In the midst of the pandemonium and exhilaration of the visit of Pope Francis, a spark has been ignited in Catholic colleges and universities throughout the Philadelphia region. This is a long overdue call to re-examine what it means to be a Catholic institution of higher education, and a challenge to the sometimes-stale (and yet vitally important) debate over Catholic identity that exists within our colleges. Pope Francis has brought a dynamic energy to this discussion, which will have implications in Catholic higher education for decades.
First, the Pope’s visit has reminded Catholic higher education students, faculty and staff that their Catholic identity is one that they can be proud of and that their spirituality can be the foundation to their success after graduation. Francis’ call to transcend a “culture of waste” and to commit to “care of creation” touches on increasingly important issues for young Catholics today. His insistence to visit incarcerated individuals in the Philadelphia prison system and to tell them that he was there to “share your situation and to make it my own,” demonstrates that “solidarity” is not just a papal vocabulary word, but a lived-out commitment to the dignity of all human life. His relationship with Sister Mary Scullion, RSM and the important work of Project HOME in Philadelphia inspires all of us to an action that is both beyond words of faith, and embedded within these same virtues. Young Catholics can be inspired by a Church that is passionate, sincere, and active.
Second, for many of us non-Catholics in Catholic higher education (I am a Mennonite who is provost of a Catholic college), the visit has prompted us to consider why we were attracted to Catholic institutions despite our diverse faith traditions. It also encouraged us to find the multitude of ways that our own traditions coincide so closely with Francis’ message of hope and encouragement. As Francis stated while standing in front of Independence Hall, “It is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.” For those of us not of the Catholic faith, we understood in these words that our work at Catholic colleges and universities can give us a stronger religious identity in our own traditions because we work at Catholic institutions.
Francis also was able to remind us of the unique “charisms” that shaped each of our college traditions, including those at Cabrini College—named for Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. It was reaffirming and strengthening to have the Pope not only acknowledge, but also gratefully affirm the power of women religious in the Catholic Church. I know that Cabrini College’s sponsoring order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, continues to model the engagement that we hope alumni aspire to every day. These Missionary Sisters embody the best in us and it is inspiring to have this acknowledgement from the Vatican. Equally, I am sure that other Catholic colleges and universities take immense pride in in their own founding orders that have built each institution.
Finally, the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia, and to the United States, confirmed that Catholic higher education matters. Amidst the constant challenges of enrollment, budgets, and socio-political pressures to devalue a faith-based liberal arts education our mission is still vital amidst the changing landscape of higher education. The “call to action” from the Pope’s message to the City of Brotherly Love brings a renewed optimism in our foundations of Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teaching. We recognize his consistent call to think beyond consumerism and beyond professional status. Faith-based liberal education, combined with strong professional skill development, is the basis of both a moral and a thriving society.
Let us hope that this is not just a great story to tell at parties and gatherings. Let this be a constant reminder to us all that Catholic higher education is a gift to the world community. Let us acknowledge that it creates the kind of leaders in the corporate, civic, and non-profit worlds that will create a thriving society and economy. And let us remember that a more fair and just world with a sincere care for those less fortunate can be led by Catholic higher education alumni, inspired by Pope Francis.
~ Jeff Gingerich, Ph.D. Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Cabrini College