From Pennsylvania Avenue to Catholic Academia

H. James Towey — well known to Catholics as director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush — is soon to take office as the 16th president of St. Vincent College, the 160-year-old Benedictine school in Latrobe, Pa.

Previously, for 12 years beginning in 1985, Towey represented Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity in the U.S. and Canada on legal matters. He also served two years as a full-time volunteer in her missions.

Before moving with his wife Mary and their five children to Latrobe, Towey, who officially assumes his new post on July 1, spoke from Washington with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.

This seems like a bit of an abrupt change in career direction. Why did you decide to take this job?

I feel this is a great opportunity for my wife and family and I to immerse ourselves in a small community that has many hidden treasures. We have this great college, this wonderful monastery with Benedictine spirituality, this student body that excites me — and an opportunity to be a shepherd.

What do you hope to accomplish, first off?

I need to spend a lot of my initial time listening. I don’t come from academia, so I have a lot to learn. My short-term goals are to meet the administration and faculty. Also in my first year, I want to meet each student. I’m going to look for opportunities to do that.

The beauty of St. Vincent’s is that you have just 1,600 students, so you can actually immerse yourself in student life and get to know these young men and women.

Clearly we need to build on the success of [outgoing president] Jim Will in his work to financially reform the college and help it change with the times. The reality is that the college has to draw upon an applicant pool that’s broader than the 50-mile radius of St. Vincent College, which is its current practice.

 What will be your long-range goals?

To continue to fulfill the Benedictine Catholic mission at St. Vincent College.

I think St. Vincent College has an important role to play in academia and in the life of the Church. The diversity of the student body, roughly three-fifths Catholic and two-fifths non-Catholic, provides a wonderful opportunity to show how people of different faiths can grow spiritually and come together. It certainly has been the Catholic Benedictine tradition that students are not only given proper academic formation but also prepared morally and spiritually to fulfill the higher calling that each has as a human.

My feeling is that some of the long-term goals will be shaped by what I learn in my first year. I’ll have to raise some money, too. I don’t mind being a beggar for a good cause — and I think St. Vincent College is a good cause

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Catholic higher education today?

I think it’s got to be a place where students are enriched intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically — in other words, a place where young men and women grow. The great thing about a liberal-arts college is that the focus is on the whole person, not simply on preparing people to be good workers.

Pope John Paul II is one of my heroes. He came from academia and he understood this quite well. Not only do we have the deposit of the wisdom of the Church, but we have centuries of Benedictine wisdom with which we can enrich the students. That makes St. Vincent College unique as the first Benedictine college in America.

What are your views on John Paul’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the mandatum?

It was very clear to me that the college takes very seriously Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and I feel that one of my responsibilities is to see the college operates consistent with this. It’s important that St. Vincent College continue its mission and cherish its relationship to the Church and see it as a gift.

I do not believe that intellectual autonomy and academic freedom are at all inconsistent with what John Paul II wrote and the Church has taught for centuries. 

Do you see your experience working for President Bush helping you as president of a Catholic college?

I’m going to a faith-based college that has a diverse student body, so in some ways it’s a continuation. I’ve been working with Protestants, evangelicals, Jews and people with no faith — as well as Catholics — my whole life. I think this is an extension of that. I admire Mother Teresa and how she worked with Hindus and Moslems, all the while deeply rooted in her Catholic faith.

The day I was announced [as president], I said I dedicated my presidency to Mother Teresa, and I will seek her prayers as I go about my works.

President Bush is a friend. I leave with his blessing.

How will your experiences with Mother Teresa carry over with you as president of the college?

Mother always urged me to do things for the glory of God and the good of his people. I will try to do that in Latrobe. I hope to introduce students to Mother Teresa’s legacy and always to avail them of opportunities to meet her beloved poor while they study.

I think that Mother Teresa had a very close connection to our youth because she saw in them greatness. I think the role of a college president is to work with the faculty so that St. Vincent’s environment unleashes this greatness.

The fact is, when one looks at higher education today one sees many instances where very bright kids from great families go off to college and are academically enriched but morally and spiritually impoverished. When that happens, to me, that’s a failure of higher academics.

Any favorite memories of President Bush you’ll take with you?

I will remember seeing the president in quiet prayer in his office. Seeing him laugh at my bad jokes, seeing him talk to addicts, resettled refugees, homeless and others whose lives were transformed by faith-based programs. And I will miss those times.

Mrs. Bush and the president are extraordinary people. My next goal is to find some way to get them to come to St. Vincent College.

Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.