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
Sites That Link to this Post
- Cardinal Newman Society | April 29, 2011