In his famous Rule, St. Benedict (480-547) lays out a way of life that includes the celebration of the Divine Office, prayerful reading, silence, manual labor, hospitality, and obedience to an abbot—all within the context of remaining in a single monastery for all of one’s life.
Benedictine monasticism assumed an unexpected missionary and educational color after St. Benedict’s death. Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604), himself a Benedictine, ordered a fellow monk to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons, and thus St. Augustine established the See of Canterbury. Under the guidance of the seventh archbishop of Canterbury— the Greek monk St. Theodore (602-690) — English Benedictine schools became centers of study of Greek and Roman classics and the liberal arts. After Charlemagne named the English Benedictine Alcuin of York (735-804) his educational advisor, monastic schools spread throughout Europe.
Over 12 centuries later, the Cardinal Newman Society, which fosters fidelity to Church teaching within the world of Catholic higher education, has listed three Benedictine schools—a higher number than that associated with any other religious order—among those recommended in its recently published Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College (thenewmanguide.com). These colleges, in the words of the guide, “have weathered the vicissitudes of the times and continue to provide a good Catholic education” while making “a sincere effort to comply with Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities.
In 1857, on the eve of the Civil War, three monks from Pennsylvania traveled to the new Kansas Territory and founded St. Benedict’s Abbey. Two years later, they opened St. Benedict’s College, an all-male school in Atchison, now a city of 10,000.
St. Benedict’s College merged with the all-women’s Mount St. Scholastica College in 1971 to become Benedictine College. Enrollment has increased 85 percent in the last 10 years and stood, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, at 1,553 students (1,468 of them undergraduates) in 2006-2007. Students come from 39 states and 21 countries, and the college ranks 56th among Midwestern universities in the 2008 edition of US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges. Students enrolling in fall 2006 had a median ACT composite score of 23 and median SAT scores of 535 (reading) and 567 (math).
Benedictine College’s growth has coincided with a decade-long effort to emphasize its fourfold identity as a Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts, and residential college. Since 2004, Benedictine College has been led by Stephen D. Minnis, an alumnus, father of three, and former corporate attorney for Sprint.
According to Dr. Minnis, 250 students attend daily Mass, and over 90 percent of Catholic students attend Sunday Mass. In 1998, the college had seven theology majors; by 2005, that number had grown to over 100, making Benedictine College’s undergraduate theology program the second largest in the nation (after Franciscan University of Steubenville). Over half of the college’s on-campus students fast on Wednesday evening and donate their meal to the poor. Forty three Benedictine College students—23 men and 20 women—have entered the priesthood or religious life in the past 15 years.
Benedictine College students who spoke to CWR agree that their alma mater has nurtured their life of faith.
“Every aspect of the college,” says Nicole Benner, the Student Government Association’s executive director of committees and organizations, “encourages a student to discover the truth of the Catholic Church.” Student Government Association executive president Trevor Wild says, “The spiritual life of Benedictine’s student body is outstanding. Our faith is not something we practice once a week or twice a year; it is an integral part of our everyday life.”
“Everywhere you turn there is another opportunity to grow in faith,” concurs Bess Morin, who leads the Ultima Choir. “It is almost difficult not to be drawn into a desire to grow in the spiritual life. Whether it be daily Mass, daily confessions, speakers, interaction with the religious on campus, spiritual direction, spiritual or service clubs, or simply friends getting together to pray a Rosary for an intention, the opportunities are endless and hard to ignore.”
Ashlee McIntosh, executive director of communications for the Student Government Association, says that “everything that is taught at BC is in line with the Church, and this helps because even if you do not understand or have questions the professors are more than willing to talk about it and explain why certain things are the way they are.” She adds, “Before I came to college, I was not strong in my faith or even practicing all that well. The different classes that I took really opened my eyes to the faith, and I saw how beautiful it was.”
Abbot Barnabas Senecal credits “significant leadership from individual administrators, monastic men and women, faculty, staff, and campus lay ministers” for encouraging the Catholic identity to flourish at the college. “This leadership,” he says, “has nurtured a valuing of faith, in understanding and practice. There has been development of a student activities program and campus ministry program that support a committed faith practice.” In addition, “the history of the two colleges on which Benedictine College rests has given it a rich tradition of intellectual pursuit, spirituality based in community, and deep indebtedness of graduates to individual monastic and lay professors that results in long-term personal relationships.”
One such graduate is Adrian O’Hara, a 2002 graduate and former student body president who is now assistant vice president of the Lockton Companies. “Each Benedictine College Raven automatically seems to share an affinity with each other that is stronger than what any national sports team title could bring to a school,” he says. “Every day I draw upon those [college] experiences, that foundation, to be a better man, husband, father, and Catholic.”
“The main factor that helps Benedictine rise above most universities and most colleges is the unity,” echoes Morin. “It’s more of a ‘family life’ than a student life.”
“Attending Benedictine for nearly four years has opened my eyes to the beauty and wonder that is the Catholic Church,” reflects Benner. “I have learned to love and deeply appreciate the history and tradition of the Church. This college has not only given me an education to help me succeed in my professional life, it has taught me how to live an upstanding Catholic life.”
A student who wished to remain anonymous agrees: “I went to Catholic school from fourth grade through college, and I learned more about my faith and learned more of an appreciation for my faith in my first three days at Benedictine College than I did in all my years in grade school and high school. I am actually proud to be Catholic now and to live my faith.”
BELMONT ABBEY COLLEGE
In 1872, a missionary priest purchased land in Reconstruction-era North Carolina and sought out a religious community that would be willing to found a school there. Four years later, Benedictine monks from Pennsylvania accepted his invitation, and St. Mary’s College opened its doors. St. Mary’s changed its name to Belmont Abbey College in 1913.
Located in the town of Belmont (population 9,000), the college is 15 miles west of Charlotte, now the nation’s 20th-largest city. The college’s 2006-2007 enrollment stood at 1,110 (all of them undergraduates), with students hailing from 28 states and 11 countries. The college ranks 28th among baccalaureate colleges in the South in America’s Best Colleges, and students enrolling in fall 2006, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, had a median ACT composite score of 22 and median SAT scores of 505 (reading) and 510 (math).
Under the leadership of Dr. William Thierfelder, a sports psychologist, father of 10, and former president of the York Barbell Company who became president of the college in 2004, Belmont Abbey College has gained a nationwide reputation for fidelity to Catholic teaching. Theology department chair Dr. David Williams told CWR that his department has “always been committed to the presentation of the full breadth and depth of the Catholic theological tradition, in keeping with the vision laid out in Ex Corde Ecclesiae and with a keen awareness that theology is fundamentally an intellectual vocation in the service of the wider Church.”
Dr. Thierfelder has fostered several academic and extracurricular initiatives, including a motorsports business management program profiled in The Wall Street Journal; the Hintemeyer Program, which seeks to form Catholic leaders grounded in the Benedictine tradition; and the Honors Institute, in which students spend four years analyzing ancient and modern classics.
Dr. Lucas Lamadrid, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, describes the university’s SPD (Sport Properly Directed) program: “Our athletic programs follow the dictum that sport is a vehicle of virtue. This idea, which originates from an address given by Pope Pius XII, looks at athletic competition and training as a vehicle for developing the athlete to his or her utmost athletic potential, but also as a human person who ultimately praises the Creator.”
In the midst of these initiatives, the college’s main challenge, according to Dr. Lamadrid, “is to make clear to students that what we value as a Catholic continued on page 36 institution is not the same as what the secular culture values….The greatest challenge to this generation is to get them engaged in their own institution, in their education, in their spiritual and personal growth.”
Student blogger Elizabeth Suaso says that the example of the monks has helped her become more actively engaged in her academic and spiritual life. “It is encouraging to be in a place where solid Catholic doctrine is maintained, be it academically in the theology courses, or by example from the monks who live this teaching every day,” she says. “This helps my friends and me realize that the Church’s teachings are just as relevant and valid today as they were nearly 2,000 years ago.…Every day we students are invited to join the monks for Lauds, Midday Prayer, Mass, and Vespers if we so choose. Most of us only find time for Mass, but even so, having the opportunity… helps us keep [our] focus on God, which in turn helps us deal with our academic lives.”
“Many of our students,” says Dr. Lamadrid, “are daily communicants and attend Eucharistic adoration…. Our students love the Catholic Church and see it as integral to the life of the college.”
ST. GREGORY’S UNIVERSITY
In 1875, at the invitation of the bishop of Little Rock, two French Benedictines came to Indian Territory in the future state of Oklahoma. Over the next quarter century, they established a school and 45 parishes and missions. The Catholic University of Oklahoma, which would become St. Gregory’s University, opened its doors in 1915 in Shawnee, now a city of 30,000. St. Gregory’s has a second campus in Tulsa
St. Gregory’s University had 843 students in 2006-2007 (806 of them undergraduates), and students come from 15 states and 18 countries. The college ranks in the third tier of baccalaureate colleges in the West in America’s Best Colleges; students enrolling in fall 2006 had a median ACT composite score of 19 and median SAT scores of 435 (reading) and 405 (math).
In October 2007, Dr. David Wagie was inaugurated as the college’s president. A retired brigadier general and father of three with a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, Dr. Wagie served as provost of the United States Air Force Academy before becoming an educational consultant to the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Wagie told the Shawnee News-Star last year that he accepted the position because of the college’s strong Catholic identity. “My presidency,” he said in his inaugural address, “will be driven by a wholehearted commitment to academic excellence, outreach and service, and religious faith.”
“Emphasizing our Catholic identity has been a conscious decision on the part of university leadership,” says Abbot Lawrence Stasyszen, the university’s chancellor. He told CWR:
We very consciously stated that our only reason for continuing as a college or university is to serve the mission of the Catholic Church. We recognized that Pope John Paul II had given us the framework or “charter” for developing as a Catholic university in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
We have considered the values, aims, and directives of Ex Corde Ecclesiae to be a great gift to Catholic higher education and the foundational blueprint for St. Gregory’s as we promote our unique mission in this particular area of the United States. In other words, if a sense of Catholic identity has taken root at St. Gregory’s, it has done so because by God’s grace we are choosing to embrace and foster this identity as our reason for existence … [The] spirit of collaboration [with the region’s bishops] in many ways anticipated and has gone beyond the directives of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
“I have come to a greater understanding of Church teachings and of Christianity in general since coming to St. Gregory’s,” comments student blogger Loraine Bottorff. “After years of being jaded by people failing to live a Christian life despite what they claimed, I now finally understand what attracts people to these beliefs….The invitation is always open to come participate in Mass or prayer with the monks, but it’s never forced upon anyone, nor is anyone made to feel guilty or like an outcast for not participating. It’s just a constant, warm invitation— no pressure.”
“We would be the first to admit that we have a long way to go in the process of fully achieving the level of Catholic atmosphere on campus for which we hope and long,” says Abbot Stasyszen. “But we are making steady progress with each new class of students, in our programming for student life, in our hiring processes, and in the development of our curricula.”
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