This essay was adapted from “The Pastoral Work for Vocations at Tertiary Level: The Case of Thomas Aquinas College," which appeared in the 2007 issue of Seminarium, a publication of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education. It was solicited by the head of the Office of Vocations who was astounded to learn that a lay-administered, co-educational college could produce the relatively high number of vocations to the priesthood and religious that are the steady fruit of Thomas Aquinas College. The article includes many quotations from alumni priests and nuns who give an account of this phenomen in their own words.
By Dr. Thomas E. Dillon
Reprinted from: Seminarium (2007)
The relatively high number of vocations at Thomas Aquinas College is extraordinary, especially for a co-educational institution such as ours, founded and administered as it is by laymen. Moreover, Thomas Aquinas College has achieved an international reputation for genuine academic excellence with its classical program of liberal education that spans the liberal arts and sciences. Thus, while the curriculum is ordered to the architectonic disciplines of philosophy and theology, it includes also four years of rigorous mathematics and science — not the typical fare of those preparing for a vocation.
The question, therefore, arises: What accounts for this generous response to God’s call by so many Thomas Aquinas College alumni? As our dear friend and Commencement Speaker in 2004, Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, recently said, “As to the origins of a priestly or religious vocation, only divine providence can fully analyze it” (National Catholic Register, March 4-10, 2007). God works directly in the hearts and souls of our young people to call them and to help them respond generously to His call.
Yet, as Cardinal Arinze goes on to acknowledge, there is also a human dimension to every vocation for which an accounting can be given. In his own case, while acknowledging the inherent mystery of God’s call, he credits his vocation in part to the inspiring example of a holy priest, recently beatified, for whom he served Mass as a young boy.
Understanding, then, that our human efforts at Thomas Aquinas College to encourage vocations among our students are dispositive in nature, I was happy to be asked to give this accounting of the human ways in which Thomas Aquinas College encourages vocations to the priesthood and religious life among our alumni. While aware that our unique curriculum and the vibrant spiritual life of our community must surely play a role in the discernment of vocations at the College, I decided to contact some of our alumni priests and religious to find out from them directly what influences at their alma mater they considered significant in discerning and responding to God’s call, and I have included their remarks where appropriate.
A Genuinely Catholic Curriculum
Intent on passing on to young people what is best in our Western intellectual heritage, our founders established a program of studies composed exclusively of the “Great Books,” the seminal works in the various arts and sciences. We read only the original texts of the greatest thinkers, both ancient and modern, who have penetrated deeply into the nature of reality. In addition, in order to best engage the minds of our students in the learning process, all of our classes are conducted in the Socratic method in which students, under the guidance of faculty members, wrestle directly with the texts at hand.
Though minor alterations have been made over the past 35 years, our program is essentially unchanged from the 4-year, fully-integrated curriculum established by our founders.
Our founding document, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, though published in 1969, anticipated in many ways Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution promulgated in 1990 by Pope John Paul II. In that document, our late Holy Father called for a renewal of the genuinely Catholic character that had at one time been the boast of Catholic colleges and universities throughout the world, reminding them that “A Catholic University’s privileged task is to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”
Twenty years earlier, our founders had proposed and established Thomas Aquinas College to accomplish this “privileged task” by ensuring that the Catholic faith would not be simply one of many features of campus life, but the defining feature, genuinely formative not only in the spiritual and moral life of the College community but in its intellectual life, as well. As our founding document explains, “Contrary to what is often assumed, liberal education does not take place in spite of or even apart from the Christian faith. Rather, the Christian student, because of his faith, can be liberally educated in the most perfect and complete way.”
As a consequence, theology is given pride of place in our curriculum, and all the disciplines we study are ordered to it. In our theology tutorials, our young men and women study the Scriptures, they read the original works of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and they are especially formed by the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Moreover, as Ex Corde instructs us and our own founding document lays out, Thomas Aquinas College takes as a fundamental principle that there exists a complementarity between faith and reason: that far from being an impediment to “academic freedom,” the Faith is our surest guide in the intellectual life. Our Lord, Himself, tells us, “If you abide in my word, then you are truly my disciples; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31 32).
In all our studies, therefore, the Faith is brought to bear as a guide in the endeavor to understand by human reason the truth about nature, man, and God. That our academic program plays a part in cultivating vocations is attested to by many of our alumni priests and religious. Nearly all of our priests have commented that the College instilled in them a love of theology. Some cite Scripture and works of St. Augustine such as the Confessions and the City of God as instrumental to their discernment of a vocation, and many state that their studies of St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae have played a role in their awareness of and response to God’s call, particularly his articles on Christ, His Passion, and the sacraments.
One graduate is a contemplative Benedictine priest at Clear Creek Monastery in Kansas, having been asked by his superiors at the Abbey of Fontgambault to help establish this new foundation. He speaks about our academic program and its influence, saying:
Many classes and readings had a deep effect on the seriousness of my life and the desire to serve God. Among them, I could list the junior year philosophy class on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which helped me to see, naturally speaking, what life was about and what was worth striving for. Another lasting influence was the strong ‘contemplative’ orientation of the curriculum and the educational philosophy at the College, that is, the insistence above all on what is sought for itself and not for the sake of anything else. Exposure to St. Thomas’ theology of God in the Prima Pars of the Summa in my junior and senior year, really oriented my thought and also reached the heart. St. Augustine’s Confessions also had a great influence on me, even more directly on the heart and will.
Another graduate, the superior of his Benedictine abbey in Wisconsin who not only converted to the Catholic faith while a student at the College but subsequently discerned his vocation to the priesthood here, says, “The unique integration of the curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College guided me in a comprehensive manner in the mysteries of our faith and of human understanding.”
Yet another, a sister in the Societas Sororum a Sancta Cruce in Rome says generally of her years in our academic program, “Thinking about God helped me to grow in a love for prayer, in the desire to speak with God, with Jesus, in particular.”
Still another graduate priest shares this memory of his experience of the integrated nature of our academic program:
There was a single day during which we looked at a single reality in three different classes from three different angles — mathematics, science, and theology. I was so excited to see with marvelous clarity that the truth is one. This was contrary to the world’s point of view (that there are really two opposed ‘truths,’ one seen by faith and one by science). I was thrilled to see at Thomas Aquinas College, more and more clearly, how the one God is author of all truth — and He never contradicts Himself.
He goes on to say:
The whole body of the curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College teaches the solid truth given to men by God through reason and most especially through Revelation. That firmness of truth laid the groundwork for my priestly vocation in which I share the truths of the Faith with others from deep personal conviction
Another alumni priest, a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, comments on the Socratic discussion method used in all of our classes, saying:
The journey of seeking understanding in those matters of nature and faith at Thomas Aquinas College brought about an awareness of the graces derived from working in communion with others. Those fine mentors and peers at the College inspired me to realize that serving the Church was an ongoing process of refining and perfecting what I had first come to learn there, while accepting the sacrifices necessary to realize it.
Yet another graduate, now a priest of the Legionaries of Christ in Georgia, explains the impact on his ministry of acquiring sound intellectual skills through his training in the Socratic method:
What I received at Thomas Aquinas College helps me nearly every day as a priest. Since my years there I have acquired two graduate degrees — one in philosophy and the other in theology, studying for more than five years in one of the best pontifical universities in the world. Yet, what I most rely on now is what I learned at Thomas Aquinas College: How to break things into principles and present them in an easily understandable way. I use this mostly in spiritual direction, helping with difficult moral and family issues, but also in all the homilies and talks that I give. There is a little piece of Thomas Aquinas College in every conference, homily, meditation, and retreat I preach. I could not do what I do now without that experience. I will forever be grateful for that gift.
Lastly, one graduate priest comments more generally on the efficacy of our academic program:
I would have to say that by presenting me with the opportunity to receive a liberal education ordered to apprehending the truth, and by standing as an example of an uncompromising effort to approach Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life without accepting any substitutes, the College’s program of studies stands as a beacon calling all of its students to serve God unselfishly in whatever way He has in store for us. In my case, the abilities, the confidence, and the knowledge I received during my time at the College, helped me to accept the call of Christ to serve Him as His priest.
These reflections of our graduates are a compelling testament to the power that a genuinely Catholic and rigorous program of studies has to influence young people at their very core and dispose them to seek and respond to God’s will in their lives.
An Institutional Bias Toward the Priesthood and the Religious Life
While our faculty is composed almost entirely of married men who have embraced Catholic family life as their vocation, there is nonetheless a tacit but firm understanding among them and throughout the Thomas Aquinas College community that the priesthood and the consecrated life are the highest callings. Our chaplains are esteemed as our greatest treasures, for they are vessels of grace for us through their celebration of the Mass, the hearing of our confessions, and the spiritual direction they selflessly provide. Not surprisingly, then, many of our alumni priests and religious cite the example of our chaplains and their spiritual direction as pivotal in their growing awareness and response to their vocations.
One of them, who was elected this past summer as Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, offers this reflection:
The example of the chaplains and their sacrifices for the lives of the students was very impressive. Most young men do not realize what a priest even does, that he has a life beyond the 10:00 a.m. Sunday Mass, but our chaplains certainly demonstrated to me that theirs was entirely a life of prayer and sacrifice.
The College chaplains provide discernment days or weekends for the student body at which representatives from various religious orders and dioceses around the country introduce students to their particular charisms in the priesthood and consecrated life. These events, open to both men and women, are very well-attended. They also sponsor an acolyte training program in which many of our young men participate. In addition, they hold retreats annually at Thanksgiving and Easter to give students the opportunity to grow in their faith and to listen to God’s voice.
To highlight for our students, alumni, friends, and benefactors the esteem in which we hold the priesthood and religious life, we for some years now have featured graduates in our newsletter at the time of ordination or final profession. Moreover, as president of the College, I have made it a point to attend, whenever possible, the ordinations of our alumni priests. It is edifying indeed to witness the anointing with oil and solemn laying on of hands, and words fall short in conveying the tremendous pride and gratitude I have each time I receive the Holy Eucharist from the hands of a former student.
An Atmosphere of Peace and Serenity
In 2005, Thomas Aquinas College reached its maximum enrollment of 350 students, for which we maintain a teaching faculty of 35. While the demand for our program is rising, and our waiting list begins earlier each year, we intend to remain at this relatively small size in order to ensure the College is a true community of friends who share a common life, animated by a love of the truth and of Christ’s teachings.
Overall, our aim is to preserve an atmosphere of peace and serenity on the campus so the life of the mind can thrive and God’s call can be heard in the stillness of the heart. Our Holy Father recently spoke to members of the International Theological Commission at the Vatican about the value of silence and contemplation which, he said, “have a purpose: they serve, in the distractions of daily life, to preserve permanent union with God. This is their purpose: that union with God may always be present in our souls and may transform our entire being.”
The College’s rules of residence, therefore, have been established to help students live an orderly life, free from unnecessary distractions. For example, there are reasonable curfews and a dress code during the week for classes and meals. In addition, alcohol consumption on campus is prohibited as is visitation in the residence halls by members of the opposite sex.
Against this backdrop, there are a variety of recreational activities for students as well as opportunities to develop their talents in some of the performing arts. In addition, there are social events held throughout the year, and there is a great deal of good-hearted fun among the students and between the students and faculty.
One graduate religious comments on how living in the Thomas Aquinas College community helped prepare her for religious life:
The small classes at my alma mater stimulated cordial friendships — friendships for life — among classmates, which created a community spirit. These open, pure, and free relationships were a support in choosing my life calling. A religious has to be free from the need of one particularly intimate relationship, which leads to marriage. She must be able to say, “GOD alone is enough for me!” But she must also be normal, loving, and able to live in relationship with others, both men and women. The community spirit at the College was very helpful to me in growing towards this sort of maturity of spirit and in developing loving but free relationships. This was an important preparation for religious life.
There are two additional aspects of our community life that, except for our graduates telling me, I would not have known were such powerful influences as they discerned a calling to the priesthood and religious life. The first is the faithful witness our faculty members give in serving God as lay people. One graduate priest explains it this way:
It must be pointed out how a young man can be impressed by a whole staff of teachers adhering first to the Church’s teaching and living in accordance with their faith, especially when coupled with the serious pursuit of things intellectual. I assure you this was extremely good for me.
Another provides this comment:
I would have to say that all of the faculty were helpful to me in discerning my vocation to the priesthood. By sacrificing themselves to provide the best kind of education possible for the students, the faculty and administrators provided a stellar example of the Christian life as it ought to be lived.
It seems that the good example given quietly by Catholic lay men and women in itself fans the flames of our students’ love for Christ. As one alumni priest recounts:
I always admired Dr. ___ for his gentleness and for the way he would spend time before the Blessed Sacrament after classes before his long drive home. All of us admired another tutor and one of the chief executives of the College; we were especially edified to see him taking time to go to daily Mass and sometimes attending devotions.
One of our faculty members, a married man with four children, while yet in his early 30s died of brain cancer. He was a particular source of inspiration both in the classroom and in his daily life. Recalls one of our alumni priests:
I was very moved by the honor he had for the vocation of husband and father. This genuine witness of Christian devotion to family life made it easier for me to respond to a religious calling. This particular faculty member’s constancy, cheer, and peace while approaching the gates of eternity helped me see that there was something beyond life to live and die for, something greater than myself.
The other beneficial influence — cited by nearly every alumni priest and religious I contacted — was the example and support they received from their own classmates and peers. At a time when so many young people are subjected to the coarseness of our modern culture and to a seemingly all-pervasive relativism that ends in cynicism, we are blessed to have at Thomas Aquinas College wonderful young people who remain hopeful and optimistic. With their own high aspirations and a love of the truth that is nurtured daily in our classrooms, they truly inspire one another to seriously consider lives of poverty, chastity, obedience, and whole-hearted sacrifice for the love of Christ.
One of our alumni priests recounts a galvanizing moment with some upper classmen that occurred after he had been at the College for only two weeks:
Early morning Mass had just been said, and I was walking afterwards with a few older students. The conversation turned to Fatima, perhaps because we had just finished the Rosary after Mass. It was then, more than any other moment in my life, where my soul was placed before a momentous decision: whether to open my heart to all this “culture” coming to it from all directions — I had a presentiment that this could have far reaching repercussions — or to draw back and remain aloof from the obvious piety and goodness of so many of the older students. Thanks to God’s grace, I was given to open up!
Another speaks more generally about the influence of his fellow students saying:
Almost all of the students at Thomas Aquinas College were serious about their spiritual life. It was very easy in this kind of peer group not only to recognize but cultivate a vocation to serve God. Everyone was supportive of those who were even considering a call. The general maturity of the student body and their dedication to the Catholic intellectual tradition of education and the pursuit of virtue was like an oasis for someone wrestling with seeking God.
A number of graduates who are now priests speak of having dated while at the College, and describe how at that time, they seriously contemplated marriage to a particular classmate. I was edified to learn that in a number of these cases the young women involved, while hoping for marriage, nevertheless encouraged — and in one case even suggested — that the young men pray and consider carefully whether God might be calling them to serve Him at the altar. Here is one graduate priest’s recollection:
We had been dating for some time, and talking about marriage and a family, when my girlfriend stunned me by asking if I had considered a vocation to the priesthood. She was certain that her vocation was to marriage, but she wanted me to be equally certain of mine. That prompted me to ask God about it, to pray about it, and to ultimately follow His will for me. For this I am eternally grateful. Often, when I tell of my girlfriend’s part in my vocation, not a few people are amazed at her generosity and true Christian love.
A Vibrant Spiritual Life
The daily examination of the works of the greatest minds in our tradition, along with focused reading of Sacred Scripture and the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, awaken a love of the central mysteries of the Catholic faith in our students. While our primary mission is to educate these young people, we understand that our, wider mission is to help build souls for Christ by sowing the seeds of intellectual and moral virtue. When God then cultivates these seeds through the action of His grace, love for Christ and the virtues flourishes in their souls.
For this reason, we have always fostered a vibrant spiritual life on our campus. Mass is offered three times daily in the College chapel at times when no classes are scheduled so that all who wish to attend may do so, and each is well-attended on a regular basis. In addition, confessions are heard before and after every Mass and at other times throughout the week. Eucharistic Adoration is scheduled for several hours each day, followed by Benediction, and many students daily pray the Rosary and Compline. Though all participation is voluntary, a large majority of students regularly take part. In fact, the students themselves have initiated many of the daily devotions at the College.
The fruit of their participation in these devotions, in addition to frequent attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, is that our alumni, having been nourished by the Giver of all good things, go on to be generous themselves in responding to their vocations.
One graduate, now a diocesan priest in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, who teaches at St. Gregory the Great Seminary there, was particularly struck by our Mass schedule, saying:
It is a small thing, in itself, but it had a profound impact on me: The daily schedule at Thomas Aquinas College is arranged so that during Mass times, there is no other scheduled activity on campus. In this way, the College made it clear, to me and my fellow students, that nothing was more important than the Mass.
The College also sponsors a volunteer student choir with a repertoire that comprises both traditional sacred and secular music, as a well as a chant Schola. At least one of our alumni priests has credited his monastic vocation in part to his participation in the latter.
Each of the 62 alumni of Thomas Aquinas College who are now priests and fully professed religious, as well as the 40 alumni who are currently preparing for the priesthood, have his or her own unique story of God’s call, the mysterious way that God planted a seed in the heart and then cultivated it. Yet, just as in the natural world some environments provide more fertile ground for seeds to flourish, so it is, too, in the spiritual life. It is our experience that there are a number of factors that render the soil of Thomas Aquinas College rich and fruitful for vocations: 1) our institutional fidelity to the Magisterium, 2) the rigorous study and discussion of the most noble matters under the guidance of the teaching Church, 3) the example and ministry of our chaplains, 3) an ordered and peaceful community life, 4) the example of devoted lay men and women, and 5) the encouragement of like-minded friends.
Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI, in speaking about vocations, commented on Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:37-38). Our Holy Father explained that in the final analysis, it is God who works in the deepest recesses of the heart to call forth vocations; the priesthood and religious life, he says, are “not like other professions; we cannot simply recruit people by using the right kind of publicity or the correct type of strategy. The call which comes from the heart of God must always find its way into the heart of man. And yet, precisely so that it may reach into hearts, our cooperation is needed” (emphasis added).
In that spirit, Thomas Aquinas College pledges to continue its cooperation in this most noble work of encouraging vocations to the priesthood and the religious life so that through the ministry of its alumni who respond generously to God’s call, “people will receive,” as the Holy Father says, “what they hope for: God’s light and God’s love.”