Converted by Beauty

An interview with George Harne, the new president of the College of Saint Mary Magdalen.

George Harne was named the fourth president of the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, N.H., in February.

Harne, who succeeds Jeffrey Karls, served as the college’s academic dean since 2009. He has also taught courses in philosophy, Latin and mathematics.

He holds advanced degrees in music history, musicology and liberal studies, with a Ph.D. in musicology from Princeton.

Harne and his wife have four children ranging in age from 21 months to 10.

From his office on campus, he spoke to Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen by phone and email about his vision and goals for the college.

How do you see your role changing from academic dean?

As academic dean, my focus was primarily on the academic program as an integral and primary part of the college’s life and mission. In my new role, I must consider the whole of the college and its constitutive parts, making sure that the intellectual, spiritual and social components harmonize and receive the appropriate emphasis.

Last October, the college changed its name from Magdalen College to the College of Saint Mary Magdalen. Now that you are president, what do you foresee for change or emphasis in the short term?

This year we renewed and expanded our liberal arts program built on the study and discussion of the Great Books. We will continue this intellectual renewal in the coming years.

We have also sought to renew our approach to student life and our Catholic community. We believe that freedom and the respect for human dignity must be the foundation of any student life and community that is truly Catholic. All of us at the college — the faculty, staff and students — are called to follow Christ without reservation.

As president, it is my job to make sure that each member of the community hears that call and can respond freely. Together as a college, drawing upon the sacramental treasures of the Church and living according to the rhythms of the liturgical year, we will seek to be a part of the vibrant renewal of the Church and the world.

With your advanced degrees in music and musicology, how do you envision Magdalen’s strong music and choral program influencing students and contributing to the Church in general?

As a musicologist — someone who has studied music history and theory — I have a special appreciation for the power of beauty, particularly musical beauty.

If we believe in the fundamental unity of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, then we recognize how Beauty can draw us deeper into Truth and Goodness. Beauty can and must be an integral part of the New Evangelization. There are those who might oppose certain theological or moral teachings of the Church that can be brought much closer to the truth through the beauty of the liturgy or the other forms of beauty.

Beauty also played a role in our conversion. My wife and I entered full communion with the Church a little over five years ago, and one of the turning points came when we attended a traditional Corpus Christi procession. It was there that I came to believe in the Real Presence. The beauty of the procession — musical and visual — overcame my intellectual reservations. From there, my understanding of the Church and the sacrament of holy orders began to change. Beauty can make it easier for a person to accept the claims of the Church and her moral teachings. This is one way that Beauty can be an essential part of the re-evangelization of the West.

The effects of beauty can also be simpler yet equally important — I studied clarinet, my wife is a singer, and our children study music as well. We have seen how musical beauty within our family can make us more fully human and open new perspectives that had been previously unavailable.

Obviously, the liturgies remain a vital part of the college.

Our goal is to celebrate the liturgy in the most beautiful and reverent way possible. Our hope is that our students will take their liturgical experiences at the college back to their parishes and help renew the liturgy there. When teaching our students chant and polyphony, our choir director likes to say that she is not merely training choir members, but future choir directors.

When you were named president, you said, “We will be relentless in our efforts to renew the College of Saint Mary Magdalen as a model of Catholic collegiate life that is faithful to the magisterium and deeply rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition.” How do you aim to fulfill that vision?

We begin by ensuring that the faith of our students will be strengthened rather than undermined while they are in college. All of our faculty are Catholic and take the Oath of Fidelity to the Catholic Church at the beginning of each year. All of our students take four years of catechesis while deepening and strengthening their faith in a community that strives to think with the mind of the Church and live according to the rhythms of the liturgical year.

In our academic program, we strive to integrate fully the strengths of the Great Books tradition … with the riches and intellectual discipline of the Catholic tradition, both the monastic tradition and that of the medieval universities. At the foundation of our education are the traditional seven liberal arts ordered to the highest considerations of philosophical and theological truth.

We also seek to be faithful to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities) and Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). We seek to be faithful not only to the teachings of the Church, but also seek to help our students integrate their faith with the truth of the scientific and humanistic disciplines, so that they will have a unified and integrated vision of themselves, each other and the world.

Finally, we believe that a truly Catholic college is a place where students encounter Christ in the sacraments and live their faith in their relations with other students, faculty and staff. There must be an active effort on the part of the faculty and staff to ensure that the college is a place where the students can and do have that encounter.

In addition to Pope John Paul II, who else influences your mission?

Three other figures are essential to how we think of our mission. First, Blessed John Henry Newman, who understood that liberal education is the perfection of the intellect, the training of the mind in the fundamental disciplines ordered toward the grasping of the highest truth.

Second, Pope Benedict XVI is a model in two ways. First, he has engaged fearlessly the leading thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Second — and this goes back to Ex Corde Ecclesiae — Pope Benedict recognizes that an essential part of Catholic education is the encounter of students with the person who is Truth itself, that is, Christ.

Our third model is St. Thomas Aquinas. For St. Thomas, education is not merely learning what others have taught, but rather learning the truth of things. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Fides et Ratio and these three figures are the points by which we orient our efforts and evaluate the fruit of our labors.

Do you envision the college growing?

Yes, by offering a vibrant Catholic student life and the best Catholic Great Books education available — all the while keeping the cost of attendance low — we intend to increase our enrollment significantly.

You’ve also noted another goal: for Magdalen to serve the Church nationally and locally and meet the challenges of materialism, secularization and the dictatorship of relativism. How?

We’re producing priests and religious: 10% of our students enter the priesthood or religious life, and all of our graduates receive four years of faithful catechesis, which they then carry into their families and parishes. Beyond that — and this goes back to John Paul II — we aren’t interested in circling the wagons with respect to the larger culture. We want our graduates to be part of the “creative minority” — to use the term employed by the Holy Father — the creative force that will transform the West. Our graduates will go on to raise faithful Catholic families, and many of our graduates will go on to law school, medical school and business school, where they will integrate their faith with their profession. Having received a thorough and faithful education at the college, our students will help to turn the tide of materialism and secularization, overcoming the dictatorship of relativism. In a world that has lost its way, our students will offer the love and hope of Christ.

Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.