Catholic Identity and Higher Education

Brother Charles.Brother Charles Hilken, FSC, is the director of the Cummins Institute at Saint Mary’s. The Institute is at the forefront of efforts to link the Church and Catholic higher education faculty and communities in the advocacy and celebration of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The Institute is named after Bishop John S. Cummins, who served the Diocese of Oakland for more than 25 years.

As we continue to plan the future of Saint Mary’s College, what is most important?

Authenticity. We must be true to who we are. We’ve made a commitment to be true to our word, to be who we say we are, and you see that throughout the strategic plan. It seems like we are in sync with Pope Francis, who also is calling the Church to be authentic, to be true to itself. We are trying to live out our mission, which is part of the Catholic Church’s mission.  The pope is calling every Catholic and every Catholic institution to be true to who they are.

What does authenticity mean for Saint Mary’s and for the Church?

It means to truly be men and women of faith with an eye towards higher realities. And at the same time fully engaged with the world for the sake of the world—people of faith who are informed about and care about this world in which we live. All of this is built into the mission of the College to help students find their authentic selves and take that out into the greater world to manifest good.

How has the Cummins Institute responded?

In June we offered a weeklong workshop called "Sharing the Good News in the Era of Pope Francis," that explored the use of digital and social media in Catholic dialogue and evangelization. It is part of a series of workshops planned to fortify the Catholic identity of the College. Our facilitator for “Sharing the Good News”—Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, author of the recently published book Connected toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age—said that authority is now redefined. There is always immediate feedback in this new digital world where authority is redefined as authenticity.

This was the first workshop of its kind, giving Catholic school and parish educators, and religious and lay partners, the opportunity to engage in rich conversations about, and training in, the creative uses of social media communication for the work of the Church.

What role specifically does the Cummins Institute play on campus?

We try to look for ways to reach and involve students in our activities, promoting Catholic thought, Catholic culture, and Catholic action, and be dialogue partners and keep an eye on the work of the wider Church, serving as a conduit of information on campus.

From your perspective what should Saint Mary’s focus on as we move forward?

We must focus on what it means to be a Catholic college—in a conversation across the entire campus. How do we define a Catholic college? We haven’t talked enough about it. My hope is that in 20 years we can look back and say, “Gosh, do you remember when we didn’t know what to do with this question? And now we know?”

This is built into our strategic plan—exploring the question itself and also intentionally practicing what it means.

We aspire to be the leading comprehensive Catholic university in the West. What does that mean to you?

I think it means we are leading in the effort to define for today what a Catholic university is. It means that we don’t need to be told by someone else—that there’s enough heart, enough interest, enough faith and enough experience here for us to answer that question for ourselves. And if we can answer that for ourselves, other people can look at us and say here’s an institution that calls itself Catholic, and is serious about it and they know what it means for them. That’s really important for us. We have this opportunity and we must take it. We have all the building blocks we need in people, vision, and commitment, to be the leading Catholic college we envision ourselves to be. We have everything it takes to answer the call of the Church to be a truly Catholic college.

What distinguishes Saint Mary’s from other Catholic colleges?

Our history and also the charism of the Brothers. That combination makes us distinct and unique. We were founded by the first Archbishop of San Francisco, so our roots go back to the beginnings of Catholic education in this part of the world. We’ve grown with society on the West Coast.

Soon after the College was established, the Archbishop asked the Christian Brothers to come here—a bunch of enterprising Brothers, mostly of Irish descent, from New York City. They landed here, got the lay of the land, and brought to the West Coast a rich educational tradition that reaches back to 17th-century France. And it was powerfully attractive and effective. Those Brothers recruited new Brothers, who in turn recruited new Brothers, who read the signs of the times and the needs of California, the needs of the Catholics of California and set about to serve those needs. We are still doing this today.

What do you think when people say Saint Mary’s isn’t Catholic enough?

When people say we aren’t Catholic enough—we need to remember that the Catholic Church is a big church. People answer that question in a lot of different ways. What’s truly Catholic is the ability to gather in all the many responses, hold them, honor them and find room for everyone in what it means to be Catholic. There’s room in the tent for all of us.

What do you think students who come are looking for?

Hope. Current students have received a terrible message from society during the economic downturn—that there will be no jobs for them. A vision of the world that is less than. That’s something they carry with them and something we have to help them address head on.

I took the RA on my residence hall floor out for an end-of-year breakfast, just to say thanks, and I asked her why the students on our floor are so serious. They seem to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. She just looked at me and said, “Because they’ve been told they won’t have a job when they leave.”

Our students need to hear a message of hope. We have to help them envision a new world, create new jobs, and be the makers of the future.

There seems to be a genuine core of good here at Saint Mary’s, don’t you think?

I think of the old medieval custom of venerating relics, statues, and places because good things inhabited that person or that place over time. Here in this valley there has been a spirit and vision that are larger than any of us. Since 1928 good things have happened here and will continue to happen. This is hallowed ground in its own way, as much as an educational institution can be.