LAST SEPTEMBER, St. John’s celebrated Founders’ Week, a week of renewal dedicated to honoring those who founded the Vincentian Order and the Daughters of Charity, especially St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac.
One of the special sessions centered around a lecture by Father Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., the president of DePaul University, Chicago, Ill. DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the U.S.; St. John’s is second.
Because I know Father Holtschneider, I suspected that his talk might be something special. His lecture was titled, “The Heart of Vincentian Higher Education.” Before the Mass that preceded his talk, I spoke to him and mentioned that I was looking forward to hearing his speak. He said, “It’s just a small talk.”
‘A True Gift’
I hope I hear many more “small talks” that are as good as Father Holtschneider’s was. He called his audience’s attention to the truth that St. John’s is a special place, a true gift to anyone who attends. Stressing the university’s commitment to the poor, he said the following:
“Universities in our age are powerful platforms for the intellectual life, and able to play a strong social role in shaping social policy sciences, in moving a populace’s social commitments through the arts, humanities or social sciences; in improving the living conditions of so many through scientific and applied engineering advances; or in creating a student and alumnus deeply imbued with the religious and social values that care for the poor, in world that too quickly ignores the poor in favor of their own well-being.
“And that is perhaps what I most admire about St. John’s University:
– 44 percent of your students are students of color underrepresented in American higher education. That’s stunning.
– 43 percent of last year’s freshmen are considered ‘Pell-eligible/ Very High Need.’ That too is stunning.
“Incidentally, you exceed DePaul University’s statistics in this regard, where 40 percent of our freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, 37 percent are students of color, and 25 percent are Pell-eligible.”
I confess that if one of the prestigious Ivy League universities were to contact me and invite me to teach philosophy, I would decline. Without in any way denying the wonderful opportunities that prestigious Ivy League universities offer, I honestly believe that there are truths stressed at St. John’s that are not stressed at secular universities.
There are many wonderful courses taught at St. John’s, but I think that the courses in philosophy and theology are special. They are crucial to the university’s identity. Without them the university would be radically different.
The university would also be radically different without the campus ministry and the entire atmosphere that is part of its Catholic identity. In every course that I teach, I start the class with a short prayer. The prayer is not a Catholic prayer such as the Hail Mary, but a non-denominational prayer so that everyone in the class, both Catholics and others, will feel free to join in if they wish. In 90 percent of the prayers I offer, the poor are mentioned. This fits in with St. John’s mission to help the poor.
In singing the praises of St. John’s, I am not a disinterested observer. But I think I am being objective in praising the university and comparing it favorably with some other great American secular universities.
The first philosophy class I ever taught was almost 50 years ago at Brooklyn College. It was a graduate course for those going for a master’s degree in education. Though the students did not have a strong background in philosophy, I remember them as very intelligent and eager to learn. Over the last 50 years, I have taught at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Queens College, Cathedral College Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and New York University. I have vivid memories of students at each of these institutions, and each experience was a special challenge. I loved each challenge, and the memory of each reminds me of the profound truth in Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric from the song in “The King and I”: “If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.”
Still Father Holtschneider’s talk reminded me of what is special about St. John’s. Though I tend to be enthusiastic, and apparently convey that enthusiasm to students who take my courses, I suppose all of us need a pep talk occasionally so that we might be reminded of why we do what we do, and what is significant about what we do.
The next time I see Father Holtschneider, I am going to thank him.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).