Catholic education can be an agent for good in a polarized world

January 25, 2016

Lisle, Illinois ~ While religious divisiveness and sectarian violence permeate many parts of the world, the belief that Catholic education can be a force for good was an underlying theme of a conference of Catholic university presidents recently held in Rome.

The weeklong conference, occurring on the heels of the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and a deepening crisis in the Middle East, marked the 25th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, St. John Paul the Great’s charge to Catholic educators to produce thoughtful world leaders who respect the dignity of every person.

Among those attending the conference was Benedictine University President Michael S. Brophy, Ph.D., M.F.A., who joined representatives from Georgetown University, the University of Notre Dame, and dozens of other Catholic universities from South America, Africa, Oceania, Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Brophy said he was comforted knowing that Benedictine is not alone in trying to make a difference in the communities that it serves by living the Benedictine hallmarks of community, hospitality and humility.

“Almost every conversation … every significant conversation … at the conference, including the Holy Father’s, would at some point wrap back around to the common good,” Brophy said. “This has been a passion for Catholic education, at least since Vatican II. And if it’s not missionary work, it is definitely social justice work.”

In his unprepared comments to attendees, Pope Francis reinforced the belief that it is the responsibility of Catholic institutions to work toward serving the common good and correcting social injustice.

“When the Holy Father spoke, he chose not to give a speech, but to respond to presentations from different parts of the world – Africa, South America and the Middle East,” Brophy said. “He chose to really focus on the common good, the poor, our service to the poor, and helping the poorest come out of poverty, and that Catholic education needs to be a big part of that."

At Benedictine, that means producing graduates who go forth desiring to serve others.

“I think many of the messages from the week had to do with simple goals,” Brophy said. “For example, if every student who graduates from Benedictine wakes up in the morning and at some point during their day is genuinely thinking about others, of being service to others, we’ve fulfilled our mission. No matter what discipline they’re in. If they are genuinely thinking about the welfare of others …”

Often, thinking about the welfare of others, particularly in underdeveloped countries where Catholic education is growing the fastest, includes providing the basic necessities of life.

“When you are serving students in those countries, you’re thinking about their water; you’re thinking about their food; you’re thinking about sanitation,” Brophy said. “It’s a whole different equation. There is just not enough we can do for those schools that really have to account for students’ well-being on so many levels.”

One of the greatest challenges facing those who would serve is convincing the “haves” to help the “have-nots.”

“Although I know people would debate it, there is still enough social stratification happening where there are still very poor people, and convincing highly developed nations to help developing nations is a continual question,” Brophy said.

That does not mean we should ignore the many students and many families who live in poverty here at home, Brophy cautioned. DuPage County may be one of the more affluent counties in the state, but it is also home to thousands of people whose survival requires the day-to-day assistance of government-sponsored social services and local charities.

Students living in those circumstances need our help, too, Brophy said.

“Here in the Chicago area, we have students living hand-to-mouth and making sacrifices to pay for tuition,” he said. “In Mesa, we are in the heart of a very poor Hispanic community. There are students who are probably scraping by to pay for their tuition bills, but are essentially trying to advance their families through their studies and careers.

“We have some students at the University who definitely live in abject poverty,” he added. “There is no doubt about that. We have students who live in the suburban regions who are very poor, who live so invisibly that people don’t think of it. But they’re here as well.”

Benedictine works with those students and their families to exhaust all possible means of financial aid, including federal loans, need-based grants, academic scholarships and work-study options. The University also directs nearly one-third of its budget to grants and scholarships, and recently extended its scholarship programs to adult students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees through its National Moser Center for Adult Learning.

Furthermore, students do not have to be Catholic to reap the benefits of Benedictine’s Catholic, values-based education.

“We can feel really proud of the fact that we are so strongly committed to our Catholic identity, but at the same time we are definitely committed to serving students of all faiths, particularly Muslim students,” he said. “It says a lot about us, and the fact that we do that does not go unnoticed.”

Brophy invited students of all faiths who desire to live a life of service and be responsible members of their communities to consider a Benedictine education.

“If there are students who are interested serving others – whether they live in Mesa or Lisle or Naperville or Springfield or even Asia – if they want to take the time to dive into some of the different ways that Catholic higher education makes a difference, they’d be well-served to be here,” he said.

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the fifth consecutive year in 2015, and the University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area.

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