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College leaders adapt to current challenges

First slide

Presidents and school officials from Catholic colleges and universities around the country kicked off their recent four-day meeting in Washington by looking squarely at the challenges they face.

The plenary session for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities wasted no time in getting right to what's at stake for these schools, including their role in the modern secular world, looming financial challenges and recovering from the church's sexual abuse crisis.

"We can adapt and make our institutions thrive in spite of how exhausting it is," said the session's moderator, David Livingston, president of Lewis University, a Lasallian school in Romeoville, Ill. He urged the group of about 400 college leaders to "hold onto the love you have for your institutions" while facing the work ahead.

Jesuit Father Joseph McShane, president of Fordham University in New York, started the discussion by urging the group to recognize that their colleges and universities are "in mission country right now," stressing that they are no longer in a Christian world and need to "find new words and languages for a culture that finds the Gospel unacceptable."

There is an "urgency to our moment now," he said, noting that the American church is once again in mission territory facing the impact of the sexual abuse scandal, a skeptical culture, an overall lack of community in an Internet-consumed society and large numbers of young people, Catholics included, rejecting organized religion.

The college president likened the current moment Catholic colleges are facing to St. Paul's experience of bringing the Gospel message to a world that was unfamiliar with it. And just as Paul's conversion drove everything that he did, the work of today's church — particularly in higher education — should similarly be a "prophetic voice moved by an encounter with God."

Father McShane said he couldn't say enough about college leaders listening to their students about their issues and their indifference to the church at large, but then offering them — from the church's teaching on the works of mercy and social action — a way forward and answers to what they are ultimately seeking.

"We have a message the world doesn't understand," he added, urging leaders to find ways to communicate it.

The priest acknowledged that one obstacle before them is the continued fallout from the church's sexual abuse scandal which he said has "lessened the impact of the church in every way imaginable."

Kim Smolik, CEO of Leadership Roundtable, a Washington-based organization of laity, religious and clergy working together to promote best practices in the management of the Catholic Church, addressed this very issue with the group, stressing that they could offer new direction.

She urged them to provide space for dialogue on this issue on their campuses, as many already have, and to lend their resources and experts to examining root causes of leadership abuse in the church.

"You are the change makers," she told them, noting that they not only provide a way to examine what happened, but they also play a key role in forming future church leaders.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020