The 2020-21 academic year was challenging for colleges across the country, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., which is recommended in The Newman Guide for faithful Catholic education, made the decision to “trust completely… in Divine Providence” and be “prudent” in decision making.
The Newman Society recently asked Dr. Bill Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey, about the college’s Catholic identity, how it influenced the decisions that were made this year, and how it will continue to impact the College in the years ahead.
Newman Society: While many Catholic and public colleges opted for online learning this fall, why did Belmont Abbey College decide to move forward with in-person learning? How did the Benedictine hallmark of “community” influence this decision?
Dr. Thierfelder: The reason we committed to returning to in-person learning in August of 2020 was grounded in our Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and our call to emulate Him by sharing our real presence with others. As a Catholic college, we believe in educating and forming the whole person in mind, body and soul. It is far from the secularistic and materialistic philosophy of simply exchanging or sharing information. Although technology can be a useful adjunct or tool to enhance learning, it can never be a substitute for real presence.
Newman Society: Belmont Abbey’s return to campus included practical measures to help prevent and slow the spread of the virus on campus, including quarantining and isolating students as needed. But what role did trusting in God play in the plans?
Dr. Thierfelder: Jesus, I trust in You! At Belmont Abbey College, we trust completely and absolutely in God’s Divine Providence and, at the same time, we realize our obligation and desire to fully cooperate with His grace that is raining down on us. Giving our 100 percent requires being prudent in all that we do. Jesus makes clear in the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30) that we are called to double the talents that He has given to us.
Newman Society: How did Belmont Abbey lean on the monks and their prayers during this time?
Dr. Thierfelder: The 1,500-year Benedictine monastic tradition that helped build and preserve Western Civilization is foundational to our community. Belmont Abbey College is their apostolate. It is their ora et labora. Every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for their entire lives, they are praying throughout the day, offering Mass, confession and spiritual direction to our students, faculty and staff. The Monastic community’s stability, peace and life of welcoming every person as Christ, in persona Christi, is ever present. The Monks continually remind us that Mary, Help of Christians, the Abbey’s Patroness, continually surrounds us with her mantle of protection.
Newman Society: What do you think Belmont Abbey’s leadership during this unusual time says about the College to prospective students?
Dr. Thierfelder: Be not afraid! We are people of faith, hope and love. Belmont Abbey has survived two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression and so much more, and we are confident that by the grace of God, and our cooperation with it, we will overcome every challenge including COVID-19.
Newman Society: How do you expect the College’s strong Catholic identity to shine in the weeks and years ahead?
Dr. Thierfelder: Our strategic plan, BAC2030 Love in Truth, has three goals. The first is to secure financial freedom and eliminate dependence on federal funding, through strategic institutional growth in development, enrollment, retention, academic entrepreneurship and brand recognition. The second is to be active contributors to, and influencers of, culture, society and education by contributing to the common good and evangelizing through faith, reason, excellence and virtue. And third is to prepare students to seek the good, the true and the beautiful. Guided to live lives rooted in objective truth and animated by authentic love, they will come to know their purpose in life and the true meaning of friendship, professional success and love of God, family and country.
Through objective truth and authentic love, we will melt hearts, enlighten minds and win souls so that the world and each one of us becomes what God is calling us to be!