Q&A: Walking in the Footsteps of Saints at The Catholic University of America

As the only Catholic university in America founded by the U.S. bishops, The Catholic University of America boasts a rich Catholic tradition going back to the late 1800s from its campus in Washington D.C. This tradition has provided the school with one of the most unique legacies for an American Catholic institution of higher education: a legacy filled with saints. The Cardinal Newman Society recently asked Catholic University President John Garvey to discuss the many saints and holy people who have walked the halls and sidewalks of “bishop’s university.”

Newman Society: The Catholic University of America is known as the “bishops’ university,” since it is the Church’s national university in the U.S., but not many people know that canonized saints and prominent Church leaders have visited and studied there. Who are some of these saints, and what stories stand out from their time on campus?

President Garvey: For nearly 25 years beginning in 1926, Venerable Fulton Sheen (then Monsignor Sheen) taught in room 112 in McMahon Hall, prayed daily in Caldwell Chapel, and studied in Mullen Library. During those years, The Tower, Catholic University’s student newspaper, published more than 180 articles about Monsignor Sheen — his speeches, debates, books, and radio programs. Today, there is a plaque at room 112 to commemorate those years and the University hosts a website about the life of Fulton Sheen and his cause for sainthood.

Catholic University awarded Mother Teresa her first honorary degree in 1971, eight years before she would receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Thousands of papers and records related to her are housed in our University Archives. Students remember our connection to this saint every fall when we come out by the hundreds to help our surrounding communities on the University’s Annual Mother Teresa Day of Service, which is this coming Sunday.

Sister Thea Bowman, whose cause for sainthood has been endorsed by the U.S. bishops, received her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Catholic University. She was an educator, trailblazer, and advocate for the Black Catholic experience. When we formed a committee last year to explore and recommend ways in which the University can promote racial justice on campus, we naturally named it the Sister Thea Bowman Committee, and a road is named for her on our campus.

Servant of God Emil Kapaun, a priest from the Diocese of Wichita and a candidate for sainthood, received a master’s degree from Catholic University in 1948. He was captured by the North Koreans in 1950 while serving as a U.S. Army chaplain, and was killed while a prisoner of war. President Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor in 2013, and his remains have recently been identified. Later this month a Catholic University representative will be present when they bury his remains in Wichita.

The Knights of Columbus, founded by recently beatified Father Michael McGivney, is a permanent fixture here on campus. Our law school was named the Columbus School of Law after we merged our law school with Columbus University in 1954. In 2008 we named a renovated hall McGivney Hall after the Knights of Columbus generously gave $8 million for the facility’s extensive renovations. We have a statue of Blessed Michael McGivney outside of the hall’s entrance.

Cardinals and bishops frequent our campus, often interacting with students. They celebrate Mass with us and many serve on our Board of Trustees. Our chancellor, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, became the first African American cardinal in November 2020. He is part of our community and an inspiration to many of our students.

Newman Society: Considering the honorary degrees awarded to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Venerable Fulton Sheen, Saint Katharine Drexel and others, why is it important for the Catholic University of America to hold up exemplars of moral virtue?

President Garvey: The role of Catholic University is not simply to produce scholars, but to produce scholars steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition. These men and women – saints, blesseds, and servants of God – inspire us to live lives of virtue, founded in our faith and in service to others.

Newman Society: Pope Francis, Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have all made historic visits to campus. How did that contribute to students’ experience and their education?

President Garvey joins Catholic University students as they prepare food for those in need at a local community center in Washington, D.C., on the University annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service hosted by campus ministry, 01/20/20 (Photo credit: Patrick G. Ryan, The Catholic University of America)

President Garvey: The Catholic University of America is the only university in the country to have been visited by three popes. Pope (now Saint) John Paul II visited our campus in 1979. We hosted Pope Benedict in 2008 when he delivered an address on Catholic education at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center. On Sept. 23, 2015, Pope Francis came to our campus, and, for me, it was an honor to be part of the experience as University President. On that day the Holy Father celebrated the canonization Mass of Junípero Serra from the East Portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception overlooking our campus where more than 25,000 worshippers gathered. Among them were hundreds of our students, many of whom would later tell me it was a life-changing moment.

That visit to our campus was historic for many reasons. It was the first canonization to take place on U.S. soil. It was the first Mass Pope Francis celebrated in the United States, and it was in fact his first visit to the U.S. in his life. For those of us who attended the Mass, most especially our students, it was a day we will never forget.

Our involvement with the pope’s visit went beyond the Mass. During the summer before Pope Francis’s visit, the Archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities launched the #WalkwithFrancis campaign to encourage D.C.-area residents to follow the example of Pope Francis, pledging service and prayer in the weeks leading up to his visit. At the University we embraced the theme, which we wore on bracelets, with Campus Ministry-sponsored service events and a series of educational programs. Our goal as a University was to ensure our community had the opportunity to be part of the historic visit in meaningful and memorable ways.

For the visits by both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, students in our School of Architecture competed to design the liturgical furniture used for papal Masses. The altars continue in use today, at the Basilica and Washington’s Saint John Paul II Seminary.

Newman Society: Catholic education should be forming every student for sainthood. How is Catholic University preparing the next generation of saints and leaders for our Church and world?

President Garvey: We encourage our students to love both God and neighbor, and to do so in that order. That’s why I tell freshmen at orientation to not forget to pray. I hope they’ll study hard at Catholic University and make good friends. These are important things. But they’re not the last things. Prayer helps our students balance all the demands of university life, and helps them keep their priorities in view. It also reminds them why they are here — not just here at The Catholic University of America, but here on earth. College can be stressful at times. God’s abiding peace is the best stress reliever. So I encourage them to take advantage of the many opportunities to pray with others at Catholic University.

We want our students to have a vibrant spiritual life, so we provide the sacraments on campus often. Every year I conclude orientation with a Public Service Announcement to the incoming class that includes all Mass and confession times, just so they know how easy it is to keep up their spiritual life.

And from our commitment to love God there naturally flows a deep commitment to serve our neighbor. We begin every fall semester with our Annual Mother Teresa Day of Service and at the start of each spring semester, our community turns out for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. On nearly every day of our academic year, students can participate in service, from our homeless food runs that take them into the city with meals to after-school reading programs to visits to senior housing facilities. Domestic and international service-learning trips are available every spring break and summer. The NCAA and the Catholic Volunteer Network have recognized Catholic University students for national leadership in giving back to the community.

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