"God . . . has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another."
- Blessed John Henry Newman
As the Canadian representative on the Board of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) based in Washington, I recently attended a board meeting where we took time to reflect on the beatification in September of John Henry Cardinal Newman.
A prolific scholar and author of the renowned The Idea of a University, Newman's model of education is embodied in reputable Catholic colleges and universities in North America and throughout the world.
Newman focused on the "incarnational vision" of Catholic higher education, a profound interrelationship of faith and reason.
Newman's intersection of faith and reason as the soul of the Catholic university suggests a learning environment that is at once welcoming of ideas, dynamic and stimulating: "A university . . . is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge."
As the lone Canadian in the ACCU boardroom, I reminded my fellow presidents of another celebration of sanctity this fall of 2010, the canonization of St. André Bessette (Brother André of Montreal), who in his own way is also an inspiration for those engaged in Catholic higher education.
In sharp contrast to the sophisticated, erudite and scholarly Newman, Brother André was a semi-literate man with virtually no formal education who struggled as a manual labourer until the age of 25 when he joined the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
St. André Bessette
He served as the humble porter at Notre Dame College for 40 years where he also performed every menial task possible. A man of profound sanctity who eventually founded the magnificent St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, when Brother André died in 1937 thousands of people claimed that his prayers to St. Joseph had healed them.
In spite of the dramatic differences between these two holy men, there are also remarkably similar characteristics in their lives and work that together constitute ideal models for those engaged in Catholic higher education.
Each calls us to face the world with confidence and deep faith; each calls us to dedicated, unselfish service for all who come to us. For Newman, religious teaching "is intended for the many, not for the few;" for Brother André all who came were received with humble service, especially the poor and the sick.
Taken together, their exemplary lives remind us that there is equal value and equal dignity in all work from the mundane to the exalted, and that we are all called to greatness in whatever we do.
Taken together their exemplary lives radiate immeasurable wisdom and demonstrate, to use Newman's words, that "God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another."
The beginning of the Christmas season as 2010 draws to a close provides a distinct perspective for those of us engaged in Catholic higher education in Canada to contemplate and gives thanks for the inspiration of Blessed John Henry Newman and St. André Bessette.
We also contemplate and express our gratitude to all who have gone before us whose vision, scholarship, commitment and generosity have made possible a total of 20 dynamic Catholic colleges and universities in Canada.
(Terrence Downey is president of St. Mary's University College in Calgary.)