How to Evangelize With Truth, Beauty and Goodness

Men desire the perfect attainment of truth, beauty and goodness because our hearts are made for God.

Fritz von Uhde, “Christ and Nicodemus,” c. 1896
Fritz von Uhde, “Christ and Nicodemus,” c. 1896 (photo: Public Domain)

In my role as a faculty member of the Pontifical North American College, I am blessed to give some formation talks to the seminarians. As the academic dean at the seminary and as a priest who has been involved in education for most of my priesthood, usually the conferences that I am assigned to give involve the intellectual life or some aspect of teaching.

For one of the conferences that I give to the seminarians who are in their third year of formation, I was asked to offer some thoughts for these young men on campus ministry. Previously in their formation conferences, I had given them a session on teaching skills while they were in their second year of theology; this conference was different, focused on the role of the future priest in campus ministry.

In my preparation for the talk, I was reflecting on my own years of priestly ministry involving high school and college students. When I was a seminarian in Rome, in my years before priestly ordination, the seminary’s Director of Apostolic Formation assigned me to assist in the semester-abroad program for Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, in campus ministry. As a very young priest, before my bishop assigned me to teach in high school full-time, I used to help out in some high schools in my diocese in their sacramental needs. I was planning on regaling the seminarians with some of my experiences, as well as a “things-to-do and not-to-do” list when ministering in a campus ministry setting. However, as I read the conference over, I realized that I did not, ultimately, have a substantial theological underpinning for the topic. To offer this theological overview, I turned to the writings of Bishop Robert E. Barron.

I began the conference by offering the seminarians two images of priesthood derived from Bishop Barron, ones that I have discussed at length in previous entries here at the Register: the priest as mystagogue and the priest as doctor of the soul. I believe that these two images of priesthood are exceptionally suited to the priest involved in campus ministry. Having offered these images of priesthood, I then presented a program for campus ministry that might be short on specifics, as each situation is completely different from another, but might be long on insights. And, again, I used an idea from Bishop Barron, in his book written with John L. Allen, Jr., To Light a Fire on Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age (2017) and adapt it to the role of a priest in campus ministry.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, that sure and certain guide in the communication and clarification of our faith, in its numbers 40 and 41, clearly explains:

Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking. All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. the manifold perfections of creatures - their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures" perfections as our starting point, "for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”

The transcendentals can be described as the ultimate desires of man. Man ultimately strives for perfection, which takes form through the desire for perfect attainment of the transcendentals. And for what ultimately is he grasping? God.

The college student, the high school student, who comes to campus ministry, is coming for many reasons. For some, it is for companionship; for others, it is for guidance; for still others, it is a chance for service, to go out and make a difference in the world; and for still others, it is a desire for the sacraments.

For many of the seminarians, they are already engaged in campus ministry in their apostolic assignments. For some of them, it is a truly life-giving experience, and, for others, sadly, it can prove to be more of a frustration and disappointment, holding events in which two or three may attend, or Masses in which only a handful of congregants attend. The key, I mentioned to these young men, is don’t give up. Keep being present to the students. Be there with them at meals; be around where they are. Learn to take social cues when they don’t want to be bothered or be involved, but be with them. However, a question remains: what could be the theological underpinning for a campus ministry? I suggest it could be one based on the transcendentals.

In my next piece, I would like to take Bishop Barron’s thoughts on the transcendentals — beauty, truth and goodness — as the theological basis of campus ministry for young people.