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Jack FiggeMay 23, 2024
Students leave after attending a Catholic Mass at Benedictine College Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Atchison, Kan. Students told The Associated Press in interviews they embrace the college's emphasis on Catholic teaching and practice. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In mid-May, tears streamed down my face as I drove across the Amelia Earhart Bridge, leaving Benedictine College for the summer. My sophomore year at the Catholic liberal arts school in Atchison, Kan., had wrapped up, and I was sorry to leave.

But Benedictine did not stay far from me for long. As soon as I arrived home and opened X, I saw comments about my beloved college all over the social media platform thanks to Harrison Butker’s controversial commencement speech. It seemed like everyone on my timeline, Catholic or not, had an opinion about Mr. Butker’s take on the role of women as homemakers, the traditional Latin Mass and a litany of culture war issues from I.V.F. and abortion to Covid-19 lockdowns.

A few weeks earlier, Benedictine had also made headlines after the Associated Press included the college in a report about the resurgence of traditional Catholicism in the United States. The report got some things right. Benedictine indeed promotes traditional Catholic teaching on marriage, life and family values. But the reporter from the A.P. also unfairly portrayed Benedictine by focusing on a small minority of homeschooled students and those who prefer the traditional Latin Mass, neglecting the experience of 2,000 other students.

I don’t want to comment on Mr. Butker’s remarks or to discount the A.P.’s reporting. And obviously as a current student who has had a very positive experience at Benedictine, I am not unbiased about the school or how it is presented. But I do think it important that someone provide a firsthand account of the culture of Benedictine College, a college that has grown exponentially in the past 20 years and transformed from being a known party school to one recognized for its strong Catholic identity.

Let’s start with the numbers. As reported by the A.P., Benedictine College has seen immense growth in the past 15 years, a time when many institutions of higher education have struggled with declining admissions. The enrollment doubled, and the school has built 14 new residence halls, with three more now under construction. In addition to an architecture and engineering program, the school has expanded its academic offerings to include a nursing program, recently voted the best in the state.

So what spurred the change? Two factors were mentioned by Steve Minnis, Benedictine’s president: Mary and mission.

“Benedictine College has been successful because of two things: We embraced our mother and we embraced our mission,” Mr. Minnis told me in a recent conversation. “We have consecrated the college to Our Lady and thereby put the college in her hands. Secondly, we formulated and embraced this amazing mission to educate our students within a community of faith and scholarship. Everything revolves around community, faith and scholarship.”

President Minnis has set an example by leading students in praying the rosary every week. He maintains a robust presence on campus, constantly reminding students to live out the three pillars of Benedictine College: community, faith and scholarship.

Welcoming community

When I was touring colleges, the community at Benedictine set the school apart. Walking around the campus, I noticed that students, instead of staring at their phones, would greet each other and strike up conversations on the way to class.

“A lot of other places you go, people walk to class with their heads down and AirPods in,” recent graduate John Welte said. “I was in D.C. last summer, for example, and just had my AirPods while walking to work. I can’t really do that here because you have to say ‘hi’ to all of your friends.”

The relatively small size of the school creates a unique atmosphere where it can feel like everyone knows each other. But that doesn’t mean it is cliquish or a monoculture.

Just ask Rachel Monahan, a nondenominational Protestant who just finished her sophomore year at Benedictine.

“The culture, from my perspective, has always been inviting and welcoming to everyone. Because it’s a smaller school, everyone knows everyone else,” Ms. Monahan told me. “Students typically take the initiative to be kind and helpful to one another. I made a lot of amazing friends during my time so far at Benedictine, and I truly believe I wouldn’t get that anywhere else.”

Other students who might not fit the Benedictine college stereotype, like athletes, are also involved with campus life. Carter Schultz attended a large public high school in California and will be the starting quarterback for the football team next year.

“There definitely was a divide between the football team and other students during my freshman year,” Mr. Schultz said. “But my class has a lot of strong practicing Catholics on the football squad so we invited a lot of the guys into a Bible study, which got bigger, and over time they branched out and it has been really cool to see more football players interact with the nonathletes on campus in both a religious setting but also just by creating friend groups with them.”

Inviting faith

The A.P. and Mr. Butker coverage made it clear that Benedictine is deeply committed to the Catholic faith. But that does not mean everyone on campus shares the N.F.L. player’s devotion to the traditional Latin Mass. Most people at Benedictine are just your average Novus Ordo-loving Catholics striving to be saints.

The local parish offers 24/7 adoration, and whether it is 2 a.m. on a Saturday or 4 p.m. on a Monday, at least one student is present, often multiple. Daily Mass attracts over 300 students, and the confession line wraps around the perimeter of the abbey every day.

“Iron sharpens iron,” Mr. Schultz said, quoting Proverbs 27:17. “At my parish back home there’s not a whole lot of young people who are on fire; there are just a lot of older people around me, which makes it hard to grow since there is little accountability. But here, sometimes I do not want to pray, but I go to adoration and I see so many other students who are on fire and pursuing a strong prayer life.”

Observers might naturally ask whether this strong Catholic culture is alienating for some students. I put this question to Ms. Monahan.

“As a Protestant, I would say that the Catholic faith is not forced upon me at Benedictine College,” Ms. Monahan shared. “I have always been encouraged and invited to attend Mass or pray the rosary, but I never felt pressure to do so. The college, without a doubt, takes pride in its faith, but it also takes a lot of pride in its community, which includes people who aren’t Catholic like myself. Everyone is accepted.”

There is a culture of invitation at Benedictine, with students frequently inviting both non-Catholic and Catholic friends to pray or discuss the faith.

And these invitations bear fruit.

This past April, the school welcomed 19 students into the church, an impressive feat for such a small college.

Engaging scholarship

Conversations about the intellectual side of the Catholic faith also abound on campus.

It’s a cliché to say you can often hear students in the dining hall debating theology or philosophy—but it also happens to be true in my experience.

“This is a college that expects academic excellence and that our students are constantly searching for the truth, so even after you graduate, you’ll still have this intellectual curiosity,” President Minnis said. “One of my favorite parts of the job is talking to students in the dining hall. Every time I go, I always see multiple tables engaged in conversation about Plato or some obscure theology topic, which is so cool to see.”

Often, these conversations have a conservative bent, as noted by the A.P. The school does not try to hide that it holds true to traditional Catholic values, an attribute that many students appreciate.

“The college is conservative in the way that it talks about pro-family, pro-life, pro-traditional values,” Mr. Welte said. “But it is not conservative in the sense that everyone’s ultra-right-wing, MAGA. I’m sure that there are some people there who are like that, but I haven’t really met any. People just have conservative values that align with the teachings of the church, such as [supporting] traditional marriage and [being] pro-life from conception until natural death.”

Ultimately, these conversations often turn inward. Whether it be in theology class or a late-night debate, the conversation leaves the 30,000-foot view behind and asks: “How does this apply to my life? How is it helping me to be a saint?” Benedictine’s mission revolves around this fundamental question.

Forming Saints

President Minnis shared that his goal is not to push a conservative or traditionalist Catholic agenda on students.

“In today’s society, people always want to label others or institutions as conservative, liberal, progressive or traditional,” Mr. Minnis said. “We do not want to associate with those labels. We want our students to understand the power of community, to understand that humans are social beings. We want them to be lifelong learners constantly searching for the truth. We want them to fall in love with Jesus Christ and have a relationship with him. That’s who we are, and that is what we’re trying to accomplish.”

As I reflect on my first two years at Benedictine, the famous quote often attributed to the Jesuit superior general Pedro Arrupe, S.J., comes to mind: “Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Sure, I have fallen in love with the school. But it is deeper than that. I have made lifelong friendships, learned about the Catholic faith and most importantly, I have fallen in love with Jesus Christ and his mission to go out and make disciples of all nations.

Yes, Benedictine may come off to an outside observer as too traditional or conservative. But I would encourage those who have formed an opinion on Benedictine from the A.P. story or from Mr. Butker’s speech to visit the school, to cross that Amelia Earheart bridge and come see for themselves the vibrant, Catholic community that is forming young people to go out into the world on mission for Christ.

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