The Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, visited campus Tuesday night for a talk in Montante Cultural Center entitled “The Future of American Catholic Higher Education.” The event is part of the College’s Sesquicentennial Year Series.
McShane started his talk by letting the crowd know the focus of his talk was really “remembering” the future of Catholic higher education. He expressed his belief that in order for Catholic higher education to move forward, institutions must remember where they came from, what made them resilient through difficult times and why they matter in society today.
Holding many degrees, including a PhD. in the history of Christianity, McShane used his talk to reflect on the rich history of Catholicism in the United States and the changes that Catholicism and Catholic education have endured.
Tying in local history, McShane discussed how from the 19th century into the 20th century, immigrant Catholics in the United States created a “parallel” universe to the mainstream with their faith and the distinct cultures of the countries they migrated from.
McShane gave the example of the French and German immigrants in Buffalo, who despised each other. But the Most Rev. John Timon, the first bishop of Buffalo, created the United French and German Cemetery, to which McShane joked that if the French and Germans couldn’t be united in life, they’d have to learn to be united in death.
He continued to explain that this showed an important shift in local Catholics; culturally, they were uniting. Around this same time, Catholic colleges and universities were forming – a place where Catholic immigrants were able to develop an “Americanized” education, one where they could learn how to excel in the mainstream culture. However, they were able to focus on and celebrate their faith and culture within these institutions. This created the foundation of the character-driven education that Catholic education is built on today.
“The church was successful in the 19th and 20th century because the bishops served the people in front of them, not the people they may have wanted to serve, ” McShane said.
McShane explained that the bishops of the time saw Catholics excelling secularly as an apostolic good. This was a chance for Catholics to move out of poverty, share their faith and grow in the United States.
Catholic education grew as Catholics were persecuted in mainstream higher education – when Catholics weren’t allowed at prestigious law schools, they created their own. And Catholic education only continued to grow and spread after World War II, when different cultural groups spread out to the suburbs and the John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, was elected.
But in the past 60 years, Catholic schools have dwindled as people left the vocation, and a shift of the location of Catholics in the US left the majority of Catholic schools in the industrial north, and the Rust Belt, while today’s Catholics are in the south. And with the Church facing scruitny in the past 20 years over sex abuses, Catholics have been more willing to walk away from their faith.
McShane described this history as a building point for a series of theses, a set of ideas for how he sees the future of Catholic higher education. He explained how those who are successful in Catholic higher education need to “speak the language of the world, to the world,” be present, and listen to the needs of those in front of them.
He additionally explained how colleges will need to be savvy in their mergers and partnerships. Institutions will also need to explain and express the importance of a Catholic education which is rooted in character development, as seen in the history of Catholic education.
“I may see to seem to be suggesting parents see a transactional value in our schools. So, sending their kids to a school, ‘invest in a Catholic education and your child will be a success.’ That’s what it sounds like I’m saying. Well, there is certainly an element of that in what I’m saying,” McShane said. “But parents also see a different kind of success offered in a Catholic school, the success that is seen in a faith-grounded life well-lived. Or a life lived with a sacred and noble sense of purpose.”
McShane ended his talk expressing that the future Canisius faces will not be easy, that the last 150 years will not compare to the next 50. He also expressed that Catholic education will only continue to survive if they learn to serve new Catholics, those at the margins and speak in terms understood by people who are spiritual, or non-religious.
But McShane also expressed his enduring belief in Canisius, and his trust in the upcoming generation who will take on the challenges institutions like Canisius face.
“I cannot imagine Buffalo, or the Diocese of Buffalo, without Canisius College. It is not in my ability to imagine that. Why? This is the place where the leaders are made. This is the place where the promises are redeemed. The promises of Catholic higher education are redeemed. And have been redeemed,” McShane said.
“This is the place that has produced great, great civic leaders who value civic virtue and who are in my words, bothered, bothered by injustice and bothered by the realization they don’t know everything.”