FROM FOUNDERS HOUSE: Living the Mission, Part 1: Goodness

FROM FOUNDERS HOUSE: Living the Mission, Part 1: Goodness

Students in the Gilson Seminary in Faith and Ideas

As I get into my final weeks at St. Mike’s, I am, not surprisingly, spending a lot of time thinking about what I’ve learned. In a way, it’s not unlike what I was doing in my final weeks at St. Mike’s during my earlier sojourn here, 40 years ago. Back then, I was preparing for the final exams of my 4th year, and was intensely focused on mastering the facts and figures relevant to an exam taker. The difference this time is that I’m trying to get a sense of the bigger picture, trying to give shape and meaning to my overall experience.

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in doing that the first time around, but then I had the luxury of time. My own very positive experiences of undergraduate life have percolated through 4 decades, meaning that they continue to influence and shape who I am now.

This time, the accounting needs to be done more quickly. There’s simply less time available. And I need to account to a broader audience, to the people who invited me to return to the community.

I’m going to devote my remaining blog posts to this task over the coming weeks. And given that time is of the essence, I will rely on a pre-existing template–think of it as a study guide–to give structure to my thinking. Happily, I can make good use of the 3 familiar words that serve as a motto for the Basilian Fathers and for the University itself: goodness, discipline and knowledge.

When I took on the job, I promised that I would try to ensure that St. Mike’s is living its mission as a Catholic university. What I meant by that is that our Catholic identity should be vital and distinctive in the here and now, and also heritable, capable of being passed down through time. If I’ve learned anything over the last 3 years, it’s that if a Catholic university is to live its mission and pass it on, it needs a real, identifiable and continuing connection with goodness, discipline and knowledge.

What I want to focus on, then, is the extent to which these three gifts from our founders are still the daily business of St. Michael’s. I want to explore the extent to which they have life and meaning on campus beyond their presence on crests and letterhead.

Nobody will object to beginning with goodness. Who doesn’t want what is good? Better still, where you find what is good, you also invariably encounter what is true and what is beautiful. This isn’t simply coincidental. They seem to be, and are, connected at a fundamental level.

The question for us is what does a university have to do with goodness? Can you learn to be good, or is an inclination to goodness something that we are (or aren’t) born with? There is no denying that some people are born with what seems to be an innate dedication to what is good and true and beautiful. It’s something that distinguishes many—although not all—saints. The rest of us, including some saints, have a harder time following what should be a clear path. We too often confuse what is pleasing or popular or easy to acquire for what is good. We need guidance and helpful examples. For most of us, our appreciation of goodness is quickened through learning and experience. It is enabled, encouraged and sustained by the influence of our parents and families, through our faith life, and, ideally, through our formal education.

Indeed, we can assert with confidence that what distinguishes a Catholic university is its dedication to helping students know and embrace what is good.

There is certainly an aesthetic and intellectual dimension to this. Our taste is cultivated and refined through education and experience. Good teachers help us to become more insightful and attentive readers, viewers, listeners and thinkers. This is at the heart of what Principal Randy Boyagoda offers our students through the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, a first-year course that surveys some of the greatest works of the Catholic intellectual tradition and that culminates with an experience of the art and architecture of Rome. Experiencing the good is central to the work and ministry of Father Dan Donovan, who teaches us about beauty through his own generous donations of art, and through his commitment to awaken in students, alumni and other visitors to campus a sense of how art offers us an experience of the good.

There is also a moral dimension to our formation in what is good. We cultivate what is good in ourselves by learning to appreciate the good in others, by shifting our focus from “me” to what is “not me”. This was at the heart of Archbishop Durocher’s recent talk on Catholic social teaching. It’s also central to the leadership formation that we are building into our training for dons and other student leaders. Encouraging our students to think about what is good and true and beautiful in their relationships with others is central to our educational mission.

But a Catholic university asks us to think even more deeply about what we’re encountering when we experience the good in art, in literature and in our neighbors.

Cardinals Peter Turkson and Robert Sarah speaking in Toronto

We invite our students to explore the spiritual dimension of our education in goodness. We find what is most truly good by opening our hearts and our minds to God. Back in 2016, when he visited with us,  Cardinal Turkson of Ghana spoke about the encyclical Laudato si’, encouraging us to see all that is good and beautiful in God’s creation, of which we are a part. More recently, Cardinal Sarah spoke to us of the beauty that lies within us, reminding us that only in silence can we hear the still, small voice of God speaking to us.

So let me close this first essay with the observation that a Catholic university is a place where you can expect to be engaged in a conversation about what is truly good in this world of ours, about what it is to be a human being fully alive. And while you can expect the question to be posed in the full confidence that an answer is available to us, you can also expect to be challenged, in many ways and on many levels, to find it for yourself.