College President to Students: ‘Study Hard, but Pray Harder’

Msgr. Stuart Swetland of Donnelly College offers advice for helping students grow in faith and wisdom.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, encourages students to seek God amid their studies.
Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, encourages students to seek God amid their studies. (photo: Courtesy of Donnelly College)

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, has had a longtime presence in higher education. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Rhodes Scholar, he entered the Catholic Church while studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. Msgr. Swetland previously served as vice president for Catholic identity and mission at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and as executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, among other roles. He is host of EWTN’s Catholicism on Campus.

Msgr. Swetland spoke with the Register’s associate editor, Amy Smith, Aug. 21 about the purpose of Catholic higher education and how students should be encouraged in their walk of faith while they work toward academic goals. (See related Catholic Identity College Guide.)


How can colleges aid students in seeing higher education as a call to grow as children of God while seeking knowledge?

“Jesus grew in age and grace and wisdom” (Luke 2:40). That is what we are all called to do, of course. I have to grow in grace and wisdom and help students to do the same. That is the main purpose of a Catholic university, according to Ex Corde Ecclesiae. We’re supposed to be consecrated, without reserve, to the cause of truth. We must help students discover who and why they are and instill in them every aspect proper to a robust theological anthology — the vision of the human person — and to the fullness of truth. Students need to discover who they are and how they relate to others — first to God and then to all the others around them through God.


How does study, seeking knowledge, etc. improve the human person?

The classic philosophical vision of the human person recognizes our capacity to reason and to choose. The classic theological vision of the human person speaks of our creation imago Dei — in the image and likeness of God, with a vocation to be united with God.

A proper theological anthropology will build on these truths and emphasize that reason seeks to know and understand truth. The will seeks both beauty and goodness. We help students discover truth in every discipline, from math to theology and everything in between. We also want to help them to discover what kinds of choices lead toward goodness. And, of course, the study of God’s creation unveils the beauty within and inspires students to create beauty in the arts, science, writing, etc. All this should be done in a communio, a community of learners, seeking unity.


How should faithful Catholic colleges encourage students to grow in their faith?

Students should have access to prayer, the sacraments — Mass and confession — and sacramentals, like the Rosary and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We are called to be all things to all people to win some. Some students are drawn to beauty, so appeal to them through choirs at Mass and special events: Things like this help people appreciate the beauty of creation, as well as through the arts and theater, etc.

In terms of goodness, there are opportunities for social and service clubs to develop in students an innate sense of the virtuous life, lived in society; also clubs for friendship and fellowship, to develop healthy and holy, virtuous interaction. There are also opportunities for tutoring children and feeding the hungry. In class, we see things with the view of the purpose of a university: to educate, teach and form students to discover their relationship with God and what he is calling them to do.


Fifty years after the “Land O’Lakes Statement,” how are strong Catholic colleges exemplifying the heart of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II’s exhortation on Catholic higher education?

We know that there is no conflict between being a great college or university and being a great Catholic university. To contrast these two is a false dichotomy. A truly great college or university must help provide a unified, holistic vision of the true, the beautiful, the good. To fail to do this leads to confusion.


What prayer practices do you find are most beneficial for students?

Objectively, the most important prayer is the Mass. I started off the first day of classes today with 8am Mass. Mass is essential for everyone. Subjectively, we also need a prayer life of depth and substance. Students need to develop a prayer life of depth and substance. Eighteen-year-olds come with an inherited faith — if their parents did their job of teaching and forming.

But young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 need to make adult decisions about their faith lives. They need to make the faith their own, beginning to have a prayer routine that will carry them throughout life as an adult. We give out missals, so that even when students cannot get to Mass, they can meditate on the Scriptures. In our courses, they learn to pray with Scripture. And we have Bible studies, many of them peer-to peer; some campuses have FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) — we have St. Paul’s Outreach. We are devoted to helping students form their faith lives. Also, here at Donnelly, we have students from many nationalities and backgrounds, so we celebrate various saints and customs and cultures through faith.


You recently shared with the Register that Catholic higher education can change lives for the better. You said, “Once they have confidence that truth exists and it can be known, students want and desire it.” How have you seen this firsthand?

One of the things that keeps me young is seeing students get fascinated about various disciplines. In my own youth, I was fascinated with math — my mother was a math teacher — and I see where that took me in my own life. I became intrigued by physics, and that’s why I chose it as my major. I have seen this repeated hundreds of times with students in whatever discipline. They want to know.

They drink it up. They are excited and want to talk about it and tell you about it. They have a love for it — something propels them to learn more. Those “aha!” moments excite students to aspire to truth and help them become lifelong learners. Last year, some of our students went to the March for Life, and when they came back, I met with them individually. They came back excited to serve those in need so that they would never have abortions. They were caught on fire, having met with like-minded people who share the same thought about the dignity of human life, especially the unborn.


In general, how have you seen students encouraged by the saints and the Church’s call to holiness?

Outside of my office, there is an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe — we have many Latino students here, but our devotion is also related to her being patroness of the Americas and the unborn.

These things set the tone for what our campus is about — signs of faith are visible. We are building a new chapel named for Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, who is not that well known — he was dedicated to helping the poor — but learning about him is educational. St. Pius X reminds us to “Restore all things in Christ,” and every saint provides a teaching moment. I have been collecting relics since my time at the University of Illinois [St. John’s Catholic Newman Center], and I have them in a conference room here — called the “All Saints’ Conference Room” — and before meetings, people look at the relics. I often begin meetings by talking about the relics. Talking about the saints is always a teachable moment.


What else is important for students and parents to remember as they embark on the college years?

First, parents: They should realize that 18- to 25-year-olds will be making adult choices for faith. It’s no longer “I believe because Mom and Dad believe it — it’s a matter of my faith.”

During these years, young people are often discerning their vocations — so parents should ask, “What is it that God wants you to do with your life?” They also make significant friendships and may meet their spouses, so parents should encourage young people to have healthy and holy relationships. They need to develop the virtue and skills needed to do whatever God is calling them to do.

Students need to be challenged and have active participation in those developments.

All of this is to help them grow, to have open hearts and minds to grow in faith, to seek knowledge, understanding and wisdom — both from right reason — and the revelation of God.

To every student, I say — this is true for every student, even those who go to secular schools with good Newman Centers: “Study hard, but pray harder.” This is advice we need to give to youth in college.