October’s Synod on Young People comes amid growing awareness of the Catholic Church’s many failures to teach, inspire, and even protect its young. But if the synod fathers are looking for good news, there’s plenty to be found at America’s most faithful Catholic colleges—and these can be examples for the entire Church.
Papal biographer and columnist George Weigel recently urged that “Success stories in youth ministry should be persistently, even relentlessly, lifted up” at the synod. He specifically noted the “intellectual and spiritual achievements of orthodox, academically vibrant Catholic liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States.”
As editor of The Newman Guide, I couldn’t agree more! The faithful Catholic colleges recommended by The Cardinal Newman Society are accomplishing much, for the good of their students and for the Church. And since the mission of the Church is evangelization, and Catholic education is a key means of evangelization, it would only make sense that faithful Catholic colleges would be held up as examples for the Synod on Young People.
Just recently, the U.S. News and World Report rankings were released, and many Newman Guide colleges earned high marks in various categories. But more important than secular rankings, faithful education help provide the formation that young Catholics deserve and which is lacking across much of the Church today.
This formation is offered through faithful theology courses, strong liberal arts core curricula, the witness of faithful leaders on campus, the focus on reverent liturgy and prayer, a healthy campus culture, athletic programs that encourage virtue, and so much more.
Dr. John Grabowski, associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., explains that studying philosophy and theology “enables the young adult to ‘own’ the faith which their parents, priests, and other teachers had passed on to them.” He recalls, “One of the most rewarding and humbling things that has occurred in my years of teaching is to have students enter the Church or come back to the faith after taking a class and tell me that the course helped them to make that decision.”
That’s a far cry from the scandal and confusion sown by wayward Catholic colleges, such as those that hosted seminars earlier this year on Amoris Laetitia with theologians who are well-known for their attempts to change the Church’s teaching and traditions.
The core curriculum and faculty at a faithful Catholic college are focused on a student’s formation in the light of faith, not in opposition to it. “All students, Catholic and non-Catholic, deserve an education that awakens wonder and is oriented to an integrated wisdom, both theoretical and practical,” says Dr. Josh Hochschild, professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. A strong curriculum is “crucial to help students experience the unity of truth,” he says, but just as important is “the character of the faculty.”
“In any discipline, faculty can help embody confidence and humility of the pursuit of truth, and the example of Christian witness in faculty is a profound grace to students,” Hochschild explains. “The whole campus culture has a role in supporting this vision.”
The faithful colleges held up for example in The Newman Guide often go above and beyond to ensure that students have good role models on campus. Steve Minnis, president of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, told us: “I interview every job applicant on campus, and I ask them to explain to me how they see themselves contributing to our mission—not just accept that we have a mission, but how they will support it. I want every man or woman who works for Benedictine College to be someone I hope our students will aspire to be like.”
Another thing that is at the heart of a faithful Catholic college is the liturgy, which is something that George Harne, president of Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire, has often emphasized. And when asked how the College is forming young people in the truth of our faith, several students noted the liturgical life on campus.
Sophomore Rose Phelps says, “Most importantly, the way the liturgy is celebrated at NCC has truly helped me deepen my relationship with God. The reverence of the priests and altar servers along with the beautiful chant and polyphony music make it so easy to lift ones heart to God.”
Senior Rebecca Stolarski agrees. “The spiritual resources available to students [on campus]—daily Mass, Rosary, Adoration, Confession—should not be underestimated: there are few things more spiritual restorative than an evening before the Blessed Sacrament, and nothing more strengthening to faith than convenient access to daily Mass.”
Faithful colleges attend to the entire campus culture. Some great examples are the wholesome activities offered through the outdoor adventures program at Wyoming Catholic College, the Rome campus program offered through the University of Dallas, and the “household” systems at Ave Maria University and Franciscan University of Steubenville that invite groups of students to live and pray together. Benedictine College’s Minnis says the key is to make it “contagious to live the good life” and to let the “good things run wild.”
Formation extends into the realm of athletics. At Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, President Bill Thierfelder is a former Olympian who stresses virtue in all athletic programs. It’s no surprise that student athletes have helped the College earn the sportsmanship award from its Division II athletics conference in four of the last seven years.
All areas on campus should help form students, according to Michael McMahon, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota “Through academics, residence life, and even athletics—all seeking truth, students understand that truth is not disjointed or that our lives can be compartmentalized,” he says. “If it is true in the theology course, it needs to also be true in the residence life halls. If the faculty and administration of a university are not faithful to the Church’s teachings why would our students be inspired to be?”
Joseph Nemec, a junior at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, says, “I am grateful to God for the opportunity to study at an institution that values the very things young people want and need.”
Often when parents and students think of college, they think of education. But an education at a faithful Catholic college is about so much more: it’s about formation. This formation shapes a student’s body, mind, and soul and prepares a student for his or her vocation, as well as a career.
The impact of faithful Catholic colleges is impressive! In just 40 years with an enrollment of 500 students, Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, has helped foster 158 religious vocations. Additionally, there have been 419 alumna-to-alumnus marriages. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, was once asked by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education to give an account for why so many priestly and religious vocations come from the College.
Maybe it’s time for the Synod on Young People to ask Newman Guide colleges to give an account for their success in youth formation. These joyfully Catholic institutions provide an example of fidelity and success that can be a shining light to anyone who is trying to bring Christ to new generations.