“Will you join in our crusade, who will be strong and stand with me?” sang one voice, somewhat tentatively. A second voice enthusiastically chimed in, “Beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?” Within seconds, the entire class was on its feet, belting out the finale from Les Miserables.
This was not the beginning of choir practice but the conclusion of Father Keating’s lecture on the French Revolution in “Catholic Thought and Culture II,” a class required of all Catholic Studies graduate students. New to the program, I was somewhat taken aback by my classmates’ spontaneous song. It was an event, however, that revealed a lot about the program in which I had enrolled.
What impressed me that afternoon was my classmates’ genuine desire to appropriate their intellectual, spiritual and cultural inheritance. As we became acquainted, I learned that they had moved to St. Paul from every corner of the country because they wanted to engage the Catholic intellectual tradition in a community animated by its ideas instead of simply reading about them in a book.
Their boisterous singing revealed how joyfully they undertook this serious task. It also taught me that graduate work, in their company, would be far more than a dry, cerebral exercise.
Two years later, as I near the completion of my studies, I can testify that the graduate program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas entails a serious pursuit of truth, human and divine, and an intentional ordering of one’s life to that truth. This two-fold process creates a vibrant intellectual and spiritual community, in which students spend a significant amount of time in the library as well as the chapel.
In the age of distance learning and virtual classrooms, Catholic Studies boasts a vibrant community. Students and faculty often celebrate Mass together at 5:05 p.m., prior to 6 p.m. graduate classes. Lively discussions about Augustine, Christopher Dawson or John Henry Newman often continue at a nearby pub when class concludes. We share several meals together throughout the semester, often on feast days and solemnities.
What attracts students to Catholic Studies is its unique educational philosophy, interdisciplinary curriculum, and academic rigor. The program is designed to provide students with a basic understanding of the 2,000-year Catholic intellectual tradition. To that end, two survey courses, Catholic Thought and Culture I and II, give students a historical framework to which new knowledge can be incorporated as they progress in the program. Courses in theology, philosophy, history and art enhance the interdisciplinary nature of the program and allow students to explore the relationship between religion and human thought and culture through various lenses.
Phillip “P.J.” Butler, who served as a FOCUS missionary prior to entering the graduate program, appreciates the relevance and integration of the Catholic Studies curriculum. He explained, “As a FOCUS missionary, I confronted big questions regarding the nature of friendship and evangelization, as well as Catholicism’s impact on history and culture. When I decided to pursue further studies, I didn’t know whether I should study theology or history, as I had an interest in both.” Catholic Studies allowed him to pursue both disciplines and to study Western culture as an organic unity.
The CSMA program is flexible enough to allow students the freedom to pursue a specific concentration in relation to the whole of Catholic Studies. This draws a diverse set of scholars, whose backgrounds range from English to industrial engineering to the CSMA program.
Alumnus Erik Pedersen, a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America remarked, “The CSMA program allowed me to study medieval philosophy in a deep and critical way, but never divorced from the historical, literary and theological issues that are so integral to the Catholic mind.”
The master’s essay is yet another opportunity to explore a specific concentration. Recent topics include “Imagination in the Thought of Russell Kirk,” “The Meaning of Human Suffering in Flannery O’Conner’s Short Stories and John Paul II’s ‘Salvifici Doloris’” and “Raphael Hythoday as the Subject of More’s ‘Utopia.’” The much-anticipated presentation of these essays occurs at the end of each semester.
Admittedly, no other class has ended in song over the last two years, and probably for the better; we are a graduate school, not a conservatory. Nevertheless, Catholic Studies is committed to a project that is intellectual, cultural and spiritual. The education here confers an identity in Christ, a rich inheritance of which our secular culture does its best to deprive us, and a mission to the modern world.
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