By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The best way for Catholic colleges to move forward is to look back, said speakers at the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
They were not stressing the need to reminisce but instead emphasizing the importance of tapping into the charisms particular to the orders that founded many Catholic colleges and universities and making sure they are understood and embraced by school communities.
"Our charisms should be revered as much as possible," said Mercy Sister Susan Sanders, founding director of the Center for Religion and Public Discourse at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
Sister Susan, a member of the leadership team of the Mercy Sisters’ Midwest Community, gave the closing address Feb. 1 at the ACCU meeting in Washington attended by Catholic college presidents and leaders from around the country.
Speaking at a podium in front of pictures of the men and women religious who founded many of the religious congregations that sponsor Catholic colleges nationwide, the Mercy sister emphasized that charisms of each school set them apart and provide a distinctive campus culture.
But they are also meant to do more, she said, noting that these specific gifts, as she called them, can help students understand how faith is lived out concretely and also can move beyond campuses, particularly in service work around the world.
Charisms stem from the teachings of the orders’ founders and reflect what those in that order strive to do in their ministry. For example, a charism of the Vincentians, an order founded by St. Vincent de Paul, emphasizes humble service to others, especially the poor, so this same spirit is likely to be emphasized at Vincentian schools such as DePaul University in Chicago or St. John’s University in New York.
Sister Susan said the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin described charisms as fundamental to religious life and touchstones to help them in their ministry.
As she sees it, they are not stagnant or from another age and time but instead are mobile and can provide modern responses to cultural issues on immigration and race for example.
They also provide something that unchurched students, students of different faiths or even school professors can more readily grasp.
Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, a member of the education committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the college leaders after Sister Susan and stressed that schools’ charisms run the risk of "remaining on campus" if students are not encouraged to move them forward.
Love of faith is the first thing that schools pass on when they pass on a charism, he said.
He noted that the charisms assure the identity of an institution, making people "exhibit a pride in being a part of Benedictine tradition or an Ursuline tradition or a Jesuit tradition, but it can’t stop there," he warned.
To move the essence of these charisms forward, the bishop said schools need to teach and explore these gifts but they also have to live them out.
"Charisms have to be shared," he said, by teaching and exploring them, "but most importantly they must be lived, otherwise they become museum pieces that remain on the shelf and never really affect people’s lives."
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.