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Local educators react to pope's speech

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Local educators say they feel affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI after hearing him speak April 17 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Sister Maryanne Stevens, RSM, president of the College of Saint Mary in Omaha; Father John Schlegel, SJ, president of Omaha's Creighton University; and Msgr. James Gilg, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Omaha, were among the more than 400 college presidents and superintendents who met with the pope.

During his address, Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of Catholic education at every level, from kindergarten through the university, and the contributions it makes to society.

In addition, he said a university or school's Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students or the orthodoxy of course content. It is a question of conviction.

Father Schlegel said he agreed.

"Faith should be lived out in liturgy and through prayer and service," he said. "I think Creighton does a good job with that."

Pope Benedict also spoke of academic freedom - something Father Schlegel said the educators were waiting to hear.

"He has a profound respect for academic freedom and its great value," Father Schlegel said. "People thought he was going to be there to scold us and slap us on the wrist, but he didn't do that. He encouraged us and thanked us."

The Creighton leader said it was evident Pope Benedict felt comfortable speaking to educators.

"He was a university professor," Father Schlegel said. "He said at the beginning, 'I'm very comfortable with my own.' That just put us all at ease."

Seeing and hearing the pope was a great experience and somewhat emotional, Father Schlegel said.

"I'm not terribly emotional in public, but a lot of us, I think, had tears in our eyes."

Sister Stevens said she also was fascinated and moved by the pope's presence.

"He has a rather stately and simple presence," she said. "He is very warm and gracious."

Sister Stevens said she was most touched by Pope Benedict's gratefulness for those serving the church through educational ministries.

She said she was impressed with the pope's recognition "that while educators must do everything they can do to ensure that the power of God's truth permeates every dimension of our institutions, the task of discovering God's revelation in each generation is never easy.

"The acknowledgment of the difficulty was important because we simply must leave people free to search and discover truth at the same time as we present our understanding of God's revelation," she said.

Sister Stevens agreed with the pope's statement that in today's world there is an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and that there is a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes.

"I don't think we appreciate the reality of evil and sin," Sister Stevens said. "We see both as 'outside of us,' rather than part and parcel of all human history, including our own."

She said she believes the pope understands education is one of the greatest enterprises in which one can be engaged, "so I felt like the important work of education was truly recognized."

Msgr. Gilg said he was pleased with the pope's words because they affirmed what's going on in the Archdiocese of Omaha in terms of Catholic education.

The pope reaffirmed Catholic schools as being the place where the faith is taught to Catholics and reinforced the fact that the whole Catholic community is responsible for Catholic schools, Msgr. Gilg said.

Pope Benedict also "reaffirmed all of the efforts that we are making to our core schools' board to preserve the core inner-city schools because he talked about schools in poor areas and how important it is to commit ourselves to those schools," the monsignor said.

"He just reaffirmed our efforts to keep Catholic schools alive and well," Msgr. Gilg said, "and he encouraged us to continue to build the consensus among all Catholics that Catholic schools are very vital to our future."

Msgr. Gilg said he was honored to be in the presence of Pope Benedict, who he described as having "an extraordinary gentle presence, but at the same time a very powerful presence."

"The reserved nature that he has is such a contrast from that and when he starts to speak," Msgr. Gilg said. "He just speaks with such great power and strength. What he says is so powerful. It's such a beautiful experience."

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