Building Up Catholic Culture in Kansas

Benedictine College is bringing some of the best of today's Catholic thinking to the public through its Gregorian Institute.

T he feast of St. Gregory the Great on Sept. 3 saw Benedictine College formally launch its new Gregorian Institute and Gregorian Fellowship program.

Through the Gregorian Institute, the college, in Atchison, Kan., will try to renew Catholic culture and freedom of religious expression by promoting Catholic identity in public life.

Naming the new institute after the great Benedictine Pope was a natural for the college, according to Tom Hoopes, who founded the institute, and Joseph Wurtz, dean of students.

Hoopes, who is vice president of college relations and Benedictine’s writer in residence, said the college wants to present to students St. Gregory’s appreciation for truth, beauty and goodness as well as his example of strong, practical leadership.

“He lived out this charism of leadership,” Wurtz said. “We’re engaging the culture using our skills and talents for the common good and want to raise up individuals to character, competence and commitment to greatness. Who better represents that?”

The Gregorian Institute is already moving into high gear with its next issue of The Gregorian, a digest of speeches given on campus, a speakers program, conferences and white papers — not to mention its undergraduate Gregorian Fellowship program.

The Gregorian and the white papers are meant to help leaders in all walks of life. Hoopes said the idea is to nail down the principles of Catholic identity in different disciplines “so people in the professions can discuss what it means to be a Catholic and be true to your Catholic identity in your profession.”

A four-year Gregorian Fellowship program will help introduce 25 students drawn from each class to classical thought on leadership as well as truth, beauty and goodness “and also get them to meet Catholics who are at the top of their profession and enthusiastic about their Catholic identity,” Hoopes said. While the general public will be able to hear prominent Catholic speakers on campus, Gregorian Fellows will get to speak with them on a more intimate level. They have already met with Princeton University professor Robert George.

“The institute and fellowship offers great opportunity to interface with these intellectual giants who are out to engage the culture for the better,” said Wurtz.

Recent speakers have included Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Ave Maria University’s new president, H. James Towey, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer. Upcoming speakers include papal biographer George Weigel.

Gregorian Fellows will also look at the various dimensions of leadership from sources such as the classics of literature, politics and spirituality and involvement in campus activities; they will also have lunch with Benedictine’s president, Stephen Minnis, to talk about issues of the day.

Faith in Life

But the Gregorian Institute isn’t intended just to build Catholic leadership for the fellows and students on campus. The Gregorian is free for anyone who wants to subscribe and so are the white papers, soon to be posted on the institute’s website,

The aim of the white papers, written by Catholic professional leaders, is to help Catholics live their faith and Catholic identity in their fields. What does it mean to be a Catholic nurse, engineer or lawyer? The first paper will be on “Blessed Cardinal Newman and Conscience.”

“With the white papers, we’re starting a discussion we hope will be at the service of the Church,” Hoopes said.

Hoopes explained that the Second Vatican Council sought to help people integrate their faith life with their life in the world.

“That remains a big problem in our day too — the problem,” he stressed. “We help to find ways for people to be proud of being Catholic and really grow in effectiveness and confidence through their faith. Our faith in the public square makes a difference.”

As an aid, The Gregorian features crucial speeches by top Catholics who examine the critical issues that confront our country and world using faith and reason.

The institute also hopes to reach teenagers. In the works is a Ten Commandments series for Catholic high schools (that can be downloaded as a free poster) to introduce teens to Catholic-identity issues.

Freshman fellows like Vincent Petruccelli of Rockville. Md., are excited about the prospects.

He said applying for the fellowship “confirmed my choice of Benedictine, in that it was such an awesome opportunity” to write essays examining what our role as Catholics in society is, what the role of the Church is, and what bringing our Catholic beliefs into society means in our personal lives.

Petruccelli enjoys the fellowship with 24 other freshmen whose faith is important to them. He’s already eagerly looking forward to the fellowship’s examination of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, scheduled for March.

Robert George himself showed great enthusiasm for Benedictine’s mission.

“It is confident in its Catholic identity and at the same time enthusiastically engaged with the larger intellectual culture,” he wrote on the Mirror of Justice blog Sept. 2. “Its leadership is bright, dedicated, deeply faithful and remarkably youthful. If Benedictine College and schools like it are the future of Catholic higher education in the United States — and I believe they are — then the Church and the world will be very well served indeed.”

Hoopes, who joined Benedictine’s staff in 2009 after some 10 years as editor of the Register, sees the success of the college prefiguring what the Gregorian Institute can accomplish. He called the school a textbook example of how being faithful to Catholic identity can transform an organization. Ever since Blessed John Paul II promulgated Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document on how Catholic identity is integral to Catholic higher education, Benedictine has undergone a renaissance. In 1991 it had the
lowest enrollment in its 150-year history, with 572 full-time undergrads. Today, the number of new students on campus is greater
than the total number of students
in 1991.

“By all the data you look at,” Hoopes noted, “absolutely the reason we’re so successful is our fidelity to our Catholic identity.”

The Gregorian Institute hopes to bring that same kind of success by forming leaders to bring Catholic identity into the public square, similar to the impact of the former Ignatius Institute started by Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, which Hoopes attended; he and his fellow students became editors at the Register, Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic World Report.

“By focusing on the truth of the faith and giving us confidence in our Catholic identity,” Hoopes assessed, “that program did more than it ever expected to do. We hope we can do the same with the Gregorian Institute.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.