Shawn Flynn, new president at Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s College. Photo courtesy of St. Joseph’s College

Flynn first layperson to helm St. Joseph’s College

By 
  • April 16, 2021

The new boss at St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton happens to be the old boss — but not that old.

Forty-one-year-old Shawn Flynn officially takes over as 19th president of St. Joe’s, and the first-ever layperson in the job, on July 1. But the Old Testament scholar has been the interim, acting president all through the COVID crisis. Since coming to the college in 2017 he’s been academic dean, academic vice president and dean, working on ways to connect the University of Alberta’s Catholic affiliate more closely with Catholic school boards and Catholic health care.

Flynn has had a hand in revamping St. Joe’s Certificate in Catholic Education program and doubling its enrolment. In the time he’s been at the college, total enrolment has soared from 1,900 to 2,600 today.

More than anything else, Flynn wants St. Joe’s to be useful.

“Catholic institutions are at their best when they respond to a social need — not a need they created in their head,” Flynn told The Catholic Register. “Like Catholic hospitals, we’re responding to a public need.”

Flynn’s vision of Catholic higher learning is a good fit with the Basilian tradition that has guided St. Joe’s since the priestly order took over leadership of the college from the Christian Brothers in 1963, said Basilian liturgy professor Fr. Warren Schmidt. As a Basilian, Schmidt sometimes finds himself learning more about his order’s charism by talking to Flynn.

“Other people perceive our charism better than we do sometimes,” Schmidt said. “He will suggest to me what our charism is and I will think, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty good way of putting it.’ ”

Flynn’s history with the Basilians goes back to his days as a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s department of near and Middle Eastern studies. Newly married, Flynn was a regular at St. Basil’s Church on the campus of the University of St. Michael’s College.

“Two of my children were baptized there,” Flynn said.

Keeping St. Joe’s Basilian and Catholic doesn’t involve uncovering some secret formula, but rather opting always for the Catholic tradition of dialogue and reason — helping the Church claim its place in public conversations, he said.

“It’s, ‘How do we have a logical conversation where faith is still a part of the conversation in a legitimate way?’ ” Flynn said. “It doesn’t have to be left at the door.”

In the context of a big, public, research university, the conversations aren’t always easy or comfortable.

“In a class at St. Joe’s, it’s not like everyone is on board with the message already,” he said. “There’s not necessarily one message. It’s definitely about learning to have a conversation where faith and reason interact in a real way in class. That comes up against a young, 18-year-old coming up against ideas in the real world.”

Are Catholic arguments universally accepted, praised and understood? Of course not. Flynn isn’t trying to win every argument. But he wants Catholics at the table whenever difficult problems are being discussed.

“As we face more division and more reductionism in society in general, that we as Catholics are still part of the conversation but not dominating the conversation — that position is actually really healthy for us,” Flynn said. “You, as a Catholic, don’t go out to the public thinking, ‘We’re right and you’re wrong.’ You go and say, ‘How do we build a common good together.’ ”

Across Canada Flynn sees opportunities for Catholic universities to help each other by acting in concert.

“Catholic post-secondary education is at a really important moment right now and it needs to foster the next generation of leadership. That’s one big thing that needs to happen,” he said. “We need to find more ways across the system to create a shared narrative and perhaps work together a little bit more.”

What Flynn values about his job is the opportunity to help young people begin their ascent to lives of accomplishment — not surprising for somebody who began his working life as a ski-lift attendant, giving people a lift up the mountain. From there he went on to helping them get down the mountain as a ski and snowboard instructor.

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