Mild, Mild West Adventure
Wyoming Catholic Philosophy Professor Finds That Rustic Tranquility Facilitates Christian Life
Life on many college campuses today is anything but tranquil. Even when students attend institutions of higher learning in rural areas, they oftentimes have to deal with crowded classrooms, rowdy dorms and the seemingly incessant beeping and buzzing of communications devices.
Wyoming Catholic College (WCC) has the answer to the problem, according to Peter Kwasniewski, professor of philosophy and theology and one of the school’s founding faculty members. The college, founded in 2005, offers a quiet, rural location, small class sizes and an unusually disciplined technology policy. (For example, students are not allowed to use cellphones on campus.)
Kwasniewski finds his current surroundings conducive to a living, breathing Catholic education, in contrast to the beginning of his own undergraduate studies: He had spent a year at Georgetown University in Washington before transferring to Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.
After earning a B.A. in philosophy from Thomas Aquinas, Kwasniewski returned to Washington for graduate studies at The Catholic University of America. He then taught in Austria for the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family and the study-abroad programs of Franciscan University of Steubenville and Ave Maria University.
Kwasniewksi, who released a book earlier this year entitled Sacred Choral Works, spoke of the state of Catholic higher education, sacred music and getting a bilingual edition of the complete works of St. Thomas Aquinas in print.
With all of your academic experience, what do you think are the top challenges for Catholic institutions of higher learning today?
There are many challenges, but I will name two. The first is curricular integrity and depth. It is very tempting for institutions to follow the conventions and assumptions of our day — for example, by conceiving of higher education as glorified job training, rather than seeing it as a profound formation of the mind and heart, as the Catholic Tradition views it.
Catholic schools have an irreplaceable vocation to bring an intellectual and spiritual patrimony of two millennia into the lives of their students, and this is not something that will happen by chance or luck. It needs to be carefully built into the mission, the curriculum, the campus life, the chaplaincy and then pursued with great clarity and zeal.
The second challenge is related to the first: convincing parents, and even clergy, that there is nothing more important for young men and women than attending a college or university that will actually strengthen their faith, feed their minds with natural and supernatural truths and help them lead a moral life in conformity with the Gospel.
Questions of prestige and getting a good job are radically secondary to the one thing needful, which is following Jesus Christ with all of our powers of body and soul. He promised us that when we put his kingdom first, he will provide for all of our other needs, at the right time and in his own way.
The college years are a unique and crucial time of personal growth, and no amount of schooling prior to college — even the best home schooling or private preparatory school — can replace the need for an authentically Catholic college education for anyone who plans to continue on to that level. It is a special time when many young men and women will either mature into self-aware and self-motivated disciples of Christ or fall away into confusion, turpitude and apostasy.
Wyoming Catholic College is a very small school. What are the pluses and minuses of such a small institution?
To be honest, I mainly see huge pluses for student life. After high school, I spent a year at Georgetown University and then four years at Thomas Aquinas College. This was in the early ’90s, when TAC’s campus size was not much larger than WCC’s is now.
The contrast between the Washington, D.C., campus and the Santa Paula one would be hard to exaggerate: Georgetown was impersonal, the student life anarchical and hedonistic, the studies poorly designed and true friends hard to find. At WCC, as at TAC, you have many fellow students who are serious in their faith and intellectual commitment, and you develop deep friendships that will last a lifetime.
You also have teachers who genuinely care about you and (for instance) invite you over to their homes for meals, music or readings, with fascinating conversations about all sorts of things. It can sound trite to say that the students here are like a family, but when you experience it firsthand, you can see that it’s quite true: It is a family, a band of brothers working side-by-side, studying, praying, hiking, learning to be fully and joyfully alive. This is the kind of life that I wish every young Catholic could live.
Speaking as a teacher, I enjoy being in an integrated liberal arts program where I have the opportunity to teach across the curriculum, deepening my understanding of all areas of theology, philosophy, music and beyond. The faculty here are continually in conversation about great books, great works of art and how to lead the students into the knowledge and love of the truth. My teaching stimulates my writing, and my serving as the school’s choirmaster stimulates my activities as a composer.
As the pace of society continues to speed up, do you find the slower pace in Wyoming to be a great blessing?
It is indeed. There’s a saying that has a lot of truth to it: “Wyoming is what America was.” Quite apart from its tremendous natural beauty, our local community has more genuine human and personal character to it than any other I’ve been a part of.
Our college didn’t end up in Lander, Wyo., by accident; it was a very deliberate decision of the founders. Being here in the great, open West, in a small town with a slow pace, makes an ideal environment for living out an integrally Catholic life and for developing the moral and intellectual virtues that perfect a man or woman from within.
And I believe we are making a good use of that “great blessing” you mentioned. Over meals or in their spare time, people hold real conversations about worthwhile things instead of texting or chattering on their phones about ephemera. They do adventurous things in the great outdoors, “God’s First Book.” When taking a break, the students recite poetry, play sports or sing songs.
WCC is a genuine community of people who love each other, are animated by a noble purpose and still know how to have fun. It sounds strange to say it, but there are fewer and fewer places in the modern world where any of this happens.
You released a book earlier this year called Sacred Choral Works. Can you say a little about this book and who would benefit most from it?
Although my main work has been that of a professor of philosophy and theology, I’ve also been heavily involved over the past 25 years with music — cantoring, directing choirs and composing, especially for church choirs. I decided last year to collect the best of my compositions, with the aim of making them more widely available. Corpus Christi Watershed was excited about the project and helped me bring it to completion. The book, containing 85 pieces, was published earlier this year. I’ve been delighted by the reception: Some of my Masses, motets and hymns have already been included in the repertoire of choirs around the country, and even abroad.
The style of the music is inspired by Gregorian chant and classic polyphony, which constitute the core repertoire and best models of sacred music (see Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], 116); the texts, in Latin and in English, are Catholic through and through, drawing upon Scripture, liturgy and Tradition; and the pieces vary in difficulty, so that there is something for every size and skill level of choir (SC, 121). Vatican II clearly said that “choirs must be diligently promoted” (SC, 114) and that “composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures” (SC, 121). This is what I have tried to do, in order to contribute to the renewal of the liturgy in our times, in accordance with the luminous teaching of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
You’ve stated that Christ is formed in the soul through sacred music. What exactly do you mean by that?
As the ancient philosophers saw and as the Catholic Tradition has always recognized, music shapes our character: We become images of what we listen to; we internalize and embody the spirit of the music. And conversely, we produce music that reflects — one could even say, contains and transmits — who we are or who we think we are and where we want to be going. So music is an extremely powerful force for the shaping of the soul, for good or for ill.
Sacred music is still music and, therefore, has this elemental power, to which the words then add an intelligible content (again, for good or for ill).
The style of our Church music and the texts used by it will shape our souls, our worship and our faith. Who God is for us, what his message is to us and how we will respond to it are all conveyed by that music. If it is holy, artistically sound and universal, it will be a theology of the holiness and beauty of Jesus Christ, the Savior of all mankind. If it is secular in feel or association, if it is schlocky, sentimental, too passionate or too provincial in style, it risks becoming the music of a different religion or perhaps merely a reflection of the surrounding world. We believe as we pray and as we sing.
The question of good sacred music is not a peripheral one, but one that reaches to the inner core of a Christian’s identity as an adopted son of God and a member of a Church that was founded upon Scripture and Tradition.
You are part of a budding enterprise called The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, which is publishing the complete works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Why are you enthusiastic about this project?
The Aquinas Institute, based here in Lander, is working on a project that has never been done before: a complete bilingual edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. For 700 years, the Church has lauded St. Thomas as the best guide in the study of philosophy and theology — and these accolades continue in the documents of Vatican II and the magisteriums of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And yet, bizarrely, only a few of his works have been readily and affordably available in Latin or in English, let alone in bilingual editions.
Our goal over the next years is to bring out a total of 57 volumes, all in hardcover, that give the reader access to all the original texts as well as good translations. Naturally, this will involve translating a number of things that have never appeared in English before, and I am happy to say that we have the enthusiastic cooperation of scholars from around the country who are working simultaneously on those various translations.
So far, we have published the Summa Theologiae in eight volumes, the Commentaries on the Letters of St. Paul in five volumes, the Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in two volumes and the Commentary on the Gospel of John, also in two volumes — and all of these are priced within reach of individuals and not just libraries with giant budgets.
To give you a sense of St. Thomas’ marvelous achievement: For each of the 14 epistles of St. Paul (if we include Hebrews, which was often attributed to Paul), Thomas has given us a verse-by-verse commentary, with an in-depth analysis of the structure and content of the text, and a penetrating exposition of its doctrinal riches. These commentaries can nourish the reader for a lifetime.
In many ways, this work is an extension of our work as professors at Wyoming Catholic College, where the principles underlying our entire curriculum are drawn from St. Thomas and where the disciplines of philosophy and theology in particular are deeply shaped by his insights and often feature his writings.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
This online version is longer than the print version in the Sept. 7 issue.
- Sept. 7-20, 2014