The following is an excerpt from an address by Pope Benedict XVI to Catholic…
Pandemic gives Catholic colleges an opportunity to focus on mission, community
The 2020-21 academic year will be unlike any other for Catholic universities and colleges.
Because of the novel coronavirus, many college students this fall will be attending classes in large auditoriums and lecture halls instead of conventional classrooms. Some courses will be exclusively offered online or via a “hybrid” model of virtual learning and in-person instruction.
COVID-19 not only has disrupted the learning process for undergraduate and graduate students, and forced administrators at Catholic colleges and universities to devise new policies, operating procedures and guidelines to keep everyone safe from the virus, but the pandemic also has prompted university officials to further reflect on their institutional mission.
“We’ve been talking about our mission and values much more over the last several months, explicitly because we want to make sure they are front and center, and guiding us,” said Fred Pestello, president of Saint Louis University in St. Louis.
Pestello told Our Sunday Visitor that a university leadership team, which has been meeting weekly since the pandemic swept across the United States in March, has consistently emphasized that the university’s response to COVID-19 had to be guided by the institution’s mission, values and the community’s expectations.
“As a Catholic institution, we realize that our form of education is rooted in relationships with each other,” Pestello said. “It is community which is essential, and we have long argued that our approach to education, which is a high-touch approach, and it is part of who we are as a Catholic-Jesuit institution, is the best way to educate.”
Focus ‘not on the virus’
At The Catholic University Of America, Provost Aaron Dominguez told Our Sunday Visitor that the pandemic has prompted the university to “rethink everything,” including everyday activities that students and faculty used to take for granted, such as eating lunch and walking into a building.
“In terms of education, we definitely will be integrating technology, in a healthy way, into everything we do, probably more so if it weren’t for this particular impetus to make a change, even when we come back to predominantly in-person, on-campus learning,” Dominguez said.
The social distancing that the pandemic response required created a new appreciation among university faculty, staff and students who had to spend the final weeks of the spring 2020 semester apart from each other. If anything, they have all learned just how important being in community is to higher education, especially in a Catholic context.
“Overwhelmingly what we’ve heard from our faculty and students is that they miss being in community with each other,” Pestello said. “They miss those relationships, and that’s important to the intellectual, the spiritual, the emotional, the psychological growth and well-being of our students.”
Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, president of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, told Our Sunday Visitor that in the big picture, the mission of a Catholic university does not change given the circumstances around it.
“The mission, at least at Franciscan University, is that our students are formed in a Catholic intellectual life where they engage their professors who are Catholic and believers, and who desire men and women to be formed both in their mind and in their heart,” said Father Pivonka, who noted that Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, described a Catholic university as both a faith community and an academic institution.
“The focus for us this year is not going to be the virus,” Father Pivonka said. “I mean, that’s a reality, and we’re going to have to deal with it. But the focus, the center of our life, is not COVID. The center is always what it’s always been; the Lord and having a relationship with Christ, transformation, conversion and education.”
A sense of community
A common insight, gleaned from the pandemic experience, that Catholic university officials have been highlighting in their recent messages to students, faculty and staff is that all the members of their campus communities have responsibilities to one another to keep each other safe.
Father Pivonka said the communal nature of education has also become more apparent to him in recent months.
“Education isn’t merely the dissemination of knowledge,” he said. “It’s a relationship. Knowledge is passed on, of course, in the classroom, but also in the interaction with the professors in the hallway. Part of the education experience is relationship, community and being together. That’s something the students, the faculty and staff, for that matter, and the friars, have greatly missed.”
While describing the pandemic as being “profoundly challenging in myriad ways,” Michelle Wheatley, vice president of mission and ministry at Gonzaga University, told Our Sunday Visitor the implications and impact of the coronavirus “have also quite remarkably served to reinforce and bring even greater clarity to our unique identity as an exemplary university deeply rooted in our Jesuit, Catholic and humanistic tradition.”
“This difficult time for our world has provided multiple opportunities for Gonzaga to reflect upon and demonstrate — and for our students, faculty and staff to more fully experience — what our mission statement refers to as a ‘mature commitment to dignity of the human person, social justice, diversity, intercultural competence, global engagement, solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, and care for the planet.'”
Dominguez said he would be “eternally grateful” for how the community at The Catholic University of America has rallied together amid COVID-19.
“It was really profound, and that’s what’s getting us through it,” Dominguez said. “We have plenty of arguments and disagreements on how to do things in this rapidly changing situation, but the kind of all-hands-on deck mentality is really just a beautiful thing to have experienced. I think it brought us closer together as a community in a way that will be with us for the rest of our lives.”
Cooperation is key
Pestello, the president of Saint Louis University, said one permanent change he expects from the pandemic will be the use of technology to supplement classroom instruction and to replace some in-person staff and faculty meetings. He said the university’s medical school program will also incorporate a telehealth component into its curriculum.
“As we as an institution have turned to technology more, we’ve realized the ways in which it can be used to enhance what we have long done. I think you’ll continue to see improvements there,” said Pestello, who added though that while technology can aid education, it can never be a substitute for community.
“I think we are inherently social animals,” said Pestello, who noted that students told him and faculty that their education — in fact, their entire college experience — was not as rewarding this past spring when they moved entirely to virtual learning.
Said Pestello: “People missed each other. They missed the human contact. They missed being close to their colleagues. … All those things at the center of university life have been disrupted, and I think it’s taken a toll on everyone who misses that to one degree or another.”
In many ways, the pandemic has created some existential challenges for smaller Catholic universities and colleges, said Dominguez, who believes some of them may not survive the effects of the coronavirus.
“I think we’re obliged, if we wish to survive, to come up with ways to partner with each other as Catholic universities and colleges,” Dominguez said. “There’s an important, and should be permanent, place for Catholic higher education in the United States. That’s the mission we’ve been given by the Church, to make sure that succeeds.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.