Catholic Studies and the Pastoral Mission of the Church

Archbishop Harry Flynn, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, gave the following address on March 31, 2000, at the National Catholic Studies Conference, Cleveland, Ohio. I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to you in the name of the Church. I know that your roles have not been easy…

Archbishop Harry Flynn, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, gave the following address on March 31, 2000, at the National Catholic Studies Conference, Cleveland, Ohio.

I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to you in the name of the Church. I know that your roles have not been easy on many occasions. Nevertheless, you are here today with a tremendous enthusiasm and a tremendous interest for keeping the light alive and passing that light on to generations yet to be born. And in the name of the Church I want to thank you and let you know that your work does not go unnoticed.

Recall with me this morning a very touching scene at the end of The Brothers Karamazov. The boy, Ilusha, has just been buried, and his friends have gathered at the grave. And Alyosha speaks to them, “Let us agree here, at Ilusha’s stone, never to forget, first Ilusha, and secondly, one another.” He explains, “My dear children, perhaps you will not understand what I am going to say to you now, for I often speak very incomprehensibly. But I’m sure you will remember that there is nothing higher, nothing stronger, nothing more wholesome and more useful in life than good memory. You are told a lot about education,” he says. “But some beautiful, sacred memory preserved since childhood is perhaps the best education of all. If a person carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his life. And if he only has one good memory, and one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.”

The topic for my reflection is “Catholic Studies and the Pastoral Mission of the Church.” In approaching this topic I would like to renew in our own minds some of the teachings from recent decrees and letters of the Church and our Holy Fathers on this very subject.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI wrote Gravissimum Educationis, a pastoral letter that said “A Christian education does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person, but has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced to the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of faith they have received. That aware of their calling, they learn, not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them, but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers contribute to the good of the whole society.”

Later that year in Ad Gentes, a decree on the mission activity of the Church, Paul VI wrote the following: “Divinely sent to the nations of the world to be with them, a universal sacrament of salvation, the Church, obeying the mandate of its founder, strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men and women, so that the word of God may be glorified and the kingdom of God be proclaimed and established throughout the world.”

The Holy Father, in Ad Gentes, makes it clear that evangelization is the basic duty of the people of God, since the whole Church is missionary. He invites us all to a deep interior renewal and to develop a vivid awareness of our own responsibility for spreading the Gospel, so that everyone does his or her share in the missionary work among nations.

Lastly, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), John Paul II wrote, “Every Catholic university, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics: a Christian inspiration, not only in individuals, but of the university community as such; a continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge to which it seeks to contribute by its own research; fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church; and then, an institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal, which gives meaning to life.”

So every Catholic university, by its very nature, makes an important contribution to the Church’s work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and His message, and is vitally important today in cultures that have been so marked by secularization.

Looking back on these letters, there seems to be a common thread. A Christian education, a Catholic education, should mature individuals. Catholic education should make one aware of the gift received. Catholic institutions should encourage personal conversion, and should encourage that witness to the world and be aware of its institutional commitment and responsibility for spreading the gospel. As John Paul II said, “No institution can avoid a supreme duty to proclaim Jesus Christ to all the peoples.” We have something beautiful to offer the human family: the powerful witness to Jesus Christ. If a Catholic university is born out of the heart of the Church, then somehow we must reflect the very nature of the Church. A living mystery by which God’s saving presence is made visible in Christ Jesus. The Church is for the world, and if the Catholic university is born out of the very heart of the Church, then the Catholic university must look to that understanding of her mission to the world. And the Church is to be that beautiful community of ministers charged with bringing the healing presence of Jesus Christ to a very, very wounded humanity.

I would now like to address the importance of the Catholic Studies program. Specifically, I am most familiar with the Catholic Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Such a program inspires students to engage the Catholic intellectual tradition. And by exploring the beauty, truth and vitality of Catholicism, students receive an education that is both intellectual and faithful. As a result, students have an opportunity to reflect for themselves on what it means to bring something to the world.

I often think of the first letter of John. John is writing to the Christian community, and begins by saying, “Something which has existed from the beginning, something which we have seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, touched with our hands, the Word, this is our subject, Jesus Christ.” It seems that Catholic Studies programs would want to give students the possibility of knowing Jesus Christ in a deeper way, so that they can then take what they have learned, or what they have touched and been touched by, and bring that knowledge to a culture which desperately needs it – whether that culture is in the arena of the business world, the sociological world, etc. But the culture must be changed by the word of Jesus Christ.

In a Catholic Studies program students can encounter Catholicism through philosophy, theology, literature, art and history, but not in isolation. But the students must remember that great tradition together before they can examine how Catholicism interacts with the modern world. The students remember the tradition, and they encounter the Church together. In my opinion, a Catholic Studies program is a concentration of students who remind the university community of what it is like to want to know Jesus Christ, and who are interested in a personal conversion and deepening of their love for Jesus Christ.

Again, I recall John’s Gospel on the night before Jesus dies. Jesus is sitting with his apostles, preparing to give them a final pep talk for the Church. He is going to die the next day, and one could imagine all kinds of things he would say to them if they were going to go out and change this world and make it better than it was before the coming of Jesus. I can imagine all kinds of things I would have said to those apostles. I can imagine I would have chided them for being dull or stupid or ungrateful. I can imagine I would have told them they needed to be smart, and they needed to be great administrators. I can imagine I would have told them all the things I was expecting of them. But on the night before he dies, Jesus says to them, “Remain in my love.” Remain in my love. That is the ingredient of the Catholic Studies program by which a student can come to understand the word of Jesus Christ. First, into a life of prayer, then into the works of the Church, and finally in service to the world. Let this be the subject, and offer this to the world.

How marvelously this transformation takes place at the University of St. Thomas. Students participate in discussions about relationships and contracts, the common good, property, and even how a Catholic institution invests its pension fund. Courses that relate to Catholicism open a richer dialogue about the Catholic intellectual life. Catholic Studies offers a home for those practicing the Catholic vocation of scholarship, something John Tracy Ellis chided us about more than 30 years ago. Catholic Studies brings the social teaching of the Church, one of the best-kept secrets in the United States, more directly into people’s lives. There is no separation at all between the intellectual and spiritual endeavors of such a program. As there is a growth in faith, there is a growth in the intellectual life. The more I believe in God, the more I want to know about God. And the more I want to know about God, the more I will serve my brothers and sisters. This is reflected in the St. Thomas Catholic Studies program’s creation of the Peter Maurin House of Hospitality, a short-term shelter for families referred by Catholic Charities, where there is a focus on the central relationship between Eucharist and service.

When Catholic Studies students can really see Jesus Christ, really speak about Jesus Christ and speak about him with affection and with faith, things will begin to happen. From study comes prayer and devotion. And from prayer comes action. And from action the kingdom takes place.

The essence of any Catholic university, the soul of that university, cannot be relegated to a spiritual life that is going to be simply encouraged in a campus ministry program. And I say that, at the same time saying, I cannot imagine any Catholic university without a good campus ministry program. While a campus ministry is extremely important, the opportunity of taking the intellectual life, engaging the intellectual life, and listening together and not forgetting the tradition can cause immense good in this world.

Last week I had an opportunity to visit with two outstanding community lay leaders who were interested in housing for the poor in the city of Minneapolis. They came into my office, made the proposal and wanted to have an ongoing dialogue about this issue. In our conversation they told me that they were graduates of Catholic universities in the ’50s, and that their studies led them to a compelling effort to work for the poor. They were community leaders, tremendously successful, but whatever they studied in their theology in the early ’50s has goaded them to not forget God’s poor.

So, how beautifully the Catholic Studies program encourages us to work for others, inspiring Christian principles in the hearts of men and women as they assume their positions of responsibility in the world. These men and women look at the misery so many people experience and try to lift them out of these circumstances. They have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths.

Catholic Studies does this, and it makes apostles out of others. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that, because an apostle is someone who has seen the Christ. “Am I not an apostle?” writes Paul. “Have I not seen the Christ?” An apostle has the Spirit, has the ability to communicate the Spirit to others, and has the courage to tell the story of Jesus in his life.

A Catholic university, and most especially Catholic Studies programs, must play a part in satisfying the deepest hunger that humanity has – the hunger for God. We must all play a part in that. In doing so, we give life. We give life in a beautiful way. The Catholic Studies program can do this because of its emphasis on the close interaction between faculty members, students and alumni. And students who choose to participate in such a program enter into a community that is at once faithful and intellectual. In that community they remember, and they remember together. Most importantly, they develop in a way that will have immeasurable effects throughout the future.

A few weeks ago I was at the dedication of an inner-city school, a school that should have been closed years ago. But because of the financial contribution of the archdiocese and the assistance from a suburban parish, this school is going strong, very, very strong. A great number of these students are not Catholic, and I am glad they are there. The dedication of a new part of this school attracted many people, including a former governor of Minnesota. When I entered the school, there was a young lady sitting at the door giving out nametags. I asked, “What is your name?” She said, “My name is Joy.” “Joy,” I said, “your name is reflected all over your face because you’re making me feel so welcome. You’ve made everyone feel so How beautifully the Catholic Studies program encourages us to work for others, inspiring Christian principles in the hearts of men and women as they assume their positions of responsibility in the world. welcome.” She had a big, beautiful smile. As I walked into another room, the former governor approached me and said, “Archbishop, I have a question. All these children here are smiling. I can’t get over it. They’re from the inner city. They have nothing. They even have a program here so that they can study in peace at night. They come here to be in a safe environment because they can’t remain in their homes. And they’re all smiling?” I said, “Governor, there’s an easy answer to that. They’re smiling because they know God. They’re smiling because they know Jesus Christ. And they’re smiling because the name Jesus Christ can be proclaimed in this school without apologizing to anyone. And that’s the way it affects them, and they will affect generations because they’ll have that beautiful memory.”

As Alyosha said, “There’s nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome and more beautiful in life than some good memory.” And all of you who have initiated Catholic Studies programs in your colleges and universities, and those of you who are about to or are in the middle of this process, congratulations. The memories go on with so many salvific effects.