Mission critical: to bring St John Paul II’s vision to life here

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Ex Corde Ecclesiae is a beautiful statement that rightly sets the bar high for Catholic universities with the pursuit of truth, the promotion of faith and reason,  authentic pastoral care and Catholic identity as their cornerstones

Notre Dame vice-chancellor Celia Hammond.
Notre Dame vice-chancellor Celia Hammond.

“Born from the heart of the Church …” So begins Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, a document released by Pope, now Saint, John Paul II, 25 years ago on the Solemnity of the Assumption, 15 August, 1990.

While it was the first papal document to focus entirely on Catholic universities, it built upon statements made in numerous papal and Church documents (including encyclicals and letters) devoted to Catholic education more broadly in the preceding decades.

The creation of this document clearly reflected the passion and concern St John Paul II had for Catholic universities, himself having spent numerous years in a Catholic university.
St John Paul II knew and recognised both the beauty and potential of Catholic universities and the challenges they faced in fulfilling their mission. In his introduction to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, he expressed the desire to produce “a sort of Magna Carta” for Catholic universities, to assist in what he articulated as the call for Catholic universities to undertake continual renewal, “both as ‘universities’ and as ‘Catholic’.”

Much of the document presents a beautiful explanation of what a Catholic university is, what its role is and what makes it different. Following this, the final pages contain a series of norms that a Catholic university is to uphold. The truth is, when I commenced at Notre Dame as a law lecturer in 1998, I had never heard of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Indeed, I did not know much about Catholic universities at all.

At the time I went to university – in the late 1980s – there were no Catholic universities in Australia, and, indeed, in WA where I grew up, there were no Catholic institutes of higher learning as there were in the Eastern States of Australia. In 1998 Notre Dame itself had only been enrolling students for six years, its law school was just starting and, despite knowing that the first universities in the world were Catholic, there was no Australian history of Catholic universities, no local culture of Catholic higher education, no community of local Catholic university academics or administrators.

So, it was within this context that Ex Corde Ecclesiae, together with other seminal documents, such as Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University became a critical and essential touchstone, guide and inspiration not only for me, but also for all associated with the university.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae is a beautiful statement about Catholic universities, but it is not an easy read, going as it does beyond the superficial to identify and discuss the very essence of what every Catholic university is called to be.

Indeed, the ‘norms’ outlined in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which each Catholic university is to uphold, are actually the most straightforward part of the document (and much easier for a lawyer or administrator to understand!). While these norms can, in a superficial way, be approached in a ‘tick the box’/periodic audit and review process, the goals to which these norms are directed, are far more challenging. Ex Corde Ecclesiae recognises that “a Catholic university pursues its objectives through its formation of an authentic human community animated by the spirit of Christ”.

It also establishes four essential characteristics:
“1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;
2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;
3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;
4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.”

St John Paul II points out the essential twofold nature of the Catholic university. The university is a centre of higher learning, for seeking truth through research and teaching, for communicating that knowledge to others for the good of society.

We are called to excellence in the way that any university should be – in its teaching, its research and its service to society.

Yet at the same time, we are a university that is Catholic.

This Catholic identity is not an extrinsic ‘add-on’ but, rather, is at the heart of all that we do. Indeed, he reminds us that all our activities should be informed and animated by Catholic ideals and attitudes and that we have an institutional responsibility to offer a Christian presence in the university world.

The ways in which we are called as Catholic universities outlined by St John Paul II include dedicating ourselves to the cause of truth, promoting dialogue between faith and reason, providing opportunities for all in the community to integrate faith with life, providing excellent and authentic pastoral care, fostering a sense of community inspired by Christ and which assists each of its members to achieve “wholeness as human persons”, integrating the disciplines and engaging in cultural dialogue as a service to the Church and the world.

The establishment of Notre Dame by an Act of Parliament occurred less than a year before the release of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Since that time, we have continuously striven to embody all that it sets out; to live it and to be true to it. Among other things, it lies at the heart of our strategic and operational decision making, it shapes our course offerings and our research foci, it shapes the design and beauty of our facilities and spaces, it shapes how we come together as a community to celebrate and to mourn and it underpins our commitment to providing excellent pastoral care for each and every student at the university.

It is also the standard upon which we chose to be measured in an external audit of our fidelity to our mission as a Catholic university, commissioned in 2013. I am confident that we are on the right path, but, unlike many other aspects of university life which can be reduced to a set of quantifiable metrics that are either achieved or not achieved, being a “Catholic university” will never be a completed project.

Rather than find this despairing, it is an inspiration for us to continue to reflect, continue to renew, continue to search for new and better ways to offer higher education in the light of faith in Jesus Christ and His Church. As noted in the beautiful prayer ‘A step along the Way’, often referred to as the ‘Prayer of Oscar Romero’:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.