Fr. Levesque message to Niagara University community on Pope Benedict's visit to U.S.— April 22, 2008
Last week, I advised the university community that I was going to Washington to hear Pope Benedict XVI's Thursday address to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities and other Catholic educators in the United States. I was very happy and honored to hear the pope's words, which I found most inspiring. As promised, I wish to take this opportunity to share with you my own thoughts about the significance of his words to us as educators in a Catholic and Vincentian institution.
The setting was The Catholic University of America, where the president, Father David O'Connell, C.M., provided a wonderful welcome to the 300 to 400 educators who were present and to the Holy Father. Father O'Connell, many of you may recall, is an alumnus of Niagara University and a member of our board of trustees.
Pope Benedict began his address in a soft, but very clear and articulate voice. His message was essentially one of hope, reflecting the theme of his visit, "Christ Our Hope."
He emphasized that the works of Catholic education are faith, reason and service, and that our colleges and universities are places where students meet God and come to know and study the good, the true and the beautiful. In keeping with his theme, the Holy Father called our colleges and universities "institutions of hope."
I was happy and struck that Pope Benedict cited the important work of great leaders of education in the U.S. such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Katharine Drexel. He was very clear about how thankful he was for the dedicated work of educators in our Catholic institutions, calling these institutions "an outstanding apostolate of hope, seeking to address the material and intellectual needs of over 3 million children and students." And he noted, "Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation."
These words struck me strongly, perhaps because I know of so many Catholic schools and universities, including our own Niagara University, that go to great lengths to make a Catholic education available to everyone, and in some special ways to those who cannot afford a private-school education. We all work hard at providing significant dollars for scholarships for those who are in need of help.
Pope Benedict stressed the mission of the church, that is, evangelization. This enables us to "develop a society truly worthy of the human person's dignity." The pope made it clear that "truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another. The church's mission, in fact, involves her in humanity's struggle to arrive at truth. In articulating revealed truth, she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths."
The pope used an interesting phrase, "intellectual charity." He said, "This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated."
After the pope's address, a friend asked what struck me most. I told her that it was the ending in which he emphasized the paramount importance of our professionalism and witness within our Catholic universities and schools. With great care and in a very deliberate voice, he:
• Thanked us profusely for our dedication and generosity and for our selfless contributions - from outstanding research to the dedication of those working in inner-city schools - by which we serve both our country and the church.
• Told the faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities that he reaffirmed the great value of academic freedom. And he added, "In virtue of this freedom, you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the church's duty of teaching and not somehow autonomous or independent of it."
• Said that "teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice."
• Made a special appeal to religious brothers, sisters and priests not to abandon the school apostolate, but rather to renew their commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas. He went on to say that the consecrated person's witness to the evangelical counsels is an irreplaceable gift. He also encouraged the religious present to bring renewed enthusiasm to the promotion of vocations.
I found the next words of the pope so encouraging and rich that I wish to quote the complete paragraph: "To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives (1 Peter 3:15) by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy. With Saint Augustine, let us say: ‘We who speak and you who listen acknowledge ourselves as fellow disciples of a single teacher'"(Sermons, 23:2).
As Pope Benedict lowered his voice, he concluded our meeting by saying: "With these sentiments of communion, I gladly impart to you, your colleagues and students, and to your families, my apostolic blessing." We all stood up and applauded at great length, and he also stood and recognized our approval and enthusiasm about his words to us. It was a great celebration, a celebration of education, of faith and of life.
After hearing the pope, I feel confirmed in our mission and life here at Niagara University, a Catholic university. And I will enthusiastically continue to encourage all my colleagues here as we reflect on the great message that was given to us as educators, those whom he called "bearers of wisdom." As he said in his opening remarks, "How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news" (Romans 10:15-17).
Joseph L. Levesque, C.M.