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Serving Truth in the University

by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted


This pastoral letter, made public on December 12, 2009, outlines Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s vision for Catholic outreach at Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. The bishop’s 3,000-word pastoral letter, “Serving Truth in the University,” is addressed to the clergy and laity of the diocese, specifically those who are involved with the Catholic Newman Centers at the two state universities located within the diocese’s borders.

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Catholic Sun

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Diocese of Phoenix, December 17, 2009

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

From the very inception of universities as centers of research and study, we see the presence of the Church. In places like Paris, Oxford and Padua, the Church fostered the university as “an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered” to society (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 12).

Like the great universities that have shaped cultures around the world, our own colleges and universities, in particular Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, are centers of advanced learning and creativity that continue to shape culture and in many ways serve the good of humanity. The purpose of this letter is to outline the vision for the Church’s apostolic work in our universities, especially through our Catholic Newman Centers.

Gratitude for the history of ASU and NAU

Dating back to the late nineteenth century, both Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University have provided quality higher education for countless Catholic faithful. These men and women, in turn, have made invaluable contributions to society, here in Arizona and beyond. Our state motto, Ditat Deus — meaning “God enriches” — lies at the center of the seals of both ASU and NAU. This motto aptly sums up the work that the Newman Centers of these universities have carried out for many decades. Indeed, God enriches our lives through the faithful pursuit of truth and the authentic practice of love.

On behalf of the Diocese of Phoenix, I extend my gratitude to all the priests, religious and lay faithful who have served in these academic settings over the years. This important work has included evangelization, sacramental ministry, catechesis, and outreach to those most in need, including the poor, the marginalized, and the unborn. In particular, I wish to extend my gratitude to the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) for their tireless service over the course of many years in our universities.

Catholic understanding of university life

John Henry Cardinal Newman describes the university as a “seat of wisdom, a light of the world… an Alma Mater of the rising generation” (Newman, “What is a University,” paragraph #11), insofar as the university draws together every discipline of knowledge into one. Taking its name from this servant of God, soon to be beatified, a Newman Center serves in a crucial way the Catholic faithful and indeed all those in search of truth. A Newman Center compliments the pursuit of knowledge and truth with the proclamation of the Good News. The pursuit of the truth finds its greatest end in Christ who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Here students encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ offers his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4).

A Newman Center takes up the task of promoting the vital interaction between faith and reason, the two harmonious ways to the truth, which is always one (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 17). This interaction fosters not only a greater love for truth itself, but becomes a vibrant witness to the goodness and beauty of human life. The discovery of truth through faith and reason has the power to draw students into a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true. Pope Benedict XVI explains, “The dynamic between personal encounter, knowledge and Christian witness is integral to the diakonia [service] of truth which the Church exercises in the midst of humanity. God’s revelation offers every generation the opportunity to discover the ultimate truth about its own life and the goal of history” (“Address to Catholic Educators,” April 17, 2008).

University students face substantial distortions of truth which can hinder their opportunity to discover and serve truth. Often these distortions are based upon a faulty notion of freedom. The Church continues to proclaim to students the words of St. Paul: “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another through love” (Gal 5:13). Among the widespread “opportunities for the flesh,” which are pervasive in our postmodern university communities, are materialism, relativism, secular humanism, sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse. These gravely limit true freedom or even disable young persons’ capacity for truth and love.

In the midst of the struggle against the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19), a Newman Center lifts up for students true freedom in Christ, embodied in the “works of the Spirit,” which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22).

Vision of the future: evangelization and the university

The Church is confident that “young people are a great force in society and for evangelization. On their encounter with the living Christ depends the hope and expectation of a future of greater communion and solidarity for the Church and society in America” (Ecclesia in America, 47).

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that the Church on earth has a missionary nature (Lumen Gentium, 1). The Church’s fundamental function in every age, and particularly in our age, is to direct man’s gaze and the experience of the whole of humanity toward the mystery of Christ (Redemptor Hominis, 10). Missionary evangelization is the “primary service the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity in the modern world” (Redemptoris Missio, 2).

Evangelization applies in a critical way to the Church’s mission in a university setting, especially through the efforts of a Newman Center. This evangelical structure of the Newman Center follows that of the Church in general, which has three basic components: I) visible witness, II) proclamation and conversion and III) ongoing conversion and sacramental life.

I. Visible witness

Jesus Christ himself, true God and true man, is the “faithful witness” par excellence (cf. Rev 1:5, 3:14), and therefore He is the model of all Christian witness (Redemptoris Missio, 42). The Church, which is Christ’s body (1 Cor 10:27 ff), extends Christ’s mission through space and time by virtue of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost. The Risen Christ is encountered in the Church, the Sacraments, the family, and the witness of individual Christians. It follows that the Newman Center’s mission begins with the task of providing a visible expression of Christ’s body, the Church.

This first task of the Church’s missionary endeavor is to provide a witness, which in turn opens the door to an encounter with Christ. In the words of John Paul II, “The first form of witness is the very life of the missionary, of the Christian family, and of the ecclesial community, which reveal a new way of living” (Redemptoris Missio, 42). Christian life itself reveals a new way of living in which love for God and neighbor are the highest values. This new life is manifested above all in the public liturgy of the Church, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2).

It follows, then, that in the university environment, the Newman Center provides this visible witness primarily through the sacred liturgy, through which Christ’s unchanging beauty radiates. In addition to the sacred liturgy, the Newman Center provides this witness by promoting the inalienable dignity of the human person at all stages of life, a commitment to marriage and to social justice, and the integration of knowledge, especially through the authentic interaction between faith and reason.

II. Proclamation and conversion

Jesus Christ began his public ministry with a bold proclamation: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” (Mk 1:15) After his personal encounter with the Risen Christ, St. Paul exclaims, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). St. Paul sees that this inner demand extends to the Church throughout her history: “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15). The Church proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ through those she sends.

Pope Paul VI expressed the centrality of the Church’s ever-present mandate to proclaim Christ the Savior: “Evangelization will always contain — as the foundation, center and at the same time the summit of its dynamism — a clear proclamation that, in Jesus Christ… salvation is offered to all people, as a gift of God’s grace and mercy” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 27). The Newman Center, like the Church herself, must “speak increasingly of Jesus Christ, the human face of God and the divine face of man. It is this proclamation that truly makes an impact on people, awakens and transforms hearts, in a word, converts” (John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 67).

Because the Newman Center is a place in which the Gospel must be preached, it is a place to which preachers must be sent, to paraphrase St. Paul. The mandate to preach the good news falls of course to the priests and deacons sent to the Newman Center, but it extends in a particular way to the Newman Center as a whole, and in fact to all members of the Church in the university setting. According to John Paul II, “the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization… No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (Redemptoris Missio, 3). For this reason, it is most beneficial for a Newman Center to encourage and collaborate with the work of various organizations that are skilled in campus evangelization.

The Newman Center’s mission of proclamation includes equipping young people to engage in the new evangelization. The decree on the Apostolate of the Laity from the Second Vatican Council states, “if this zeal [of young people] is imbued with the spirit of Christ and is inspired by obedience and love for the Church, it can be expected to be very fruitful. They should become the first to carry on the apostolate directly to other young persons, concentrating their apostolic efforts within their own circle, according to the needs of the social environment in which they live” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 12).

The zealous proclamation of the Gospel never threatens or coerces. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. When the Church proclaims the Gospel to all the nations, she does so with full respect for their freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, 3-4). Yet the Church must proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ with confidence, knowing that her mission in no way restricts freedom, but rather promotes it (Redemptoris Missio, 38).

III. Ongoing conversion and sacramental life

The proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has as its goal both interior conversion and union with God through the sacramental life of the Church. Jesus proclaimed, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The Church has always seen in these words not only a reference to the Paschal Mystery, but to the Church’s sharing in Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection through her sacramental life.

The Holy Eucharist. The most important work of the Newman Center is guiding students to the font of grace that is the Eucharist. The Blessed Sacrament, which is Jesus Christ Himself, is the goal toward which all campus evangelization is directed, as well as the source from which campus evangelization receives its efficacy and strength.

For this reason, the Newman Center is a place in which the inner mystery of the Eucharistic Liturgy is on clear display. The church building or chapel, liturgical music, and indeed the overall celebration of the liturgy provide not only catechesis to the university community about the infinite love of our Lord who offered Himself as a sacrifice for our salvation but also access to it. As in a parish, the priest chaplain is entrusted with guarding the dignity and beauty of the liturgy, as well as seeing that the faithful and those who perform genuine liturgical ministries are imbued with the spirit of the liturgy (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 29).

Penance and Reconciliation. The Newman Center builds up a culture of conversion through reinvigorated catechesis on the conversion born of the Eucharist and by encouraging frequent confession. It is a place in which priests “should dedicate themselves with generosity, commitment and competency to administering the sacrament” of Penance and Reconciliation (Sacramentum Caritatis, 21). Sacramental Confession is to be offered with sufficient frequency to ensure that students have ample opportunity to be reconciled to God and the Church. Ideally this sacrament would be offered daily.

Holy Matrimony. The Newman Center has a special place in preparation for the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. This includes remote, proximate and immediate preparation for this vocation in which husband and wife model the love between Christ and His Church. While remote preparation begins in the womb and is primarily taught by parents in the family, the years of university study are to be a time of reinforcement and maturation, where the sacrament of marriage is honored and discerned. It is in this stage of formation that pastoral guidance should help to equip those discerning marriage to engage in honorable courtship (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1632).

A Newman Center must provide a faithful and courageous education in chastity. Indeed chastity is not a mortification of love as some suppose, but rather a condition and impetus for authentic love. The work of proximate and immediate preparation for marriage is to be carried out according to the diocesan norms for marriage preparation.

A culture of vocation. A truly Eucharist-centered community will foster openness to God’s love and create a culture of vocation where students are free to discover God’s loving will for them. Pope Benedict XVI, in a written response to various questions from young people, said, “If young people know how to pray, they can be trusted to know God’s will”(April 2008 visit to the United States). It is particularly the work of priests serving at Newman Centers to ensure that the students understand basic principles of prayer and discernment that will enable persons to better know and respond to God’s will for them.

A culture of vocation includes vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but in a broader sense it also encompasses the universal call to holiness. “All the faithful of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium, 40). It is therefore the mission of a Newman Center to help all grow in holiness of life in the various professional capacities to which God leads them.

On-going conversion and formation. Newman Centers should provide basic instruction and formation on how to live the Christian life. This includes: practical instructions on prayer and spiritual life; formation in fundamental human issues, such as chastity, fatherhood, motherhood, and the dignity of the person from conception to natural death; training in sharing and defending the Catholic faith. These can be done in a myriad of ways, including classes, seminars, Bible studies, prayer groups, retreats, music and drama troupes, student activist groups, mission trips, and other possibilities.

Collaboration. Given the important role of universities in the overall life of the Diocese of Phoenix, careful collaboration between the Newman Centers and our parishes, Catholic high schools and youth programs is essential. Newman Centers also cooperate with certain diocesan offices, such as the Office of Youth and Young Adult Evangelization, the Marriage and Respect Life Office, and the Office of Vocations. This collaboration will help young people remain closely connected to the life of the Church especially in the transition to and from university life.

The Newman Center’s sacramental ministry is aimed at students and faculty of the university. It is to include catechetical preparation for and administration of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Matrimony. Given the unique nature of the Newman Center, some of the faithful, such as families and those not directly connected to the university, are best served in a parish setting.

Conclusion: “Put out into the depths!”

When Jesus approached Simon Peter by the shores of Lake Gennesaret, He told the fishermen, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Lk 5:4). Later, after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus met Peter on the shores of another sea and said, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?… Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:16). In both cases, Peter was overwhelmed by the Lord’s love and goodness, as well as his own personal unworthiness to share in so exalted a mission. Yet in the end, through his loving fidelity to Christ, Peter made a great catch — not of fish, but of souls for God.

With gratitude to all those who have labored and continue to labor in our universities, we “put out into the depths” with great confidence in the love of our faithful Redeemer, who is always the one who brings about a “great catch” worthy of eternal life. As Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, it continues to be a privilege and joy to work in close conjunction with our university communities. These indeed are vast oceans of life, creativity and thought, which have been and must continue to be waters teeming with faith and charity.

Recalling that the Church’s role in the university setting is essentially that of evangelization, I wish to entrust this great work in the Diocese of Phoenix — past, present, and future — to the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary. She was instrumental in strengthening the faith of the first disciples (cf. John 2:11), and her prayerful intercession was pivotal in obtaining the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (cf. Acts 1:14). After her appearance to St. Juan Diego in 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe has drawn innumerable souls to her Son. Aptly named “Mother and Evangelizer of America” (Ecclesia in America, 11), Our Lady of Guadalupe is also the patroness of the Diocese of Phoenix. Under her mantle of love, we place the work of evangelization in our universities.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.

Sincerely Yours in Christ,

+ Thomas J. Olmsted, J.C.D.

Bishop of Phoenix

Documents Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Newman, John Henry. University Subjects. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893.

Pope Benedict XVI. Papal Encyclical. Spe Salvi. Nov 30, 2007.

Pope Benedict XVI. “Address to Catholic Educators.” April 17, 2008.

Pope Benedict XVI. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. February 22, 2007.

Pope John Paul II. Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Aug 15, 1990.

Pope John Paul II. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America. Jan. 22, 1999.

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis. March 4, 1979.

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio. December 7, 1990.

Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. December 8, 1975.

Second Vatican Council. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. December 4, 1963.

Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. November 21, 1964.

Second Vatican Council. Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem. November 18, 1965.

Second Vatican Council. Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae. December 7, 1965.

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