“The hope of this rising generation,” said Father Michael Keating, “sits on a hill with a Bauhaus-style bell tower cross here on the campus of the University of Mary." The bell tower — officially a "bell banner" — can be seen from miles away. Along with much of the stone and concrete campus, it was designed by famed modern architect Marcel Breuer. This is not a Gothic, high-Mass kind of place. But then this is also pretty rural America.
With those words, Father Keating, professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., put into context the installation of Father James Patrick Shea as president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., at his official inaugural liturgy on Sept. 19. Father Keating added: “When the search for ‘so-called’ truth is divorced from truth in God, it ceases to be [a] rational search.” He also noted that a Catholic university that divorces the two contributes to the “intellectual chaos” of our age.
This focus on the truth of Christ as essential to the lives of the young today and as integral to the mission of the Catholic campus permeated the inaugural events. Most young Americans will never find themselves in Bismarck, a diocese that’s home to just 62,000 Catholics. But the truth of the cross and the hope of redemption it offers the current age must be as alive on a campus that calls itself Catholic in North Dakota as anywhere else. The mid-September weekend served as a reminder that, while American Catholics focus on controversies at bigger schools, like a speech by a pro-choice U.S. president, there are souls to be saved in Bismarck, as well.
The University of Mary is the only Catholic university in North Dakota. It began as Mary College in 1955, established as a two-year institution by the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery, which is located on campus. In 1959, the school became a four-year college; in 1986, it became a university. Today, it serves some 2,900 students and calls itself “America’s Leadership University,” a school whose mission is to train “servant leaders.”
“Leaders in the service of truth” is how Father Shea, now the youngest university president in the country, describes his school’s alumni and alumni to be. During his inaugural speech, he quoted from Pope Benedict XVI’s speech on Catholic higher education at his alma mater, The Catholic University of America, just last year: “Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge,” the Holy Father said, “the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.”
This is an integrated gift that a Catholic campus can offer as no other type of campus can. And that’s the goal the University of Mary was renewing its commitment to, in such a public way, at the inauguration. The event was attended by leaders both ecclesiastical (Bishop Paul Zipfel of Bismarck) and civil (North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy and Bismarck Mayor John Warford).
In explaining the complementarity of faith and reason during his inaugural address, Father Shea explained: “If an education founded upon the service of truth can offer genuine hope in the midst of intellectual, moral and personal confusion, if the fruit of scholarship can equip a person to push back against tides of despair or hopelessness, then those of us who dedicate ourselves in large part to the care and formation of the young had better take notice.”
Father Shea presented the secular splitting of faith and reason as a debilitating scandal: “When faith is conceived of as a private emotion, an isolated and purely personal experience, or even a child’s blanket needed by some to cope with a threatening world, then it is easily dismissed as irrelevant and unneeded, shoved onto a museum shelf with other cultural artifacts. And when reason is conceived of as something extrinsic to faith, something which necessarily interferes with religious fervor or practice, then it becomes increasingly difficult for persons with different beliefs to speak reasonably with each other. All that remains for the spreading of faith and the resolution of disputes is force, violence. And the inevitable clash between the tendency to relegate faith and the tendency to isolate reason has caused us no end of misery and pain in this young millennium. Yet the two are born from the very same premise: the flawed conviction that faith and reason have nothing to do with each other.”
At age 34, Father Shea — a former farm boy from Hazelton, N.D., who went on to study theology at Rome’s Gregorian and Lateran universities — succeeds Sister Thomas Welder, a Benedictine nun who was president of the school since 1978. One of the longest-serving college presidents in U.S. history, the clearly beloved Sister Thomas played a prominent role in all the inaugural events.
As I spoke with the largely aging and un-habited sisters and members of the student body throughout the weekend, I got the strong sense that Father Shea has sparked a transcendent confidence on campus. The sisters see it and the students react to it, most visibly during a question-and-answer exchange with the new president during the festivities where questions of identity and vocation were raised. Father Shea consistently emphasized his dedication to Benedictine values, including community, hospitality, respect, service, moderation, prayer and education. An exchange during the inauguration week underscored the sisters’ support for him: At a monastery event, the prioress presented the priest-president with the Rule of St. Benedict, stating her belief that it is the most recent translation. In the coming years, she said to the young Father Shea, “you will be our translator.”
In a particularly stirring point in his inaugural address, Father Shea spoke in the voice of the rising generation Father Keating had mentioned, a generation Father Shea has worked with as a chaplain at St. Mary’s High School in the diocese: “Give us the hard splendor of truth, no matter what the cost, over the velvet ravages of our own egos. Hold out to us the chance for self-sacrifice so that we might escape the quiet desperation of a meaningless life. Sing us the songs of the heroes of old, and then we shall ourselves clamor like champions; we have the spittle for it. Shape us, form us, prepare us to be leaders in the service of truth.”
This generation, he said later at an evening fundraising gala, “is capable of much more than we give them credit for.” The students at the University of Mary, he said, are “capable of much more than self-absorbed, self-seeking misery.”
“As an educator and as a priest, I spent the last seven years of my life deeply immersed in the concerns and struggles of this generation of young people,” he shared. “I can tell you firsthand that there is in them a deep confusion but also a tremendous yearning to find and savor that which is true, beautiful and good. I have been with them in the trenches of their hearts, fighting their battles with them, seeking truth with them. And I have seen what the search for truth can mean to them, can do for them. I know what it has done for me.”
“Bear witness to hope,” Pope Benedict instructed during his speech at Catholic University of America. Inaugural weekend at this small Catholic college seemed to be a direct response — and Bismarck looks to be a place to watch on the road to a New Evangelization.
Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online,
is a contributor to the Cardinal Newman Society’s college guide.