Pope Francis rides in the popemobile as he leaves his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 25. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Why the whole world’s at home in Rome

  • June 24, 2022

You must bear witness also in Rome.
-- Acts19: 21

I recently had the honour of joining a small delegation of American and Canadian Catholic university presidents on a trip to Rome. The purpose of the meeting was largely to introduce the leaders of post-secondary institutions to the many important bodies that support educational initiatives at the Vatican. This meant meetings with leaders at the Congregation for Catholic Education, with the Pontifical Council for Culture, with the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm and the Lay Centre. We were treated to a meeting with Sr. Natalie Becquart, Undersecretary, Vatican General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, and to a Mass presided over by Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect, Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. And midway into our visit we were blessed with a General Audience with Pope Francis.

Catholic higher education is flourishing the world over. There are over 1,300 Catholic post-secondary institutions in the world. We have 22 institutions who are members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada alone, and over 200 in the U.S. who are members of our partner organization there.

Working in a Canadian context, or even a North American one, however, can sometimes blind us to the staggering international scope of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and being in Rome reminds us of that vast inter-cultural dimension. I have been fortunate to sit in the reserved seats overlooking St. Peter’s Square during a number of papal audiences, and the international dimension of the celebration of the Catholic faith is truly breathtaking to observe. Delegates from every nation on Earth are assembled. The Holy Father’s homily is translated into a half dozen languages for those in attendance. Sitting in Rome there can be no question that Catholicism is a global faith.

What was also palpable during both the papal audience and the Pope’s Angelus a few days before, was the sheer joy that the Holy Father’s words and presence brought to those present. To survey the crowds, and to watch as people from all nations responded to Pope Francis, was to witness the joy that faith can bring into our lives when it isn’t mired by criticism or human failings. While the Church writ large reels from scandals large and small, it is easy to overlook the sheer good that the faith has done in the past and continues to do today.

In our meetings with the various agencies, we were reminded of the staggering impact that Catholic agencies have had on relief efforts, charities large and small, on health care and of course on education at every level. A staggering 26 per cent, or over a quarter of the world’s health-care facilities, are Catholic, making the Church the largest non-governmental provider on the planet. It is similarly the largest non-governmental provider of education in the world serving over 62 million students. Another seven million students are served by our post-secondary institutions.

A recent report by the Global Catholic Education project showed that Catholic organizations also disproportionately support social protection services, supporting orphanages, nurseries, homes for the handicapped or chronically ill and aged-care facilities. The number of programs, organizations and social services aimed at supporting the homeless and the poor is simply staggering and a reminder that most Catholics live Jesus’ mandate to care for those in need.

Support for integral human development, which focuses on supporting the dignity of the person, underscores the work of millions of workers and advocates, religious and lay, who live the precepts of Catholic social teaching, even if they aren’t necessarily aware that they are doing so. It is something uniquely Catholic, and therefore something to celebrate.

And being in Rome, visiting the key churches and historical sites so precious to Christendom, and meeting with representatives of so many of these august bodies, reminded me of that important, living legacy. It was both humbling and an honour to know that our post-secondary institutions are a part of that tradition.

At the end of June, I will be ending my presidency of St. Mary’s University in Calgary after 11 years and becoming president and principal of Corpus Christi and St. Mark’s Colleges, in British Columbia. I undertake this transition proud of the incredible work that all three institutions have made to prepare graduates to enter the world ready to make a difference and knowing that the Catholic intellectual tradition is alive and well, both in our institutions and in those we serve and send out into the world to change it for the better.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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