Fr. Henry Carr (1880-1963) was a guiding force in the development of Catholic higher education in Canada. Photo courtesy General Archives of the Basilian Fathers

Fr. Henry Carr set gold standard in education

By  Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
  • October 22, 2018

Earlier this year, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, CEO of Salt + Light Catholic Media Foundation, delivered the Carr Lecture at St. Mark’s College on the campus of the University of British Columbia. Here is an abridged version of his remarks that underscore the distinctive nature of Catholic universities.

At the beginning of the last century, Fr. Henry Carr, a great Basilian priest from Ontario, played a very key role in turning a small Catholic institution focused on preparation for the priesthood into an excellent arts college, fully federated with the University of Toronto. 

Federation broke the long period of isolation from the mainstream of Canadian university life and made St. Michael’s College one of the earliest English-language Roman Catholic colleges in Canada to provide higher education in partnership with a secular institution.

While at St. Michael’s, Fr. Carr promoted excellence in Catholic higher education, bringing well-known Catholic scholars to the college and co-founding in 1929 what would become the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, a world-renowned research institute. A champion of the model of federation, Fr. Carr went on to head similar Catholic institutions at the Universities of Saskatchewan and British Columbia. 

At each of these institutions, he was directly involved in their federation with the university, viewing federation as the best solution for Catholic colleges in an age of secularization. He never advocated for the stand-alone Catholic university, the dominant model in the United States. His intuition was prophetic for Catholic higher education in Canada today. 

Fr. Carr embodied the charism of the Basilian Fathers in a remarkable way: the never-ending pursuit of goodness, discipline and knowledge. At the heart of his vision were two outstanding qualities so essential to our efforts in higher education: dialogue and friendship. 

While the Church can offer a broad theological vision that focuses on the interconnectedness of all things, it cannot pretend to have all the answers to specific concrete questions. In these circumstances, honest debate must be encouraged that respects divergent views. This means that the Church should be included in the dialogue, but it also means other voices need to be heard. 

Dialogue is the mark of a conversion away from selfish fragmentation and toward an openness that challenges us truly to understand the plight of our fellow human beings. Such dialogue cannot take place from a position of insularity but requires radical and generous openness to the other that is both born from, and leads to, a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of all things. 

The second stellar quality of Fr. Henry Carr was his understanding of friendship. If Canadians representing different cultural and religious traditions are going to be engaged with one another through agreements and partnerships in education, health care and other endeavours, their leaders must be men and women who are able to create relationships around a common cause.

Fr. Carr was once quoted as saying about university federation: “Insist on your rights, and you will get what you deserve: nothing. But act as a friend, and be a friend among friends, and the most cumbersome legal machinery will roll smoothly on.” 

For Fr. Carr, friendship and personal relationships were the first and proper currency of federation, and nowhere is this more evident than in Canadian confederation itself. He understood well the meaning of dialogue and the “culture of encounter” of which Pope Francis speaks so often.

Over the past five years, Pope Francis has been modelling for us Fr. Carr’s great qualities: friendship, dialogue and encounter as he teaches us how to evangelize, catechize, inspire and engage the culture around us. 

In his masterful encyclical letter Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us that human beings are in a state of deep fragmentation from each other and from the created order itself. 

Although “we were made for love,” we find ourselves isolated from one another and from creation. He argues that all creatures are interconnected, but we cannot even see our connection with our fellow human beings.

The Pope, like Fr. Carr years ago, emphasizes dialogue as key to the moral and spiritual conversion of humankind. He argues that dialogue is rooted in an understanding that each person has an inherent dignity and worth, that we are interconnected and interdependent, and that each person has something worthwhile to say.

As Catholic pastoral ministers, educators and students, if we are going to communicate the truth of our Catholic faith to those who do not share it, or even are hostile to it, on the campus of Catholic universities, we must never forget that our faith is best revealed to them, not through preaching and moralism, but through the disciplines of the humanities, including theology, fine arts, social sciences and empirical sciences. 

It is through these disciplines that we can point to the sacramental activity of God at work in our world. It is within these disciplines that the Catholic intellectual tradition comes alive and is most accessible, even to those least disposed to it. It is through these disciplines that we lay the groundwork for authentic evangelization of culture. 

There is certainly a time for confronting the culture with the message of the Gospel and the Church, but such “confrontation” must be done with civility, conviction and charity. We need to show the culture and the people of our times that we’re not against them, that we have a compelling story, and that the story can change their circumstances.

When that happens, people will listen.

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