A Catholic University and Recovered Catholic Identity – A Story of Change and the Possiblity of Reform

I was ordained a Catholic Priest in 1989, and had received my seminary formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg Maryland from 1984-1989. The Seminary shared a campus with and was affiliated with Mount St. Mary’s College (now University) also in Emmitsburg. More on that in a minute.

I noticed in a recent listing of Colleges in First Things magazine, Mount St. Mary’s University was listed in the top ten colleges for Catholic Identity. Specifically Catholic Identity refers to a number of factors such as: friendliness to religious faith, vibrancy of campus ministry, faith and theological reasoning among the faculty, students and administration, overall student practice of the faith, and a holding to the religious mission of the school. Mount At. Mary’s (aka “The Mount”) ranked number ten among the 12 colleges listed. See the full list at the upper right. The full article in First Things is here: College Rankings

This fact is, to me nothing short of extraordinary and an example of wonderful reform. I think a great deal of credit is due to the Mount for working so diligently on the Catholic Identity of the University. Special mention ought to be given to Msgr. Stuart Swetland who leads the Council for Catholic Identity at Mt. St. Mary’s. Among other things he and the Council promote on-going discussions about implementing faith in everyday life across the campus. They have also created a series of one-day retreats for administration and staff to assist in this reflection. More on all this here: Msgr. Swetland. Many of you may recognize Msgr. as a regular on EWTN.

As I say, this is a wonderful example of reform. For in my day, back in the mid 1980s the Mount was in terrible shape, if you ask me, when it came to the faith. The most grievous problems in those days, centered on student life which was bacchanalian and pagan to say the least. The seminary where I studied shared a campus and some facilities with the college but was technically a separate entity. I remember how frustrated and angry I would get at the terrible things I observed “over at the college.” In those days drinking and drugs were a terrible problem. Sexual promiscuity and lewd conduct were simply awful. I remember that “jello wrestling” was held in the student union on Friday evenings. When I lodged a protest with the college administration I was informed that it was harmless fun. Eventually it was discontinued because it “caused a real mess to clean up.” It would seem, in those days, the administration was more worried about dirty buildings than dirty souls. Each year there were serious incidents related to heavy drinking. In several of the years I was there, students were killed in drinking related incidents. One died falling out of a third floor window. Another died of alcohol poisoning, several  others were killed in car accidents near the campus, related to intoxication. Little was done by campus security to monitor drinking, which, for students under 21 was illegal. Keggers were quite common in the dorms. Students often proudly boasted that the school had made Princeton’s list of top party schools, a fact I could never verify, but I did not doubt that all the necessary qualifications had been fulfilled.

I will say there was little open dissent from Church teaching, on the campus that I was aware of. There were some questionable lectures etc. but, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of religious study or formation that was a big part on the college side, most of that took place on the seminary side.

Five years after ordination, I returned for a reunion of sorts and college president spoke to us priests and asked us to encourage our parishioners to send their kids to the Mount. I took him aside later and explained that I would never do so until the moral life of the students was addressed and something approaching a lifestyle suitable to the Catholic faith was insisted upon. He seemed angry with me, but was cordial and insisted that progress was being made.

A Middle States Accreditation in my time there gave the Mount academic approval but insisted that they must address Catholic identity to be true to their mission and advertising. It was fascinating and ironic to me that a secular agency would say that and insist upon it.

But that began a process that it looks like the Mount has taken seriously. And I am most happy to see the Mount now ranked high as a truly Catholic School. It is for me a moving story of reform and the power of prayer.

There is a beautiful statue of Mary on the Bell Tower overlooking the campus (see at left). I used to go up on the hill and play the carillon in the bell tower regularly and make sure the bells rang the hours on time. (It was a little side job I had). And as I played  those bells I wondered if anyone below might hear gentle reminder of God and heaven. And as Mother Mary looked down from the hillside on the Campus named for her, I know she prayed and kept watch. I know too that many fine priests who were educated in the seminary there have also kept the Mount in fond prayer. And some of those fine priests, like Msgr. Swetland, have returned to work there and make a difference. May God be praised for what he has done for Mount St. Mary’s. Thanks be to God too for the many dedicated faculty, administrators, alumni, and students who have helped the Mount emphasize her Catholic Identity.

It is possible to lament the great loss of so many Catholic Colleges in this country to secularism, and dissent. But here is a story of one of our Universities that had some troubled times, and surely the early 1980s were troubled and uncertain times in the Church, but now the Mount has taken her place on First Things list of the Most Catholic of Catholic Schools.

More on Mt. St. Mary’s University here: Mount St. Mary’s University

17 Replies to “A Catholic University and Recovered Catholic Identity – A Story of Change and the Possiblity of Reform”

  1. Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for recognizing this tremendous achievement of my alma mater. The Mount has grown leaps and bounds, even in the past four-five years. Five or six years ago, there were perhaps 8 students total on campus who went to daily Mass. Now I am told that the daily Mass chapels are over-flowing at every Mass. FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) does excellent work in reaching many of the students. Fr. Brian Nolan also deserves great accolades in his effort as campus minister… he is beloved by those involved in campus ministry and those outside. His dedication to the students and his prayer… And of course, Msgr. Swetland. Then there is also a new relationship (appropriate and balanced) between the seminary and the college, which has done much to increase the faith life of college students and seminarians alike.

    The Mount is beautifully Catholic and well-deserves this recognition. One might note however, that she is not an Ave Maria or a Christendom (and that’s okay!). She lives out her Catholic identity in a different way. She is also quite diverse in comparison. There is still a good number of students who come to the Mount that do not practice the Catholic faith. What is beautiful is that many of these students have extremely powerful conversion experiences at the Mount. There is still work to be done concerning the drinking problem… but it has certainly decreased in recent years. It is still true that if one -wants- to live the party scheme, they can find it. However, there is a huge student-base that love their faith and desire to grow together in holiness. It’s almost irresistible to join them!

    I did not spend much time in the theology department. There were some complaints made about a few particular professors, although, from my understanding, most of the department was/is thoroughly orthodox. Someone else may be able to comment further on that subject. Although I am curious as to whether the department makes that one oath (can’t think of its name) of fidelity to the magisterium.

    Thank you again for this post. The Mount is a wonderful place for collegians to grow in their faith and I’d highly recommend it!

  2. I’m currently getting my undergrad at the Mount while in priestly formation for Baltimore… So I’ve got a very unique perspective I’d say, seeing as I get decent exposure to both sides of the campus. (I’m also an athlete!)

    You’re pretty spot on with your observations, Msgr… We’ve got a great group of very holy priests offering mass I believe 4 or 5 times per day during the school week, all with great attendance (obviously the seminary mass is well attended though). The 10PM mass may have to move from Pangborn to IC in the next two years… We’re out of seating space. Our Campus Ministry department has dozens of groups, with FOCUS leading a number of different Bible study groups that receive very much attention.

    I do have to wonder though why there are not more opportunities (or orders) for the men on the south side to interact with the students. It seems a bit of a wasted opportunity to me. Of course there is a deacon assigned help our chaplain, but it would be so easy to give more guys PFE’s right on campus, wouldn’t it? I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. There are some opportunities for interaction though.

    The faculty are typically pretty orthodox in my limited experience thus far (only a freshman). There are a couple who have reputations for being a bit “out there”, but there’s very little of that. I am unaware of anybody having the Mandatum though…

    There is still a bit of a drinking problem, but one has to wonder how good it could possibly get at any college, especially one this small and isolated. If there was a real city nearby, there might be less of a problem. But I’ve heard rumors that we might be about to become a “dry-campus”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

    The campus make-up is somewhat interesting: there’s a real interplay between 3 main groups… There are those who are really living out their faith in a well-balanced and serious way (25%), there are those who have come to school to party (10%), and those drifting in between. The amount of friction is just right. I’d say the drifters are moving more and more towards the better end of the spectrum. The REALLY bad stuff is pretty limited and isolated to a few athletic groups.

    Overall, it’s a great school, at least for me. I would DEFINITELY reccommend it to anybody who can stand not being near a metropolis.

  3. I can understand the aversion to jello wrestling (especially if girls are involved), but keggers? We’re not Protestants. Heavy drinking is fine from a Catholic perspective, and a much-beloved part of undergraduate life.

    As for it being illegal, we’re under no obligation to follow an unjust (and stupid) law.

    1. Well, Ryan, your certainly being sui generis. Suddenly Mr. Latin Mass and Mr doctrinaire, “I’m more orthodox than you,” becomes Mr. Libertine: “Hey man lets get wasted!” Sure we are permitted a drink or two in Catholic tradition, and Scripture speaks of wine as a blessing. But your use of the word “heavy” places you outside of the moral realm. Heavy drinking is not a Catholic beatitude, Scripture condemns drunkenness. The kind of drunken and debauched behavior, to include nudity, fornication and just plain unconsciousness that followed keggers at these settings should surely cause you some alarm. I also indicated in the article that some of this behavior resulted in death. Come to your right mind Ryan, and stop being such a “liberal” 🙂 Catholic.

      As for “unjust” laws, I can respect your Libertarian leanings politically, but I cannot respect your being a libertine which is what I think you are in reference to your praise of “heavy” drinking. Legally, even a Libertarian ought not encourage the mere breaking of a law by young people, especially over something as base and insignificant as alcohol. Rather, a more respectful approach is engagement in the political process to over turn what you deem “unjust.” Of course one of the reasons Libertarians are not often taken seriously and have trouble building consensus is because they get side tracked into stupid issues like Pot and, at least with you, booze. Perhaps picking more noble issues would be a place to start.

      For the record, I enjoy a little nightcap, after a long day. But heavy drinking is not praiseworthy and I’ve seen a lot of lives destroyed by it.

      1. My reference point on this is CUA in the 1990s, when I was in college. That’s a place that has a strong and getting stronger Catholic identity, but still has a healthy drinking culture.

        I think you are reading too much into my use of the adjective “heavy.” You are hearing “full-on, blackout, drunk,” When I say “heavy,” I mean a kind of dull, lingering intoxication one can safely enjoy at an afternoon barbeque, a wedding, or–heaven forfend–a college kegger. As one might say of desserts, this is a “sometimes food.”

        If you drink so as to destroy your rational faculty, that is a sin. If your drinking causes you to engage in even more sins, all the worse. But the link between drinking and universities is as old as the Catholic university tradition of the Middle Ages. It certainly is not on par with wrestling 18 year old girls in a vat of Jello goo.

  4. Great to hear about the Mount. I had the same experience at Belmont Abbey in the early 80’s. Campus life was decadent to say the least, but everyone would attend Sunday night Mass and recieve Holy Communion. The theology department full of dissenters. But look what God has wrought!! It too is on the list of faithful Catholic Colleges. It gives me hope when I look at all the deplorable Catholic Colleges that are so highly visible in their dissent and hope and pray God will do the same there.

  5. Are things really what they seem? One of the young ladies from my parish had a terrible experience at Mount Saint Mary’s just a few years ago. As a Freshman she had to endure a roommate who would have sex with her boyfriend in the room while she was trying to study and rest. She went to the school authorities and received the following rebuke from one of the staff women, “What is wrong with you! Don’t you have a boyfriend?” She was so shocked and hurt that she quit the school and came home. Schools might present an aura of faithfulness and holiness, but what is the truth about the standards and the call to conversion in these same schools?

    1. Unfortunately, Father, most of the things we see about the “best” Catholic schools are made up of the conjecture of Catholics pushing a political agenda, the Newman Society being one of the worst examples. The Newman Society never, for example, talks to students at schools to come up with the schools that make their recommendations. Schools are excluded based on media accounts, and never given the chance to refute allegations. When it comes to Notre Dame, sadly, the Newman Society simply despises the school; it is a mix of hatred for Fr. Jenkins, a partisan political agenda, and pure jealousy. Anyone would be crazy to make a college determination based on blogs, much less the Newman Society’s self-righteous, political agenda-driven recommendations.

      1. Well the Newman Society is pretty reputable. Also Notre Dame has some pretty egregious things on its record. Whether the organization “hates” Fr. Jenkins is not really a determination you or I can make. Does strong disagreement equal hate in your world? The two are not necessarily the same.

        Further, how could you possibly know that an organization has “pure jealousy?”

        As for charges of a “partisan political agenda” I usually find such charges say more of the one who makes them. IOW, perhaps because you see the world in a partisan way you presume others do? I do not know this of you since I do not know you, but I have usually found a strong correlation. That said, I have never met a human being who does not have some political perspective. Hence, while it may provide some context for understanding the views of others, it does not thereby exclude them from the discussion.

        Your use of the term self-righteous is an interesting conundrum since you, in effect, have to become what you criticize to make the charge.

        And thus we’re back again to allowing one another to have viewpoints, and reasons for those views, without necessarily presuming one side has “an agenda” while the other does not, or that one side is “partisan,” while the other is not.

        So why not just discuss the issue? Why all the attributions of jealously, self-righteousness, partisan, agenda-driven? What’s that all about?

  6. College has become something young folks just do. There is really no thought put into why or whether one should attend college. That is not to say that great effort is not expended in trying to get into a good college. If much thought were put into it most folks would realize college is often a huge waste of money with a very poor return on their investment.

    The reason I bring this up is because part of the problem is a lack of purpose. When folks lack purpose they drift downward. What is the purpose of college? For many it is just what you do. There might be a vague notion that you need an education for a job. A job is something you have not to provide for your needs in modern America, which suffers from abundance. Rather it is something that provides for all your great wants. It allows you to enjoy the pseudo wealth of modern America.

    At one time many, maybe most, students were filled with a Godly purpose. The rest mostly had at least a pagan sense of duty and honor. With those things missing the college life is, not surprisingly, one of debauchery. My only hope is that this noted improvement is not really whitewashed tombs. If, as Father Joe describes, an administration has no standards then it is possible to seem quite Christian while being empty inside.

  7. If I remember correctly, the seminary was still orthodox. True?

  8. This is great news indeed and proof again that God is faithful to His promises. No cause is truly hopeless.

    Interestingly, I graduated and left for college in 1984. Among many colleges expressing interest was Mount St. Mary’s, in fact the recruitment from them was quite strenuous. It was not until I saw this Newman report two weeks ago that I realized that MSM is even Catholic! In all the literature and phone calls I received, no mention had been made of any Catholic affiliation. When I saw this report, I had to look them up to double check.

    So let’s redouble our efforts at prayer for the reconversion of Notre Dame, DePaul and so many wayward Catholic institutions. Through God all things are possible.

  9. Great reflection about the Mount Msgr. Pope. It really has come along way, and I believe that the current crop of students have taken ownership of the ideal of a Catholic liberal arts education in the finest sense of the word, and I believe that their parents demand it as a matter of justice considering the high cost of college now. I think that two great priests are in the realms of glory right now pulling for the Mount in a special way, and I know that you will agree with me – Fr. Anthony Manochio, and of course, Msgr. Hugh Phillips. God bless you and have a wonderful Divine Mercy Sunday!! Blessed John Paul II, ora pro nobis!!

  10. It’s so good to see the spiritual darkness and attacks that have surrounded the Mount for so many years (student deaths, secularism, false apparitions) is lifting. The Mount Grotto http://www.msmary.edu/grotto/about/virtual-tour.html, where you can walk the Stations of the of Cross and the Mysteries of the Rosary is gorgeous, especially this time of year. Across the highway from the Mount is the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton, http://www.setonshrine.org/n_shrine/visit_info.htm. There great restaurants and shops down the road in Thurmont. Emmitsburg and Thurmont are steeped in Catholic history and tradition, a truly great and fascinating place for a day or weekend pilgrimage.

  11. Unfortunately, some students confronting the professors on their false teachings on Catholicism at Mount St. Mary’s College in L. A. actually confuse the listing of Mt. Saint Mary’s University found on the Newman report with their school. Realizing it’s not their school on the Newman Report would help them realize upfront that what their professors are teaching about Catholicism is not from a lack of knowledge, but intentional.

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