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Kicanas to college heads: 'Catholic identity top priority'

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Bishop Gerald Kicanas speaks at the annual ACCU convention in Washington Jan. 30. (NCR photo/ Jerry Filteau)

WASHINGTON -- "Catholic is not just an adjective accidental to who you are," Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., told presidents of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities Jan. 30. "Catholic is the core of your identity, the center of what you are about."

Kicanas, himself a former president/rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Chicago, gave the keynote address at the Jan. 28-30 annual convention of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington.

He focused on two recent events that have served to frame the concept of Catholic identity in Catholic higher education as the main theme for this year’s ACCU gathering.

One was the church’s recent beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman -- a 19th-century convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and a leading British intellectual who became a cardinal and left two main landmarks on Catholic thought: his pre-conversion Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and his later The Idea of a University, a volume collecting lectures on the nature of a Catholic university that he had given during his appointment as first head of the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin).

The other was the recent 20th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"), the 1990 apostolic constitution in which Pope John Paul II established goals and norms of Catholic identity for Catholic colleges and universities around the world.

During Newman’s four years as head of the new Catholic University of Ireland, Kicanas said, the future cardinal "was totally engaged, especially in selecting faculty, including a number of laymen, always looking out for those whose character and ability would foster the work of the university. Some of his choices were not universally applauded. He wanted laity involved, which broke with the tradition that universities should be under the strict control of clerics."

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Full text of Bishop Gerald Kicanas speech
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“Newman mingled with students and delighted in their company” and established student activity resources that would prepare them for their future life in the real world of his day, including such things as horseback riding and billiard tables in student common rooms, he said.

Kicanas suggested that Newman’s combination of practicality and rigorous theological standards in his approach to Catholic higher education is instructive today, especially in light of Pope John Paul II’s 1980 call, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, for Catholic colleges and universities to reaffirm their fundamental Catholic identity.

“He is your brother, your mentor,” Kicanas said.

“Above all he would expect that you place Catholic identity first among your concerns,” he said.

“He would challenge each of you,” he added, “to do what you do with integrity. … He would emphasize his understanding that the faithful as a whole possess the Spirit and should be listened to. This has much to say on how we exercise authority. He would encourage you to educate a generation of laity who would bring their faith to bear on burning questions of this time. This is what he did in his time.”

Kicanas praised the recent efforts of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities to reaffirm and strengthen their Catholic identity.

“You need to set the laity afire with their responsibility to bring the gospel values to the pressing concerns of our day and to take their proper place as co-workers in the vineyard with the ordained to realize the Lord’s mission. … Your work of evangelization among the young and not so young is at the heart of the church’s work,” he said.

On the relationship between bishops and Catholic colleges and universities, Kicanas said that “encouragement and trust are the foundations” of the norms for Catholic higher education set out by Pope John Paul in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

“The church does and indeed must be interested and involved in Catholic institutions of higher education, not to meddle or to cause trouble or conflict, but because who you are and what you do is at the heart of the church’s mission,” he said.

He said that in his experience initial concerns in the academic world about the effect of the norms “have lessened as universities and colleges have learned that bishops seek communication and desire cooperation and collaboration.”

“I sense a true and fervent desire (of those in Catholic higher education) to be Catholic, to remain Catholic. … Our Catholic institutions are incorporating moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the church into all they do. Pro-life groups, mission immersions, prayer and retreat opportunities, ethical and moral education in all fields of study are more common than not in your schools,” he said. “They are part of campus life and the culture of your institutions.”

[Jerry Filteau is NCR's Washington correspondent.]

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