By Corrine Winter
We just received a postcard from a 2011 St. Ambrose graduate who is spending a year in Montana with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
In her note, she shared a wonderful theological insight when she described her year as a way to live out the principles she has learned in her academic courses as well as in other experiences such as retreats, liturgies and service work.
This is tremendous encouragement as we prepare to start another academic year. Some students really get it. Sarah is an example of a student who used her time at St. Ambrose to grow in all of the ways listed in our University Mission Statement: intellectually, spiritually, ethically, socially, artistically and physically. That makes her a truly educated person. The fact that she appreciates the connections among the various aspects of her life also make her an excellent representative of the Catholic Tradition.
Among other qualities, Catholicism is dedicated to the integrity of faith and life. This conviction is, of course, grounded in Scripture and expressed in the strong Tradition of the Church. We read Jesus’ words against hypocrisy and his calls for love of God to be expressed in love of neighbor and for the greatest to be servants as examples of the biblical grounds along with the Beatitudes and many exhortations we find in the Epistles. In the early third century, Irenaeus of Lyon wrote against a group called the Gnostics that their error consisted in separating spiritual insight from other aspects of human life. And the historical background for both moral theology in general and our current RCIA program includes inspiring catechetical sermons such as those of John Chrysostom in which new Christians and the Christian community in general are exhorted to behave in ways consistent with the faith in which we are baptized. In modern times, papal encyclicals continue to explore ways in which Christian belief is expressed in Christian action.
As belief seems shallow unless it leads to changes in the way one lives, so action seems ungrounded unless it has a basis in a faith commitment. A student who goes on a service trip merely because her friends are going or because it is a requirement and who does not engage in further reflection on the significance of the service or of the needs that are being met will miss opportunities for growth through the experience.
I recall, for example, a student who had been to a local shelter to serve a meal. When he returned, he said it had been “cool.” I asked him what he had learned and he responded, “that people are homeless because they want to be.” Nor was he, at the time, open to the insights offered by other students regarding basic human rights, injustice in our economic system, or societal biases against people with certain kinds of illness — all aspects that Catholic or any Christian, and most religious traditions would have urged him to examine.
As the academic year begins, let’s hope and work so that education, and especially religious education, will encourage students to integrity of thought and action. As we examine ways of thinking about faith, God, human life and the times in which we live, let’s hope we will constantly ask about our developing knowledge, insights and conclusions: “so what?” What difference will this make in the way I treat others, make decisions about the way I spend my time and money, live within the environment? When we decide to take action, let’s hope and work so that we will take time to think about and to articulate our reasons for doing so.
Part of the richness of Catholic Tradition, is the sense of the integrity of the human person, created in God’s own image, and of the call to integrity in what we say and do. That understanding, in my opinion, can help give meaning to our learning, and significance to our actions.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)