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Hope at New York University?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 18, 2018

The history of the Dominican Order in New York is fascinating and uplifting—as recounted by Fr. John Maria Devaney to Thomas V. Mirus in last week’s Catholic Culture Podcast (listen to 150 Years of Holy Preaching). One of several memorable highlights was the service to those suffering from cancer by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter Rose, who became a Dominican sister and founded a community for that purpose. But perhaps the greatest hope for the present day comes from an even less likely source: New York University.

The Dominicans have the chaplaincy of New York University which, as Fr. John points out in the podcast, is in effect the largest Catholic university in the United States. Of course this is not true institutionally (but then it isn’t really true of many universities which claim to be institutionally Catholic either). However, it is true in terms of numbers. There are about 50,000 students at NYU. Forty-eight percent of them are Catholic.

The Catholic Center at NYU is a true center of spiritual and cultural life on campus, benefitting also from a collaborative effort with the Thomistic Institute housed there, as well as from lectures sponsored by the Catholic Artists Society. The importance and the success of the Catholic Center illustrate a number of important elements in the New Evangelization:

  • The Dominicans are habited religious, so they create a visible presence of Catholic consecration and commitment. The value of such a visible living presence has repeatedly trumped the misguided efforts of too many religious communities to blend with the secular world since the last third of the twentieth century. More frequently than not, such “blending” masked a corresponding interior secularization as well.
  • The Dominicans are the official representatives of the Catholic Church on campus. Such a large community must necessarily be exposed to other Catholic influences, but consider the advantage of an official presence that is uniformly and unashamedly deeply Catholic. Too often does the Church send out decidedly mixed signals, from bishops, priests and professors who seek to remain relevant by muting Catholic faith and morals. These make the Faith just another “me too” ideology, which is an infallible argument for the irrelevance of Jesus Christ, and sometimes an indicator of actual loss of Faith in Him.
  • In addition to their intellectual training, so suitable to an academic environment, the Dominicans are directly connected with every kind of spiritual and material service to others through the different branches of their Order across the City of New York. These include priests, brothers, sisters, and laity. Corporately, they are capable of offering a comprehensive witness to Christ which provides an ideal opportunity for students, whose most important task at this stage in their lives is to discern their vocations.

I am sure Fr. John can recount somber tales of failure and loss (though rest assured that he found no need to do so in the podcast). But here we have a kind of model of what a healthy Church should be, and how a healthy Church can operate. This example prompts a greater awareness of how limited an unhealthy Church must necessarily be in preaching the Gospel, when it comes to transforming lives in Christ.

I do not mean to imply that the Dominicans stand alone. But even in stimulating such a perplexing and frustrating reflection on the Church as a whole, the Dominicans in New York City—and their ministry at the “largest Catholic university in the United States”—must be taken as a dramatic sign of Christian hope.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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