When I was beginning my senior year in a public high school, my mother mentioned that my father would be pleased if I attended Seton Hall University.
Sixty years later, I still don’t know why that was Dad’s preference, but it’s an indication of how indifferent I was as a student that, based only on my mother’s remark, I applied to, was admitted to, and attended Seton Hall.
It didn’t take more than a few days for me to realize that I wasn’t going to sleep walk through four years at The Hall as I had done in high school. Everything about the two experiences was different.
For example, in high school, I schmoozed with as many teachers as would tolerate it, creating personal relationships that I imagined would influence grades. At the Hall, I saw most of my instructors for only one semester, and then only in class. There was little opportunity for a con artist.
Also, the curriculum in my high school in the late 1950s probably hadn’t changed much since the late 1940s. It wasn’t particularly challenging, which explains, in part, how I graduated.
At Seton Hall, I was required to take courses in disciplines that I hadn’t known existed. With only a semester instead of a whole academic year to master the material, the urgency of the situation quickly became clear to me. I realized in short order that the high school more or less had to keep me, regardless of my grades—The Hall not so much.
Somehow—maybe for Dad’s sake—I became a student and, in a way, I have been a student ever since. And yet, beyond shocking me into the rigors of scholarship, my time at Seton Hall affected my life in an even more important way; it made me a more mature Catholic.
I grew up, almost literally, in the Church. I could see our parish church from our kitchen window, and, as an altar server, I spent a great deal of time there—in fact, probably made a nuisance of myself.
I liked being around the priests; I liked putting on the cassock and surplice; I was enamored of the ritual and the music. As a public-school student, I completed the requisite parish classes in order to receive the sacraments. I was relieved when, after I had memorized the catechism answers, the bishop’s only demand of me at the confirmation Mass was, “Say the Lord’s Prayer.”
But when I went to Seton Hall, I was immediately thrown into Catholicism at a different level, into the company of Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Henri Bergson, and that whole crowd. Scholasticism, a theological and philosophical system, was in vogue at the time, and I am aware that, as a theologian reminded me in more recent years, “the fact that Aquinas said something doesn’t make it true.”
But the school of thought wasn’t the point. In grappling with ideas that never would have occurred to me when I was reciting the “Suscipiat” in my black-and white regalia, at Seton Hall I was made to think about, not memorize and regurgitate, Catholic teaching on theology, cosmology, morality, and ethics. Moreover, whether explicitly or not, I was made to decide whether Catholic teaching and tradition would shape the way I lived and worked.
Catholic education at every level is an endangered species, for economic, social, and demographic reasons. Whether it will continue to form students from kindergarten through graduate school—and, indeed, whether it should—is a complex question that should concern anyone who values Catholic culture and its influence in the world.
The Jesuit journal America has devoted a lot of space to this subject. I recommend in particular, an article that appeared in the January 19 issue, available on line, in which Fordham theology professor Charles C. Camosy, poses this question: “Will Catholic universities survive the upheaval in higher education? The next 10 years will tell.”
This post was originally published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. Charles Paolino is managing editor at RENEW International and a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.