Catholic Identity Means a College Community in Pursuit of Truth, Says Msgr. Swetland
BY Amy Smith
February 15-21, 2009 Issue | Posted 2/9/09 at 12:51 PM
It’s National Catholic Colleges Week, where a number of activities around the country are planned to highlight the accomplishments of Catholic colleges and celebrate their role in society.
Sponsored by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the National Catholic College Admissions Association, National Catholic Colleges Week was established to encourage high schools, churches and families to promote Catholic higher education to students in the community.
Msgr. Stuart Swetland, vice president for Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., has a number of ideas about what it means to be an authentically Catholic college, how to cultivate a truly Catholic identity on campus, and what impact Catholic identity has on students and society.
A former chaplain and director of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Msgr. Swetland spoke with the Register’s Amy Smith.
What does it mean to have an authentically Catholic identity?
The defining document is the apostolic constitution that Pope John Paul II published, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which says that the Catholic university comes “from the heart of the Church.”
Paragraphs 12 and 13 lay out the criteria for what an authentically Catholic university should look like. Universities should look at a document like that and bring to life Jesus Christ in word and sacrament. That’s what campus ministry should do anywhere. When we talk about Catholic identity, it means we do what a university does: We are a community of persons who are in pursuit of the truth.
The next paragraph says that there is a certain authority that allows universities to do that. Next, the university should have a Christian presence in the university world. That’s a nice way of putting it. If it’s authentically Catholic, it has a Christian inspiration of individuals and as a community as a whole.
How does a Catholic college or university achieve a Catholic identity?
There is constant dialogue at a good Catholic university. A pursuit of truth. That’s the vocation we are talking about. It’s through the Church — in accordance with the Church to be true to the faith — and in service to others.
My job as the identity officer is to be intentional, to reflect on what those two paragraphs mean. For us, we are actively searching for truth, serving through truth, entering into a fruitful dialogue to bear the fruit of the faith in the culture. In every department, people think about how faith enlightens, serves and is integrated with dialogue. For example, if you want to do economics or business well, what does the faith teach us about doing economics or business well?
How do you integrate the faith into the campus culture?
Everyone, from the staff to the faculty and students, recognizes the school’s Catholic identity and recognizes their role in serving it. Mount St. Mary’s has four pillars: faith, discovery, leadership and community.
I go to talk with the various groups. I just gave a retreat with the maintenance staff. It was fun to talk with them about what it means for them to serve within this identity. Someone said, “Father, it’s great to see Catholic identity in the dorms. There’s less to repair compared to what college students tend to do.” I was glad to hear that. It means it’s working.
It takes intentionality. Seventy-plus percent of the students are Catholic, and we encourage them to participate, to integrate the faith in all aspects.
What are the specific steps for fostering an authentic Catholic identity on campus?
There should be an active, alive campus ministry. We have Focus [Fellowship of Catholic University Students], Mass, confession and prayer groups. We start class with prayer. Service trips are planned with classes. Everything is more integrated. There are activities on all levels, like retreats to challenge courses that help students grow in human virtues. Lectures are tied to various aspects of the class. We go to the pro-life march. With Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’ll discuss what it means to live in a political society, how to overcome injustice, how to be authentically pro-life. We are sending five buses to the march. And that’s just one week.
We have staff in-services with every group, from our safety officers to accountants.
It’s ongoing, intentional about who we are and why we are.
We have a Catholic identity council; it’s a subcommittee that puts on retreats, half days of renewal to focus on our mission.
We have the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine. It’s nice for us to have a national shrine on campus.
We’re not perfect. We have to work at it. It’s a battle, a good fight, as St. Paul said.
Education is holistic: It’s about how students live in the dorms, to how we teach, pray and recreate. It’s all integrated to concentrate on that mission.
Is this what you see across the country?
Many Catholic colleges and universities are emphasizing identity more today. There was a period when many took their identity for granted. Offices like mine — there was a time when that was not done; it just happens now. There’s a greater emphasis on this. It also has to do with market realities: What’s the difference between our universities and state schools? If we’re just promoting good academics — hopefully all schools have that. If we just focus on athletic facilities and good teams and have friendly, kind teachers, what would make us unique?
Our uniqueness is that we are proudly, robustly Catholic. When I was at the University of Illinois, there were so many things I couldn’t talk about in the classroom, but here, we can bring in faith and ethical dilemmas that you can’t do at a state university.
The freer places are Catholic. We can talk about everything.
What advice would you give to other Catholic universities?
Have strong leadership from the top to emphasize the Catholic mission. Everyone has to be proudly, unabashedly Catholic. That’s our president Thomas Powell’s phrase. That leads us as our first pillar. It’s who we are.
We’re not embarrassed by faith, putting it as an afterthought.
That’s what Mother [St. Elizabeth Ann] Seton teaches us — I can see where she taught up the hill from my office. She wasn’t ashamed of the faith. We need to show that same boldness.
What are the challenges to integrating Catholic identity, given the secularization of society?
That’s the fun part. There are new challenges because society is less accepting of Judeo-Christian values and ethical standards. It’s a problem, as the nation is abandoning its values. There needs to be a lot more apologia for the faith. We need to show the wisdom of the faith.
How will a strong Catholic identity impact the students’ futures?
We need to emphasize the concept of vocation. Everyone is called to the vocation of holiness and has a calling in some specific way to sanctify the world. We need to make sure that they understand their vocation: that they’re called to be saints — whether that’s in a family, with a career, or both.
If they have that, we’ll produce service-minded young men and women looking to sanctify the world.
Amy Smith is the
Register’s copy editor.
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