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President's Letter

2020 begins our 191st year. Given the history of many private schools and Catholic schools, this milestone is impressive. No doubt we have been around so long because we have always focused on making continual improvements to help our students succeed. We have also been able to adapt and change while holding true to our core values. As we begin a new year, we have recommitted ourselves to continue to build a prestigious prep school for our students today and those that will follow over the next century. Our founder. Fr. John McElroy had that commitment and we have no less.

Looking at a Catholic University?

Having served as President of Mount St. Mary’s University for 12 years I have had the privilege of visiting many Catholic universities and getting to know many presidents and other leaders of America’s 228 Catholic colleges and universities. Since arriving at Saint John’s, a number of parents and students have asked me about various Catholic universities during the all-important selection process. 

The good news is that the vast majority of America’s Catholic universities are wonderful places rich in faith and a passion for providing thoughtful academic programs. Naturally, Catholic universities vary in the scope of their mission, academic and athletic programs, as well as size and costs.

Behind first impressions of the campus, religious spaces and the general reputation of the Catholic institution, there are some other factors that parents and students might wish to consider when selecting a Catholic university.

Who sponsors the Catholic university?

The first question to consider is who sponsors the Catholic university and who and how it was founded. There are three major types of Catholic universities. Most common, are those universities sponsored by a religious order. University of Notre Dame - Fathers of the Holy Cross; Saint Vincent College - Benedictines; St. Thomas Aquinas College - Dominican;  University of Scranton - Jesuits, etc. The religious order will have a unique charism that is reflected in academic and social programs on campus. These universities are typically held by the religious order who has ultimate control of campus operations. 

Some Catholic universities are owned and operated by a diocese. Seton Hall - Diocese of Newark; Carroll College - Diocese of Helena, etc. These universities have a responsibility to the local bishop, who typically serves as the Chancellor of the university.

Less common are those Catholic universities that are independently owned by a board of trustees. Mount St. Mary’s University is an example of this type of university.

The Catholic University of  America is considered a Papal university established and supported by the bishops of the United States with the approval of the Pope.  

Naturally knowing who “owns” the Catholic university will give students and parents a beginning understanding of what they can expect on campus.

The Catholic Mission

At Saint John’s I  like to discuss our Catholic identity as Joyful, Contemporary, Robust, and Invitational. As you look at Catholic universities how is the Catholic identity and mission communicated? Is the campus proud to be Catholic? Does the campus joyfully reflect the Gospel messages? Are students of all faiths welcomed on campus? Is there provision for non-Catholic students who wish to worship on campus? 

The role of Campus Ministry on the Catholic campus also varies depending on the mission. Is there a full-time campus Chaplain who is available to students for both formal and informal interactions? Is the campus ministry program appropriately staffed and engaged in many activities for students?  Are there opportunities for students to grow in their faith while they wrestle with complex societal issues?  How are campus liturgies provided? How often is Mass celebrated? Do students, faculty, and staff participate? Does Campus ministry provide opportunities for students to consider religious vocations?

Faculty and Staff

The faculty and the staff are the university. Most Catholic universities strive to hire faculty and staff for their Catholic mission. What percentage of faculty are practicing Catholics? How are the faculty and staff engaged in the Catholic mission? Are the theology faculty recognized by the local bishop and in compliance with Catholic teaching?  How do the other academic departments reflect the Catholic mission in their teaching and scholarship? Are all faculty and staff held to high moral standards?

Academic programs

At many Catholic universities, the curriculum is designed to help students develop a clear, mature understanding of how the Catholic faith has informed the course of human history, and of how that faith relates to their field of study. Most  Catholic universities aim to deepen the faith of  Catholic students and to ensure that non-Catholics have an understanding of Catholicism and how Christian thought have influenced arts and sciences and the understanding of the world.  

To begin to assess the Catholic nature of the curriculum, students and parents might ask:

  • Is the core curriculum taught from a Catholic perspective?
  • Do faculty help students integrate what they learn in theology with other academic disciplines?  
  • Is Theology required? What specific courses?   
  • How does the campus’ majors reflect Catholic teaching and understanding of the world?
  • Does the curriculum reflect both faith and reason?

Student Life

Perhaps no issue is more important to both students and parents than student life issues. All universities strive to provide healthy and safe campus life programs. The Catholic university typically has a responsibility to reflect Catholic virtues and help students grow into mature faithful adults. Some questions you should consider:

  • How does the campus promote student activities and programs to help students grow in their Christian faith?
  • What are the living arrangements on campus? Are dorms single-sex or co-ed?
  • What are the visiting hours?
  • What are the policies for overnight guests?
  • How are student discipline problems handled?
  • What is the nature and scope of student health services on campus? What services are provided? What services are not offered to students?
  • Does the campus provide any programs for marriage preparation?

I hope this information to consider helps in the critical task of selecting a university. I am fortunate to know many programs and campuses if you want to discuss specific campuses please let me know.

God bless,     

Thomas H. Powell