December 2, 2004
An Egyptian priest once remarked to the great 5
th century B.C. Athenian lawgiver Solon, “You Greeks are children” (Plato,
Timaeus). His point—compared to the Egyptians, the Greeks boasted a brief history. Hence a brief memory. In a sense, Americans are children. Our history stretches back only 400 years. As a nation united, we are as newly arrived as the late 19
th century. By contrast, the Catholic Church stretches back to the days when lions were fighting in the Coliseum and Roman soldiers were keeping guard over Herod’s temple in Jerusalem.
Under the pastoral leadership of our Holy Father, the Church has entered the new millennium not only with a deep sense of her Tradition, but with a vigor undiminished and renewed. For close to 2,000 years, the Church has enriched civilization after civilization with the values of the gospel. In fact, it transformed the Greco-Roman world. The Church introduced into home and the market place such values as the freedom and equality of all—men, women and children. In every age, the Church looks for new ways to translate the message of Christ and the gospel into life.
One very powerful place the Church carries out this mission is on the campus of Catholic universities, colleges and institutions of higher learning. In fact, the university at its earliest stage was one of the Church’s most significant actualization of her mandate from Christ to go into the whole world and teach the gospel (Mt 28:19). Between the 12
th and 16
th centuries, 47 universities were established with a Papal Bull of foundation. The present University of Rome proudly displays the name of Pope Boniface VIII on its birth certificate from seven centuries ago. The Sorbonne acknowledges Canon Robert Sourbon as its founder. Universities and colleges often grew from the schools bishops set up in the Middle Ages in the major episcopal sees.
Recently I was privileged to witness this intimate connection between the mission of the Church and the work of the university in our diocese. I spent a most rewarding part of a day at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. The College of Saint Elizabeth is New Jersey’s first permanent four-year liberal arts college for women. From its birth, the college has been linked with the Church. It was founded in 1899 by the Sisters of Charity. In the true spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, the sisters serve the charity of truth in the realm of academics and the practice of love in their outreach to students of diverse ages, backgrounds, and cultures.
The Church and the university from its inception share a common mission. They are clearly complimentary in their work and not inimical. This is why our Holy Father has chosen to speak in his apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, colleges and institutions of higher learning under the title “
Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” Their work, their mission, comes from the very heart of the Church. Proper to the role of a Catholic institution of higher learning, every Catholic university or college serves as a bridge. As our Holy Father says, “A Catholic University's privileged task is to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth"(
Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1).
Certainly history has reconfigured the way the university and the Church relate. But the way a Catholic institution of higher learning and the Church relate can never be seen as something extrinsic or peripheral. To be truly Catholic in its identity, a school does more than simply espouse openness to all. As an institution of higher learning, a Catholic college or university joins the wider community of research and scholarship. Through a rigorous pursuit of the intellectual disciplines, it uncovers the truths that the Creator has written in every aspect of his creation. As Catholic, the college or university carries out its’ mission always in connection God who reveals himself in Jesus and enables us by the Spirit to scrutinize, study, research and approach more nearly the Wisdom that alone gives what St. Augustine called “
gaudium de veritate.”
Today, in our pluralistic and secular culture, a Catholic school of higher learning is recognized by
an institutional commitment to the gospel, an honest respect and fidelity to the teaching of the authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals, and a willing co-operation with the local bishop. These lived values are fundamental to the very identity of the institution as Catholic. Furthermore, they ground and validate pastoral activity among students and staff, outreach to the community, the offering of programs in theology to a wider community, and preparation of the laity for their proper role in society and in the Church.
In a recent address at St. John’s University in New York on September 21, 2004, Cardinal Sodano returned to a basic truth about the Church. He said that “the Church is called to be the leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society, which is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family” (
Gaudium et Spes, 40). In a sense, the present situation of every Catholic college or university mirrors the mission of the Church and all her members. Jesus calls us as individuals and as communities of learning to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Written at the end of the 2
nd century as an apologetic work of the faith to Jews and pagans, the
Letter to Diognetus puts it this way: “as the soul is to the body, so Christians must be in the world.”
Through the intercession of Mary, the woman of faith, may we be faithful to the Lord and to His Church.