Tuesday November 1, 2016

Our Faith. Our Identity.

By Eric Spina

I recently overheard someone tell a prospective student, “We’re a Catholic school, but you don’t have to worry about that if you’re not Catholic.”

The person’s heart was in the right place — we want students of all faiths to feel at home on campus — but I’d choose different language to describe who we are.

We’re a Catholic university and a community that welcomes and supports all faith traditions. We’re a Catholic university with a Marianist tradition that values both faith and reason, respects dialogue and debate, and educates students to use their knowledge and faith to make a difference in the lives of others.  That’s what draws us together; that’s our special niche in higher education.

When I attended Sunday Mass at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception for the first time last spring, I knew more than ever before that this Catholic university was exactly the right place for me. The community surrounded me — students, faculty, staff, Dayton residents; the music stirred me; the participation of the students in the Mass called out to me. For someone who had spent decades at a secular university, I immediately felt a deeper sense of mission here. It was a revelatory moment and an emotional one.

On a daily basis, I’m surrounded by powerful reminders of how the University of Dayton’s holistic mission is renewed in daily life, how the Holy Spirit guides our efforts to educate the mind and the heart. Over the course of one recent week, I chatted with the Campus Ministry staff about their work, enjoyed dinner with Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and a dozen student leaders from Catholic Life, and met Father Jim Heft, S.M., longtime UD theologian and administrator who founded the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.

The selfless work of Crystal Sullivan and her team in Campus Ministry touches every corner of campus life from small faith communities and prayerful liturgies to retreats and service trips. And, yes, they minister to and support all faith traditions. I’m impressed with the Center for Social Concern’s sponsorship of more than 30 student-run service and social-action clubs, many that advocate on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable. Every month, campus ministers host a prayer service, Prayers of the HEART, for bringing healing to a world torn apart by violence and differences. Very simply, Campus Ministry is the soul of our campus.

When I traveled to Cincinnati to meet Archbishop Schnurr before my presidency began, he was looking forward to coming to campus in October to listen to the faith-filled stories of students who make up the Catholic Life organization. These students regularly gather to converse about faith and life, pray the rosary together, study the Bible, distribute Communion to patients at Miami Valley Hospital, and help organize retreats. They put their faith in action every day and serve as witnesses to Christ’s love. I was filled with pride as I listened to them share with the archbishop how their faith has shaped their lives and has been an integral part of their education. In a word, they’re inspiring.

What can you say about Father Heft? He’s a brilliant theologian, prolific scholar, a gifted conversationalist — and still a well-known figure on campus, where he spent much of his career. We talked about the increasing need for interfaith dialogue, the special mission of Catholic colleges and universities, and the importance of fostering the Catholic intellectual life. As a major Catholic research university, we’re on a never-ending journey in the search for truth across a variety of disciplines. In the classrooms, we bridge faith and culture. And we strive to work for the common good by building communities of peace, justice, reconciliation and love in a world desperately in need of these virtues.  

Karen and I often attend the 10 a.m. Mass on Sundays in the Chapel, which overflows with students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. Our students — some dressed in shorts and T-shirts, others dressed to the nines — plan much of the liturgy and contribute to every aspect of the Mass. It’s always such a vibrant, joyous celebration. It’s here that the full force of being a Catholic, Marianist university hits me.

We’re a community of love, service, faith and education. It’s a mission worth proclaiming; it’s a mission worth our energy and passion.

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