Catholic Studies awakens students to integrated world of faith
April 18, 2019
Editor's Note: A link to more information about the University of Mary Catholic Studies Program can be found at the bottom of this article.
A pre-med student at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., Kayla Keller decided to minor in Catholic Studies and got a lot more out of the program than she ever imagined.
Keller, a lifelong Catholic school student, had taken a pilgrimage to Rome with the university as a high school student from Fargo, N.D., and chose the University of Mary, which was founded on Benedictine values, so she could continue her Catholic studies.
“I wanted to keep being formed in the Catholic tradition, but I didn’t have an understanding of what Catholic Studies was,” she said. “I added the minor because I thought I would miss the religion classes I had in high school, and I knew it would give me a leg up in being accepted to the Rome program, which is very, very competitive.”
The “Rome program” – the chance to study in Rome – is one of the things that has made the Catholic Studies program, available as both a major and a minor, so successful at the University of Mary.
Catholic Studies also includes a Catholic Studies House, a lecture series, a Residence Life Scholars program that puts faculty members in dorms with students, extracurricular activities and parlor discussions between students, faculty and fellows – all designed to serve the university’s mission of the integration of faith, learning and life.
Keller, who graduated in April and now is serving as a Seton Fellow teaching middle school at Brilla College Prep and religious education at the school’s after-school program in New York City, said the main thing Catholic Studies taught her was “how the mind is made to know the truth, and that changes and transforms not just your intellect and the way you think, but it also changes how you act.
“One of the huge gifts of integration that I came to understand in a really profound way during my time in Catholic Studies was the Catholic understanding of the world as a profoundly sacramental place.”
The most important part of Catholic Studies is the work of integration, said Jerome Richter, vice president of public affairs for the university. “We have big dreams for this to continue to blossom, continue to broaden across the whole university, in the sense that affecting how people understand the wholeness of education. It’s very exciting to see; it’s grown tremendously from its very start.”
Students naturally want what Catholic Studies is offering, said W. Scott Cleveland, Ph.D., who has been with the program for three years and became its director in June. “They want community. They have all sorts of questions, and they want answers. They want to try to make sense of different things they’re studying; they want to figure out how their faith impacts everything else.
“The idea that there’s a place for that and a group of faculty who are committed to that project particularly, that integrative path that is really the heart of Catholic studies, resonates with many of the students,” Cleveland said.
The program – officially The Bishop Paul A. Zipfel Catholic Studies Program – began at the University of Mary in the fall of 2010 as an initiative of the Office of the President, soon after Msgr. James P. Shea assumed the presidency in 2009.
Instrumental in its formation was the late theologian Don Briel, who founded the nation’s first Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Holding the University of Mary’s “Blessed John Henry Newman Chair of Liberal Arts” from 2014 until his death in February this year, Briel also developed the school’s Gregorian Scholars Honors Program and taught hundreds of students at the university’s Rome campus.
The Catholic Studies program at the University of Mary is designed so it can be a major, part of a double major or a minor, and Cleveland pointed out that the degree has been paired with many majors.
“We don’t want to reduce the value of a major just to its direct usefulness for securing a certain job,” he said. “Education is about more than that. Catholic Studies is providing students with something that I think they need – as a human, as a Christian, as a Catholic – in order to flourish, and that’s community and a vision of education that tries to see the whole, that’s guided by the truth of faith, and is helping them to discern answers to the big questions in light of faith and in light of what they’re studying.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is for students to flourish intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and socially.
Keller said she came back from studying in Rome as a college student with a deep love for truth, theology and philosophy.
“Pairing them with this understanding of the incarnation and a sacramental worldview transforms that love of truth to practical life,” she said. “My love for God and my love for truth, I can encounter that in a physical way in my day-to-day life.
“The overarching gratitude that I have for the University of Mary and the Catholic Studies program is that it taught me to connect my head to my heart.
“And it taught me to live. The whole point of Catholic Studies is not merely to learn about the faith but to live it.”