Lifting Up the Faith Down Under

How the University of Notre Dame in Australia is inspiring a new generation.

St. Benedict Catholic Church on the Sydney, Australia, campus offers daily Mass. University of Notre Dame Australia
St. Benedict Catholic Church on the Sydney, Australia, campus offers daily Mass. University of Notre Dame Australia (photo: University of Notre Dame Australia)

Across the campuses of the University of Notre Dame in Australia (UNDA), the Catholic faith permeates each and every classroom and course. Deep questions are being asked, and the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith is being discovered.

“We are unapologetically Catholic in all that we do,” said Michael Quinlan, dean of the university’s law school. “This does not mean that we force-feed students an exclusive diet of Catholic intellectual thought. It does mean that we do not ignore it, and where it fits, we talk about it.”

Founded in 1989, UNDA was Australia’s first Catholic university. The school currently has three campuses, with seven colleges across the country and 11,000 students from myriad faith traditions. The school’s Sydney campus is the largest, with 4,000 students. The school has no official ties to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, other than they honor the Blessed Mother under the same patronage.


Catholic to the Core

At the heart of the school’s education is the Logos program: a series of classes in the areas of philosophy, theology and ethics that all undergraduate students, regardless of major, are required to take.

“There are more than 150 modules [seminars] to choose from,” explained Christian Brugger, dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology in Sydney. “These include seminars on relativism, seven deadly sins, technology, deep ecology and the ‘Four Last Things,’ just to name a few.”

Brugger explained that each module is taught by the School of Theology and Philosophy and is three hours long. The first hour is a lecture in a big-classroom setting, and the other two hours are geared towards smaller, interactive-group discussions.

“The purpose of this system is to awaken the students to a reflection on the deeper questions of existence,” Brugger told the Register. “There’s a lot of interaction between instructor and students.”

He added that many students at the university have no religious training. However, students are not assessed on quantity of material learned, but by their engagement in the tutorials with submitted assignments.

“The idea is to not impose knowledge, but, rather, to propose ideas,” Brugger explained. “If students begin to awaken to the reality of God, good and evil, and begin to ask meaningful questions about themselves, we consider it a success.”

“It may be the only time in their lives that these sorts of topics are systematically addressed to them,” he said. “So we take the modules very seriously. We like to think of it as a kind of sacred encounter. We want to hear what they have to say. We try to give everyone’s ideas a fair shake, but we are most surely committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition as the norm.”


Engaging Secularism

Brugger just completed his first semester teaching at UNDA. He and his family moved to Sydney in March from Denver, where he was the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Professor of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

While he described the discernment process to move across the world as an agonizing one, it was UNDA’s commitment to the whole truth of the faith, from the university’s executive seat on down, that confirmed it for him.

Since arriving, he explained that his job has not been without its challenges. His Australian students often lack a basic understanding of the Catholic faith before entering college. It is a scenario that is quite different than what he was accustomed to in the United States.

“Australia is a more secularized country than the United States,” Brugger said. “Faith and religion, Christianity and its doctrines are further from the minds of the ordinary person here.”

“In the U.S., everyone is conscious of religion and religious questions. Some are bitterly opposed to Christianity, others are devoted to it, and still others try to tiptoe gently around institutional religion to avoid being soiled by it,” he said.

“But there is no really religiously oblivious part of the United States. Here in Australia, there is an astonishing level of religious ignorance and oblivion. Religion is simply not in the daily categories of thinking, and Catholicism, in general, has a negative connotation on the streets here.”

With this in mind, Brugger explained that there is a struggle in the Theology and Philosophy Department at UNDA on how much time should be spent in the first years of theological education with laying down a basic catechetical foundation.

“Students arrive with virtually no ambient catechesis,” explained Brugger. “Thus it is difficult to begin discussing truly theological questions with students who know almost nothing about Jesus, faith, heaven, grace — even good and evil. These are young people who have rarely ever cast a serious thought to these realities.”


Faithful Education

Sarah Lovegood, a third-year student studying law and psychology, was raised in a Catholic home; however, her family fell away from actively practicing the faith when she was around 8 years old. She wasn’t sure why.

“I would often wonder why God meant so much to some people, but apparently so little to others,” she said.

After arriving on campus, it did not take long for her to discover that the Catholic faith was alive and waiting to be rediscovered by her.

Now at age 20, she credits the guidance of the religious communities on campus, such as the Sisters of Mercy and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and the Dominican Friars, for bringing her back to the faith of her youth.

“I thrive on the Catholic atmosphere here,” she said. “I attend daily Mass and enjoy my experience as a student in such a nurturing environment. I am now involved in the formation of a youth group at my local parish. I actively seek opportunities to learn more about Catholicism in order to help others who have had similar experiences to myself.”

Dean Quinlan said he was hooked on the school’s unequivocal Catholic approach to education since he was a student on campus working on his master’s in theology more than a decade ago. “The school does its best to be Catholic in everything we do,” he said. “This includes how we teach, what we teach and how we provide our students with pastoral care.”

He added that some people might not think that this approach would be popular, but he said students “love it and are thriving.”

Quinlan explained that the Australian government surveys university students across the country on the quality of their education. He said UNDA was recently ranked first in the state for its overall quality of educational experience, teaching quality, learner engagement and support and skills development.

“Our Islamic students and evangelical Christians, in particular, comment again and again on how much they enjoy learning in an environment of faith,” he said.

The school’s St. Benedict Catholic Church, consecrated in the 1850s, is at the heart of the university’s Sydney campus and well-attended for daily Mass. In addition, the campus has a very active chaplaincy program, which allows students to attend retreats, Bible studies, the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharistic adoration.

“I cannot think of one reason why a student would not elect to study at UNDA,” said Lovegood with a smile. “It is truly a rich Catholic experience. My experience here — both in the classroom and beyond — has opened up doors for me that I would have never imagined.”

Eddie O’Neill

writes from Missouri.