Engaging the Academy From the Heart of the Church

How two Catholic professors at a Reformed Protestant college are working to provide spiritual formation with a serious intellectual dimension for their students

The Saint Benedict Forum (saintbenedictforum.org) was co-founded in 2014 by two Catholic professors and scholars, Dr. Jared Ortiz and Dr. Jack Mulder, at Hope College, a liberal arts college rooted in the Reformed tradition, in Holland, Michigan. The Forum’s site explains that it “seeks to promote and nurture intellectual work done from the heart of the Catholic Church, to foster an ecumenical community of Catholic Christians and friends committed to the renewal of culture, and to aid in the formation of intellectually and spiritually mature Christians by making available the riches of the Catholic tradition to Hope College and the wider community.”

Dr. Ortiz, Executive Director of The Saint Benedict Forum, attended the University of Chicago in the 1990s as a lapsed Catholic and self-described “confused agnostic,” eventually returning to the Catholic Church. He then studied patristics at the Catholic University of America, where he received an MA and a PhD. His doctoral dissertation was on creation, deification, and liturgy in St. Augustine’s Confessions. Dr. Ortiz is currently assistant professor of religion at Hope College.

Dr. Jared Ortiz (left) and Dr. Jack Mulder (right)

Dr. Jack Mulder, Assistant Director of the Forum, studied philosophy and religion at Hope College before pursuing an MA and PhD in Philosophy at Purdue University, where he wrote his dissertation on Kierkegaard. He was received into the Catholic Church while attending graduate school, and he is the author of several books, including Kierkegaard and the Catholic Tradition (Indiana University Press, 2010). Dr. Mulder is chair and associate professor in the Philosophy Department at Hope College.

The two scholars recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the work of Saint Benedict Forum.

CWR: What is the Saint Benedict Forum?

Dr. Ortiz: The Saint Benedict Forum is a new way of establishing a robust and credible Catholic witness on college campuses. The statistics about Catholics at college are rather staggering: upwards of 85% of college-age Catholics in the United States don’t attend Mass regularly. And even the ones who do are often not very well formed in their faith. The Saint Benedict Forum is our New Evangelization response to the crisis of formation that has afflicted the Church for the past few generations.

When we started discussing this crisis, Jack and I decided that we wanted a Catholic center that could form the whole person. So, the Saint Benedict Forum combines two endeavors that are not often found together: a campus ministry—aimed at spiritual formation—and a center for Catholic thought—aimed at intellectual formation and engaging the academy from the heart of the Church. We are, roughly, a Newman Center combined with a Lumen Christi Institute. We know that spiritual formation without a serious intellectual dimension leaves our students vulnerable, while intellectual formation without a serious spiritual dimension can leave our students arid. We know our students need both if they are to live integrated and happy lives in service to God and neighbor.

Dr. Mulder: We also have the good fortune of being at a college with an intentional Christian mission. We’ve tried to partner with the resources on our campus in ways that are organic and integral, so that we can build on existing relationships and complement the good things already going on at Hope.

CWR: How did it come about—especially at a school, Hope College, that is rooted in the Reformed, Calvinist tradition?

Dr. Ortiz: A few years ago, Hope College hired me to teach Catholic theology. The number of Catholic students at Hope was steadily increasing—it is almost up to 20% of the student body now. The Religion Department hired me to help address this in the classroom, but also to bear witness to the Protestant students about what it means to be a Catholic Christian. So, Hope is very open to Catholic things.

Once I arrived here, I had Catholic student after Catholic student come up to me after taking one of my classes and say how they had rediscovered their faith by studying the tradition. They said that they hadn’t been to Church in two, three, four years and didn’t even know there was a Catholic Church in town, even though it is less than a mile away and on the same cross street as the College. They didn’t know there was a rather active Union of Catholic Students on campus.

So, Jack and I started talking about what we could do to create some “spiritual gravity” around Catholic things at Hope. We wanted there to be a presence that drew people to a community centered on God. We threw around ideas like a speaker series, Catholic-Reformed dialogue, a Spring Break trip to visit some monks and nuns in the inner city . . . but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, all these programs coalesced around the idea of a Catholic center.

CWR: How did Hope and the Diocese respond to this idea?

Dr. Mulder: Jared and I thought this was a rather hare-brained scheme. We didn’t think it would float at all. We actually called the original plan, “Pinky and the Brain,” after the cartoon from our childhood where every night two mice try to take over the world but never get very far.

Dr. Ortiz: We drafted a proposal and started sending it to people. We had coffee and lunch and hallway conversations with dozens of faculty, staff, trustees, parishioners—and everyone loved it. Both the Catholics and Protestants loved it and said it was long overdue. We also got some sage guidance from our friends at the Lumen Christi Institute. The local parish and the diocese have been wonderful as well. Bishop Walkowiak (Bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids) is our Episcopal Moderator (equivalent of Chair of the Board).

CWR: Why did you choose Saint Benedict as your patron?

Dr. Ortiz: Saint Benedict lived at a time of cultural upheaval. He lived at a time when a once great empire was crumbling under the weight of its own decadence. By focusing his monks wholly on God, he was able to preserve what was good and true and beautiful. He was able to cultivate civilization in the midst of decay. Benedict created these communities focused on the highest things and people were drawn to them—this is what I am calling “spiritual gravity.” Farms, villages, cities, grew up around the monasteries because these monks had something that the world did not.

We want to focus our students wholly on God. We want to establish a deeply Christian community, devoted to worship and study, which has the power to rejuvenate culture. We want to do this in friendship with our Protestant brothers and sisters with whom we have common cause. Benedict XVI spoke of “creative minorities” who, from their deep life of faith and love, could transform the world around them. We hope to be such a minority.

CWR: In what ways do you hope to encourage Catholic students and to engage non-Catholic students?

Dr. Mulder: Pope Benedict once said to a group of young people, “You need to be more deeply grounded in the faith than the generation of your parents.” He’s clearly right. We’ve been hearing from sociologists for a while now that young adults are more and more at sea when it comes to their faith, and the college experience has not been helping. We want to help correct that. We want students to know the beauty and richness of an authentic Catholic faith that is grounded in an encounter with the risen Christ. For our Catholic students, we want them to know it so that they can live it, and love the Lord better. For our non-Catholic students, we want them to be swept up into a deeper and better conversation about how to follow Jesus than is usually on offer in our culture.

Dr. Ortiz: In a sense, our Catholic and non-Catholic students are in a similar position regarding the Catholic faith: a position of ignorance. We want the Saint Benedict Forum to be an occasion of sharing the riches of the Catholic faith with all students, as well as with the local parish and the wider Holland, Michigan community. We have found in our classes that students resonate very deeply with the tradition, with truth, with the beauty of the historic Christian faith—we want a wider platform to share these things.

CWR: What are your respective backgrounds? What are your particular fields of interest, study, and expertise?

Dr. Ortiz: I am a revert. I am a cradle Catholic who grew up in the era of bad catechesis, fell away from the faith, did my prodigal son thing, and read my way back to the Church at the University of Chicago. I taught in the inner-city for a few years before returning to school. I got a Masters in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis and then went on to get a PhD in Historical Theology from Catholic University of America. I am a Patristics scholar by training. I focus on Augustine as well as the Latin Patristic understanding of deification.

Dr. Mulder: I was raised in the same Reformed Protestant denomination that founded Hope College (the Reformed Church in America). The Reformed tradition is one that formed me well, and I deeply respect it and value it. It introduced me to Jesus, who then led me to know him better in the Catholic Church. When I was in graduate school, around 15 years ago, studying philosophy, I got well acquainted with some of the questions non-Christians pose about the faith. These were honest questions, and I knew there must be honest answers, because ultimately, philosophy is the search for truth.

In my search, I drew inspiration from a variety of sources and professors, but I kept finding that more and more of my questions were answered by the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, and John Paul II. I also experienced a living Catholic faith in my wife and her family, and was drawn to it. I’m a philosopher by training, but I focus mostly on philosophical theology and ethics. Too often, in these fields, people dismiss the Catholic faith and its teachings without really understanding them. That’s why I began work on a book, coming out this summer, called What Does it Mean to Be Catholic? A Guide for the Curious. It’s also why Jared and I began working together on giving our students the resources they need to grow in their faith.

CWR: How do you envision the Saint Benedict Forum promoting and facilitating ecumenical dialogue, especially with the Reformed/Calvinist tradition? What are the goals of that dialogue?

Dr. Ortiz: I think there are a few levels that ecumenical dialogue works on. One basic level is simply ecumenical friendship. We live and drink and share common cause together. Another level is formal dialogue. On the highest levels of ecumenical dialogue, this is at something of a standstill, but at local levels it is still important. Our students are hungry for this conversation. They are great at the first level—they want to be friends—but both Catholic and Protestant students are not formed in their traditions. So, they are eager to know what they believe and how their friends differ. The last level is what John Paul II called “an exchange of gifts.” I think this is where we can really excel. We share from the integrity of our tradition; we share the riches of our faith with the community around us. The very existence of the Saint Benedict Forum embodies this exchange of gifts because our mission is to share a Catholic way of being at a non-Catholic institution that has welcomed us so warmly.

Dr. Mulder: Our students are so amenable that it is difficult sometimes to get them to see that our differences matter. The differences should not lead to animosity, but they matter. So, one goal is to get the students to see that we are divided and that division is a scandal which contradicts the will of Christ. Jesus longs for us to be one, and we should long for that, too.

One area of common concern is the liturgy: our Reformed colleagues care about liturgy and worshiping the Lord with authenticity. It saddens us that we are separated at the altar, but at Hope they have found creative ways of worshiping together. One way is Hope College Chapel which three days a week gathers 1,000 students, Catholic and Protestant, to praise God and listen to the word. Another cherished tradition is Ash Wednesday. Every year, Hope’s Campus Ministries invites the local Catholic pastor to preach at this Chapel and lead the distribution of ashes. It is a deeply moving experience to see our students—Catholic and Protestant—wearing their ashes on this day. We want to find other creative ways like this to worship together.

CWR: What sort of events will the Forum be hosting and facilitating in the immediate future?

Dr. Ortiz: We took a van of students to the March for Life. It is the first time that students from Hope College had gone to the March, so we were very excited; it was a fabulous experience for all of us.

On February 2, friend of Catholic World Report, Fr. David Meconi, SJ, the editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, is coming to town to give an intriguing talk called, “Ravishing Ruin: Self-Loathing in St. Augustine.” Fr. Meconi is a Hope alum!

Two days later, the Bishop of Grand Rapids, David Walkowiak, is coming for “Coffee and Conversation with the Bishop.” It will be an informal event for the College and the Bishop to get to know one another. We believe that this is the first time a Catholic bishop has visited our campus.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, O.P., one of the foundresses of the Ann Arbor Dominican Sisters, will give a talk, “Heroic Witnesses in the Third Millennium,” at our Lenten Retreat. This will be followed by adoration and confession.

On March 7, we will be hosting a Day of Study on “Foundational Issues in the Western Understanding of Deification,” where a dozen regional scholars will gather for a day of leisurely study and fellowship around this important and understudied theme.

A dozen Hope students will spend their spring break working and praying alongside the Franciscans of the Eucharist in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Lastly, on April 18, we will host an Easter Retreat—a half day of spiritual talks, faith sharing, adoration, confession, and Mass.

CWR: What are your longterm plans for the Forum?

Dr. Ortiz: We have only been around for a year and have been something of a mom and pop organization. Jack and I run the Saint Benedict Forum in our spare time, out of our offices, in between our teaching, research, and family duties. We just hired a development director, which has helped tremendously, and in the next year or so we want to hire a chaplain.

We also want to start a summer philosophy and theology institute for college kids at secular schools—two weeks in the summer for students to live ora et labora, to pray and work and be immersed in the great tradition. Finally, my big dream is to get Duncan Stroik to build us a chapel near campus where we can have daily Mass, adoration, Bible studies, and other Saint Benedict Forum events.

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About Carl E. Olson 1229 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.