Catholic Colleges Are Essential Agents of Evangelization

How to Form Graduates to Be Apostles of Jesus Christ

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Editor's note: Included in the Register's Catholic Identity College Guide, which can be found here.


It cannot be forgotten that Jesus is the reason for Catholic higher education, and his Person and teaching should permeate everything we do.

As Benedict XVI told Catholic educators gathered at The Catholic University of America in 2008: "Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4)."

This is why Catholic colleges and universities are so important to the "New Evangelization." Blessed John Paul II stated in Ecclesia in America, the post-synodal exhortation on America, (71), that "in the overall work of the New Evangelization, the educational sector occupies a place of honor." In this paragraph, the Pope made clear what is needed for effective witness to Christ: "… Catholic centers of education … will be able to engage in authentic evangelization only if at all levels — including that of the university — they clearly preserve their Catholic orientation. The content of the education they impart should make constant reference to Jesus Christ and his message as the Church presents it in her dogmatic and moral teaching. Only in this way will they train truly Christian leaders in the different spheres of human activity and in society, especially in politics, economics, science, art and philosophical reflection."

Thus an essential starting point for colleges and universities to fulfill their role in the New Evangelization is an explicit Christocentrism that is faithful to the teaching of Christ and his Church and that attempts to integrate faith and reason in all areas of research and study.

Some might protest that evangelization is pastoral work, and universities are about research and education. This is a false dichotomy for several reasons. First, most of our colleges and universities are residential and therefore require a vibrant, faithful, focused pastoral ministry. Second, the research, teaching and studying that is essential to the nature of a university stem from the innate desire in all of us to know and live in accordance with what is true. But, ultimately, as St. Augustine taught and Ex Corde Ecclesiae — the apostolic constitution on higher education — quotes, the search for truth and the search for God are one because God is Truth (John 14:6): "In fact, the blessed life consists in the joy that comes from the truth, since this joy comes from you who are Truth, God my light, salvation of my face, my God" (St. Augustine, Confessions X, xxiii, 3). Third, every university recognizes its essential role in forming the next generation of intellectual and social leaders. But this commitment to service (in other words, one’s vocation in life) ultimately makes sense only if there is meaning and purpose to reality. Authentic service means helping people discover who and why they really are. As Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), 22, teaches, it is only in Christ that man’s vocation becomes clear. Fourth, a university is the ideal place for forming disciples who can live completely integrated lives. Where else can the research and formation take place that will allow modern men and women to integrate their faith and their field of endeavor, their love of Christ with their daily vocation of work and family life?

For all these reasons and more, the Catholic university is an essential agent in the New Evangelization.

Practically, what does this mean? Some distinctions must be made, and different Catholic colleges and universities have somewhat different roles to play, given their unique histories and varying demographics; but, minimally, it seems to me that this means that every student (whether Catholic or not) who attends a Catholic college or university should be thoroughly familiar with the person of Jesus Christ and his teachings. They should be well-versed in the basic kerygma (teaching) concerning Christ’s life, death and resurrection. They should know that they are all invited to join in the worship and prayer of the community (and if they are not Catholic but choose to become so, into full communion with the Catholic Church).

As well-educated members of a diverse world, our students should all have achieved "religious literacy" — a working knowledge of the basic teachings of the major world religions. Every student should be taught how to live a virtuous life (including the theological, moral and intellectual virtues) and know of the basic human dignity of each and every person because of their creation imago Dei. They should be introduced to the social teaching of the Church, especially in those areas where our society is most unjust (life issues, the nature of the family, immigration, etc.). They should see their lives as full of meaning and purpose and be invited to examine and deepen their own faith and reflect on their calling to be servant leaders.

For our Catholic students, we need to do more. We must afford the opportunity for our Catholic students to appropriate their faith on an adult level, making a personal commitment to an intimate, passionate relationship with Jesus and his community, the Church. They should have a working knowledge of at least the basics of Church teaching, as compiled in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Hopefully, they will go beyond the basics to begin a life of theological study and prayer that will deepen their faith and commitment.

They should know that they are called to greatness and saintliness, with a vocation to personal holiness and a particular calling or vocation to serve others, especially those most in need. They should be well-versed in their majors and understand, in depth, the relationship between faith and reason, ethics and practice in their fields.

We must form our Catholic graduates to be apostles of Jesus Christ, so that they may spread the Good News to others. Obviously, there is much work to be done.

Perhaps a starting point would be recognizing that such efforts will require more "agents of evangelization" than our current staffing affords. This is especially so if, as many experienced pastors will attest, most evangelization today takes place via peers. This evangelization of "like by like" will mean the need to recruit and train young adults to work to evangelize their peers. Groups like Fellowship of Catholic University Students, The Evangelical Catholic and St. Paul’s Outreach have already begun this work, but much more is needed.

Second, and this will be a painful admission, we have to face the catechetical crisis in our Church today. Our faculty, staff and students are bright and very capable. But far too many of them have not received an adequate catechetical formation on which to build. There is much need for remedial work in this field. But this ought not to surprise us. Due to the general educational shortcomings in our society, there is all kinds of remedial work going on at colleges and universities: math, science, languages, reading skills, writing, etc. Why should we be resistant to recognize and address the remedial work needed to be done in catechetics? The talented and creative people at our campuses should be able to develop the kind of college-level courses that would weave together history, art, literature, music, architecture and our faith tradition, so as to present in a coherent, complete and attractive way the basic teachings of the Church. Without such an honest assessment, I am afraid that our efforts in the New Evangelization will be like building castles in the sand.

Before his resignation, Benedict XVI finished his ad limina visits with the bishops of the United States. His discussions focused on the New Evangelization in the context of American culture; and in one (May 5, 2012), Benedict stated: "It is no exaggeration to say that providing young people with a sound education in the faith represents the most urgent internal challenge facing the Catholic community in your country."

Our Catholic colleges and universities, to be what they are called to be, must rise to meet this challenge.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland is

vice president for Catholic identity and mission

at Mount St. Mary’s University and executive director

of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic

Higher Education.