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My Time at SLU

April 26, 2007

Taking a look around the Catholic blogosphere, feelings toward my alma mater, Saint Louis University, seem to range from disgusted to sympathetic. By now, many are aware that the city of St. Louis (not SLU) was cleared of the charge of violating state and federal constitutions by providing $8 million in tax increment financing to SLU. The suit was filed by the Masonic Temple Association (there are two masonic temples directly across the street from Saint Louis University’s campus church). The Missouri Supreme Court disagreed with the Masonic Temple Association 6-1 and declared that SLU “is not now owned or controlled by the Society of Jesus.” For a report on the judicial proceedings and result, see the St. Louis Post-Dipatch’s write-up.

Two bloggers who posted on this story were Amy Welborn and Matthew Fish. Welborn was terse, remarking: “Sorry but when traditionally Jesuit institutions do things like this, you can’t blame us if the word, well…’jesuitical‘ pops into our heads.” I never thought that Welborn would succumb to the temptation of employing uncritical, blanket stereotypes, especially when branding a religious order within the Catholic Church. Now I understand that many Catholics believe they know a thing or two about the Jesuits, but I am willing to bet the house that these same Catholics who use terms “jesuitical” or other derisive labels for the Jesuits are likely outsiders, having never experienced in any degree of depth life at a Jesuit university, in a Jesuit community or in a Jesuit parish. In other words, while there may be some Jesuits who cause sincere Catholics to recoil, to apply one’s judgment on particulars to a the order as a whole is mindless. After all, there are many prominent American Jesuits who would never disavow their order, yet they are examples of genuine faith and courage (e.g. Joseph Fessio, Avery Dulles, Raymond Gawronski).

My own experience with Jesuits has been quite good. My uncle, Joseph Hughes, was a Jesuit brother for most of his life. For three years, my parish in San Luis Obispo was graced with the presence of two outstanding Jesuit priests who helped me form a eucharistic devotion like no other priest has. My spiritual director while at Franciscan University was a Jesuit priest from the Chicago Province. A good friend of mine from FUS is currently a Jesuit scholastic for the New Orleans Province. My most productive and formative theological studies occurred at a Jesuit university where I met Jesuits of profound and unwavering faith, one of whom would lead us in Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration at the Jesuit house in Saint Louis every week. I took graduate courses in theology where many of my peers were Jesuit scholastics from the Missouri, Maryland and New York Provinces. My point? Having observed so many different Jesuits in their work, ministry and study, I can testify that those uninformed stereotypes which cast so much negativity on the Jesuit order as a whole are simply devoid of charity, understanding and catholicity.

Now back to SLU

Matthew Fish gave a much more substantive and fair treatment of the court ruling and implications than Welborn, though to the latter’s credit, she posted some of his remarks on her own blog. Fish puts things in better perspective aiding us in resisting the knee-jerk reaction of harping on “jesuitical” tendencies among Jesuit apostolates (to clarify, Welborn did not go beyond coining the term, but several of her readers were merciless in their singular and monolithic onslaught of the Jesuit order).

But enough about the court case. What I want to do is simply relay my actual, first-hand Catholic experience while I attended graduate school in theology at SLU. I’ve touched on my experience at SLU a few times already:

Pope Benedict Greets the Jesuit-run Gregorian
Top Theology Programs? (post includes a criticism of R.R. Reno’s uninformed diagnosis of SLU’s theology program in First Things, [my post was well-received by Amy Welborn])

Here’s what I wrote about SLU previously:

I can testify that SLU offers a top-notch program, requiring doctoral students to be proficient in four languages (most doctoral programs only require two) and to be specialists in two historical periods. The faculty is stellar–mostly Catholic–and nearly every member is a practicing Christian. Kenneth Steinhauser is one of the premier Augustine and ancient Latin Christianity scholars in the country. Wayne Hellmann is an expert in Franciscan theology with particular specialty in Bonaventure. Kenneth Parker studied under Eamon Duffy at Cambridge and specializes in Newman and modern English Catholicism. James Voiss and Brian Robinette, both graduates of Notre Dame, are two young, exciting and highly-regarded systematicians who specialize in hermeneutics, fundamental theology and philosophy, not to mention they really know and readily teach the works of Rahner, Balthasar, Tracy and Marion. Expect big things from Robinette.

I came away from SLU a more faithful and historically-aware Catholic.

Not that I buy into the naive assertion that crucifixes in college classrooms are any indication of how “Catholic” a university is, but for my readers that do, I’ll mention that every classroom in which I took a theology or a philosophy course at SLU had either crucifixes or numerous icons and paintings of Christ and/or the saints.

When one visits SLU, one is not confused as to whether or not one is gracing the campus of a Catholic university. Perhaps the most popular image from the SLU campus that is marketed by the university is the stunning, bedazzling and imposing St. Francis Xavier College Church on the busy corner of Lindell Blvd. and Grand Blvd. Here are some photos of the exterior along with a shot of Archbishop Raymond Burke during an ordination Mass.

St. Francis Xavier College is packed each Sunday with college students, faculty, staff and local Saint Louis families. Even the 11:00pm Mass nearly fills the church to capacity. Perhaps even more remarkable is the attendance at daily Mass on campus. Saint Louis University offers Mass three times a day, and confession every afternoon. The turn out for both the daily liturgies and confessions is impressive. As a graduate student I never had a set schedule, attending daily liturgies at different times each day. I was able to hear Mass from a variety of Jesuit priests and not once did I perceive grave liturgical abuse, heterodox preaching or questionable practice. Liturgies at SLU are solid and the high attendance even at weekday Mass is a sign of a strong liturgical life on campus.

The succint and soaring “Vision Statement” of President Lawrence Biondi reads:

“My vision is to establish and maintain Saint Louis University as the finest Catholic university in the United States, wherein the entire University community is actively engaged in student formation. Challenged by outstanding faculty and a modern, value-centered curriculum reflecting the Jesuit tradition, students are fully prepared to contribute to society and to be effective leaders of social change based on the ethical values and principles taught in the Saint Louis University tradition.”

Regardless of whether or not that vision could ever be achieved or how effective Fr. Biondi has been at actualizing it, one thing is clear: the President of Saint Louis University unabashedly advertises the school as Catholic. What impresses me about SLU is that, while it boasts of its Catholic and Jesuit tradition, it is not totalitarian or oppressive in its Catholic approach. In other words, it is truly Catholic: maintaining Catholic “ethical values and principles” while remaining open to engaging an evolving culture and society through incorporation, academic liberty and respect for disciplinary approaches. Sure, this makes some Catholics shudder, but for reasons that are far more idiosyncratic than Catholic.

My personal faith and intellectual formation came at the hands of Franciscan University of Steubenville and Saint Louis University. I have had my theological, liturgical and ministerial imagination stretched, challenged and fortified by both these institutions, and not once did I find them as anything other than complementary in my life.

The question recently raised by a journalist was: “Did SLU sell its tradition for $8 million?” If that journalist was cognizant of that tradition and attentive to the actual terms of the court case, such a misplaced question would never have been posed in the first place. As an insider at SLU in theological studies and campus ministry, I can testify that the Catholic soul at my alma mater is alive and well.


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