Today, one in four Americans age 18 to 29 claims no religious affiliation. In this era, how does a Catholic college or university communicate to students the value of religion in society? We asked three presidents of Catholic colleges for their thoughts.
Toward a Meaningful Life
By Maryanne Stevens
The obvious answer to the question America’s editors pose is that a Catholic college communicates faith as constitutive of a meaningful human life. This compels us first and foremost to nurture the imagination of our campus communities. Communicating the value of religion requires stories, environments, experiences, signs and symbols that lead one to faith and hope rather than despair in a bewildering world.
The experiences, signs and symbols abound at College of Saint Mary. Some are obvious: required theology and philosophy courses; crucifixes in the classrooms; daily Eucharist; meatless Lenten Fridays; small faith-sharing groups and service opportunities sponsored by campus ministry; and the marking of campus celebrations and sorrows with ritual, calling forth God’s blessing and announcing our faith and hope in something more than ourselves.
Then there are the less obvious answers, which include careful hiring processes attentive to the college’s mission. Not all candidates are Catholic or even Christian. But the processes do ask why a candidate would consider a Catholic college. If prospects respond to questions about the college’s Catholic identity with answers like, “I don’t have a problem with it,” they are disqualified. We are looking for people who believe in something more and will prove to be role models through their understanding of being called to more. Less obvious, too, is the attention to campus aesthetics, which nurtures leisure and an appreciation of beauty.
The trick, then, is to make the connections between how the symbols of Catholicism function to assist with meaning while respecting the fact that the symbols of other religions can do the same. This needs to be coupled with questions like: “What makes for good religion, as opposed to bad religion?” or “What role will I allow authority and discipline to have in my life and why?” The latter question is crucial in a society that has thrived on resisting authority since the colonies threw out the British.
I think the most important method of conveying to students the value of religion comes from reflection on that which draws us to understand our limits and how we are bound to that which is beyond, however we name and honor it. This type of reflection can come in a variety of settings: a theology class, which (it is hoped) opens up concepts of God and ritual or doctrine rather than closing off questions; or a biology class where the discussion centers on our limited understandings of the human body despite our vast knowledge; or a literature class in which one comes to recognize the limits of words. It can happen through the religious rituals around important moments marking either joy or sorrow.
The discipline of participation in religion allows one to be part of something greater, to participate in a community of faith and hope. All the great world religions have a compelling vision of a world of “no more tears, a new heaven and a new earth,” where all tears are wiped away. The point is that participation in religion, if it is “good” religion—that is, if it leads to further charity, joy, peace and patience—can lead to a meaningful life, a life sought after by many, if not all, of our students.
Together, in Faith
By Jim Collins
One cannot fully understand or appreciate timeless topics like economics, politics, music, education or medicine without knowing that religion has had an impact on each and continues to do so. Further, as one begins to understand the confluence, conflict, philosophical underpinnings or evolution toward any number of combinations of issues related to these topics, religion can easily be shown to have a profound influence.
Any broad-based, quality education ought to enlighten a student’s understanding of religion’s impact on society. A Catholic college or university is in a unique position to bring meaning, add clarity and offer insights as it teaches the value and importance religion has in society—past, present and future. One of the great resources a Catholic college or university has is its intellectual tradition. A Catholic college has both the opportunity and obligation to teach the Catholic intellectual tradition in its offerings, both curricular and co-curricular.
I can briefly highlight two very different examples of how Loras College helps communicate the value of religion in society. First, from a curricular standpoint, we offer a unique program for 60 students entitled “Catholic Thinkers and Leaders.” Over the course of four years, these students participate in the life of the college like any other student, in that they commit to our general education track, but with a specifically delivered set of course work that incorporates the Catholic intellectual tradition. Regular opportunities to serve outside the college, to study in Italy for one’s junior-year study away program and to gather weekly to discuss leadership principles that incorporate the Catholic tradition and liturgical participation are all required components of the program. Having a critical mass of these students, invested in this curriculum, has provided leaven for our campus community and allowed all of us to understand better the value of religion in society from both a lived and intellectual perspective.
Second, like many colleges and universities, Loras offers a first-year immersion program, which includes a common reading component. This co-curricular program is called “Launch Into Loras.” The required reading for fall 2011 was the book Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel. Though we have facilitated this program for a number of years and incorporated many fine readings, this year’s book and interactions among faculty, students and staff were especially well received across the board. Mr. Patel, who is Muslim, shares his story of growing up and attending the University of Illinois. It was as a college student that he gained a deeper understanding of his own faith, an appreciation for those of different faiths and a desire to find a common cause whereby shared religious principles, even if from different faith traditions, could drive an effort of unity to serve the larger needs of society.
In both of these examples, and as a Catholic college in particular, we have found successful ways to communicate to our students the value of religion in society. Despite very different approaches, the two examples represent ways in which curricular and co-curricular opportunities unfold. The outcomes for students include a deeper appreciation for persons of different faith traditions and greater understanding of their own Catholic faith and of the ways religion has affected history and continues to influence society. But perhaps the greatest lesson learned has been how one can be personally faithful to one’s own religion, deepening one’s relationship with God while valuing others. In doing so, our students see the ways in which religion unites us rather than divides us.
A New Reality
By Lawrence Biondi
We live in an increasingly secular and superficial world. How can we expect our students to pursue truth, to find God in all things, to lead lives of significance, when reality television stars have become our cultural icons?
While college students seem less likely to embrace religion than they did when I became president of Saint Louis University 25 years ago, I firmly believe that we at Jesuit institutions can reverse this trend, primarily because we do not have to look very far for inspiration. The religious conversion of St. Ignatius Loyola changed the world, and nearly 500 years later his message and his mission still resonate on our campuses and in our communities.
At S.L.U., we communicate the value of religion in many ways. We require all students to take theology courses. We celebrate a Sunday night Mass that draws 1,000 students of varying religious backgrounds. And we structure many service projects in St. Louis and beyond to include faith and reflection, challenging our students to become agents for change. These worthy endeavors are expected at a place like Saint Louis University, of course. To further help students understand the power of religion, sometimes it is necessary to do the unexpected, which, for us, means focusing on other faiths too.
With the hope of nurturing the faith lives of all our students, the campus ministry department works closely with such groups as our Hindu Student Community, Muslim Student Association and S.L.U. Jews, as well as religious leaders and ministers of different faiths from the external community.
A newly chartered Interfaith Alliance, created by students, develops programs that build bridges and encourage understanding. The student founders consciously connect with others of diverse religious backgrounds and find common ground by performing service projects and going on retreat together. I am immensely proud of these students and the example they set. I am also aware that the university could do more to foster interfaith dialogue and interreligious cooperation. I believe all Catholic colleges and universities must do a better job of reaching out to and serving non-Catholic students. If Catholicism is to thrive in these increasingly secular and superficial times, we must not be afraid to stand up for all religions.
Efforts to further our connection with other faiths do not make us any less Catholic or Jesuit. Quite the contrary. It is our charge and our responsibility as Jesuit institutions of higher education to help shape a world of depth and dignity that celebrates all faith traditions. And when we do, we rise to the challenge of St. Ignatius to combat superficiality and secularism as we inspire our students to seek substance and to actively live their faith, whatever it may be.
Now that is a reality worth watching.