Building the Civilization of Love: Timothy McNeil (’21)
April 6, 2023
Pope St. John Paul II famously called Christians to “build a civilization of love.” Last year, as a missionary with The Culture Project, Timothy McNeil (’21) offered himself as another brick in that great spiritual edifice.
“I was looking into law schools after graduation, but I felt like taking a year on break,” recalls Mr. McNeil. Early last summer, he moved to Houston, “because one of my good friends was getting married later in the year and needed a bachelor to hang out with until then.” But he found himself increasingly ill at ease with the direction of his life, and finally took it to prayer. “I asked God, ‘Where do you want me to go from here?’”
God’s reply was swifter than Mr. McNeil expected. “The following Monday I got a text out of the blue that said, ‘Hi, we’re the Culture Project and we’re looking for male missionaries,’” he laughs. Appreciative of God’s speed, Mr. McNeil investigated the opportunity with similar alacrity. “Two weeks after receiving that text, I was at missionary training in New York City,” he says with a smile.
“Our mission was to show what Catholic young adult life should look like — not just preach it, but actually live it.”
The Culture Project’s missionaries aim to show middle and high school students what it means to live an authentically Catholic moral and social life. Mr. McNeil and his companions spoke to students about the myriad temptations to instant gratification that they would face in the wider world. “We would tell them, ‘There are physical, psychological, and philosophical reasons why that way of life isn’t good. We’ve experienced that culture, and we’re coming to you because we want you to know the truth. Here’s what the Catholic Church holds as the answer, and this is why this will actually be fulfilling in the long run.’”
During these presentations, Mr. McNeil found himself drawing on his classroom experience at the College. “We would get up and talk on a subject, like sexual integrity, but then the students would ask questions about stuff that we hadn’t specifically addressed but which might have been brought up in their minds,” he recalls. “You have to think on your feet to address their questions with more than the blunt, ‘Here’s what the Church teaches.’”
The Discussion Method, which the College employs in all its classes, demands sensitivity to the perspectives of others, and Mr. McNeil found that the skill translated well to his new setting. “You have to answer these questions with a sense that these are highschoolers,” he says. “You want to bring them into the discussion and show them that they are loved, that you respect their discussion and their opinions, and that you really want to have that open dialogue with them. Oftentimes after a Q&A, students would approach us, and we would be able to further the conversation and have some really heartfelt talks.”
Mr. McNeil’s had many such talks at schools across Philadelphia, where he and his fellow missionaries were stationed, living in a defunct convent. “The Culture Project has multiple organizational pillars, but one of the main ones is community,” he says. The missionaries attended Mass together and prayed in common throughout the day. With that spiritual concord at the center of their lives, the team’s transformed convent became a hub of fellowship for Philadelphia’s young Catholics. “Our mission was to show what Catholic young adult life should look like — not just preach it, but actually live it.”
Having finished his time with The Culture Project, Mr. McNeil is once more considering a career in law.