author, Meehan also serves as president of the Pope Paul VI Catechetical Institute. He holds a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. One of Magdalen's founders, he has lectured and written on a wide range of topics including Catholic social teaching, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, lay rights in the Church, and the relationship between the Eucharist and confession. He recently spoke with the Register.

Register: Magdalen's founders established the college with the idea of meeting a specific need. Can you explain?

Meehan: The need for a conversion of heart, especially among the young, was made manifestly clear by the Fathers of Vatican II. Consequently, they called for a spiritual renewal, and, therefore, emphasized the apostolate of evangelization, which, by virtue of their baptism, included the laity.

The founders of Magdalen—all laymen—responded to the conciliar call by establishing an institution of higher learning that rests on three pillars: an undergraduate curriculum in liberal studies, an ordered campus environment, and a lived Catholic common life.

Have conditions changed since the college's founding in 1973?

The need for conversion of heart hasn't changed; it has, however, deepened profoundly. A cursory look at contemporary youth and their impoverished souls reveals the depth of the crisis. As early as 1905, Pope Pius X, in his encyclical Acerbo Nimis (On Teaching Christian Doctrine), described the existential condition of the young who have been shaped by modern culture. It is hard to find words to describe the darkness in which they are engulfed and—what's most deplorable of all—how tranquilly they repose there.

This papal statement pointed out a prophetic truth: the family, educational and political institutions, as well as religious and social bonds have ceased to be integrating factors for the young personality. The lack of an integrating center and its consequences are plain to see—spiritual disfiguration, intellectual torpor, social introversion, physical deterioration, and the diminishment of moral perception. Consequently, young people are humanly deficient. In addition, they lack sufficient knowledge of the basic teachings of the Catholic Church, which causes a separation between personal living and the life of faith; and a disconnectedness between freely-chosen acts and the order of divine grace.

Yet, in the face of this profound darkness, the Church proclaims joy and hope. She teaches that Christ “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” Thus, young people, disfigured by sin and modern culture, can be brought back, through divine grace and training in the human virtues, and discover their “most high calling.”

Magdalen College advertises itself as an offspring of Vatican II. How so?

Because it is a lay-founded, lay-governed, and lay-administered institution of higher learning that oversees an integrated system of undergraduate liberal education.

Our program of studies seeks to develop in the student a mature baptismal life and to prepare him or her for the lay vocation, apostolate and spirituality. We do not offer specialized or technical training; our program is not intended to prepare or qualify a student to pursue a specific secular profession.

The Fathers of the Vatican II placed special emphasis on the instruction and training of the laity, especially young people. They declared that each should be educated in and formed by solid doctrinal and moral teachings. They insisted that educational and formational efforts must be suitable to the youth's age, condition and abilities; and that the dignity of each person must always be kept in the foreground while meeting the rigorous demands of education and formation. Thus, the council confirmed that young people, as baptized laity, need to be educated gradually and formed prudently in order that they may see all things in the light of faith.

By insisting that youth receive this kind of Catholic education and formation, the council encouraged young people to immerse themselves deeply into the temporal order and to take their part actively and competently in the work of the world—especially in the work of the family.

Clearly, then, it is not enough for the Mother Church simply to have in her bosom the greatest number of her citizens—the laity. They must be educated and formed so that they can live the lay vocation, apostolate and spirituality.

Why was St. Mary Magdalen chosen as patroness of the college?

St. Mary of Magdala was a lay person who converted to Christ and remained faithful to him. According to Scripture, she was the first to see the Risen Christ and declare him Rabboni, that is, supreme teacher. Sent by Christ himself to bring the Good News of his Resurrection to the apostles, she became apostola apostolorum (the apostle of the apostles).

St. Mary of Magdala is a model of apostleship for a lay-governed Catholic institution of higher learning. Her apostolic mission of bringing the Good News to others orients and animates the school's lay apostolate of instructing and training youth.

—John McCormack