Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., at DePaul Cristo Rey High School, Cincinnati, Ohio
December 15, 2010
Good morning. Thank you for your kind welcome. I’ve been asked to speak about the founding of a Catholic high school in this day and age, so I thought I’d tell you a story about the founder of another school.
In the mid-1800's, Catholics were a rather desperate underclass in British-controlled Ireland. To do something about it, the Irish bishops sent a letter asking a well-known scholar at Oxford to leave his job, come to Dublin, and start a college for Catholics.
A relatively young Fr. John Henry Newman took the job in 1851. Not all great ideas come to pass though, and Newman left the college in failure after seven years of effort. In fairness to Newman, the British government refused the college permission to grant degrees, and even if they had granted permission, there simply weren’t enough Catholic schools to feed students to the college. Newman went back to Oxford and resumed his brilliant academic career, where he wrote books still admired to this day, and received the highly unusual honor of being made a Cardinal without having ever been a bishop.
That seven-year period might have been forgotten if it were not that Newman left something behind. Like many founders, Newman had to fund-raise for his school. He wrote nine tracts explaining his ideas on Catholic education, the reasons that Catholic education was so critical, and the reasons people should support it. Those writings were collected in a book entitled "The Idea of a University." To this day, Catholics turn to this book as the finest statement of what Catholic education should accomplish, and all of higher education considers it the classic formulation of the reason for a liberal arts education.
Newman’s reasoning started by observing that the problem with experts is that they only see the world from one direction. To understand the present instability in the Middle East, for example, an historian might focus on old wars and ancient tensions among the people who populate the region. A geographer will insist that one must appreciate the relatively small amount of useful land and fresh water that leads to violence. Theologians will highlight the competing sets of religious beliefs occupying one region – even within Islam itself. Sociologists will point to the destabilizing effect of western ideas being introduced in an eastern society. An economist will say that the whole thing is really about oil and unequal distribution of wealth. And so on…Specialists are helpful, but they run the risk of seeing only what they know of the world.
Cardinal Newman argued that the best education is one that introduces students to the entire world in all its complexity. A liberal education – not liberal in the political sense, but in the sense of "broad and generous." He thought of a person’s education like a circle cut into wedges, and argued that all the wedges were critical if a person was one day going to become a contributing member of society - a person of wisdom, good sense, with the ability to lead effectively.
And for Newman, one of those important wedges to complete the circle was religion. Even today, it's impossible to read any major newspaper and avoid religion. People throughout this world have deep convictions about God and about how we humans should conduct our lives. Those beliefs play into all our decisions, good and bad. Newman believed that students should have the opportunity to think about that in a structured and disciplined way in their college years. He wanted them to learn more than their childhood catechism. He wanted them to learn Catholicism in an adult, intellectual, rigorous way, so that they could better see and choose how to best incorporate their faith into their adult lives.
There was more to the dream for a new Catholic school than an education, of course. Those Irish Catholics of the 1800's were trapped economically. They simply couldn’t get ahead. They weren’t welcome at the great Protestant institutions of learning, and without a first-rate education, their prospects were limited to laborer and service positions. Catholics needed Catholic schools to give their children a future.
Catholics did the same thing when they came here to the United States. Every parish built its own school - at first, because they wanted a safe place where their children could be educated away from the schoolyard fights with those who didn't want immigrants here. They trusted the nuns, the brothers or the priests to instill discipline, insist on moral behavior, teach the faith and provide a first-rate education. The goal of working extra shifts or second jobs to pay the Catholic tuition was the same then as it is today – a belief that these schools will produce better educated people and better all-around people. You hear echoes of that when people say words like a Jesuit education, a Mercy education; a Dominican education; a Vincentian education, or simply a Catholic education.
In time, our Catholic schools began to welcome others who had similar dreams for their children, even if they didn’t share our faith. Most of remember classmates who were dismissed to go to a study hall when it was time for our religion class. Certainly, many among the inner-city African-American community found a home in our institutions for their own dreams for their children and remain grateful for it to this day.
Your city of Cincinnati shares this same history. Many religious congregations came here to work and serve – the Sisters of Mercy, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Jesuits - and perhaps none to such a great extent as the Sisters of Charity founded by Mother Seton. They founded schools – many schools – but also health care and charitable works for the poor. These women came with no resources except their own faith and willingness to roll up their sleeves. They saw schools where none existed before. They saw great charitable works where there was no funding or even hope for funding today. And in every case, they turned to the community and said if we want to, we can do this. And the community responded.
Today, the Catholic Church is the largest provider of private education in the nation; the largest provider of non-governmental healthcare in the nation; the largest provider of non-governmental social services in the nation; and the largest single provider of refugee resettlement services in the nation. The history of Catholic education, Catholic healthcare and Catholic charity in the United States is not just the history of these powerful women and men religious, but even more it’s the story of the community that surrounded them and who said "we can do this," and then did. It's your story,
It is what you now are doing for the generations who will follow you in this great American city of Cincinnati. You collectively will be the founders of an institution that will literally change the lives of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and then change the lives of their children, and their children’s children. For as Cardinal Newman knew in Ireland, and the Sisters of Charity knew here since the 1800's, when you give a single person an education, you change their lives forever, and the lives of their families that follow forever, and often the lives of their communities.
What you do here is an act of love for people you may never know, and for a city and community you know very well. I stand in great respect today before all of you. I only wish I could thank the original founders of my own university, but today, I get to be in the presence of actual founders and thank you for all that will come from this act of faith on your own part.
On a personal level, I’m also deeply touched that you’ve chosen St. Vincent de Paul’s name for your project. Vincent de Paul of course, is the patron of the poor in the Catholic Church, but he didn’t start out that way. He became a priest for the money – (something that doesn’t seem to work quite as well these days). He got himself ordained at age 19 by seeking out an elderly bishop who couldn’t tell Vincent’s young age, and then proceeded to serve a succession of wealthy families until he became the personal chaplain to the Queen of France. If he had died at that point, perhaps he would have been named the "Saint of Social-climbing," but the Lord gave him another 40 years, which he used to become the Patron Saint of the Poor.
Working with Louise de Marillac, he founded charitable works in every parish of France. He established hospitals for the poor. Improved prisons for the poor. Fed, clothed, housed the abandoned orphans. Taught women to read knowing that would improve the lives of their children as well. Before he died at age 80, he had moved on to five other countries as well, and today, the many works he began continue and have grown exponentially.
As president of DePaul University, I find myself constantly trying to make sure the institution lives up to its name. I try to make sure that there are ways for the poor to attend our university. I try to makes sure that every student is introduced to a larger world and that they learn to see the poor and needy around them and determine that they will always give back to their communities in some way throughout their lifetimes. I hope the same for you. May this school always live up to the name that will now be over its door. May the poor find a place here, and may all who study here go on to care for those who most need assistance in this world.
A high school is much more, of course. There will be great sports contests in time, science fairs, SAT preps, proms, far too much drama over who’s dating who, those wonderful jobs that Cristo Rey and the community provide to build a work ethic and character, and of course, Learning. Books, ideas, authors, histories, art, music, languages. Whole worlds will open up here for young people, and lives will begin because of this school.
Henry Rosovsky, a Jewish dean at Harvard College, once wrote:
"A doctor should have superior knowledge of science and disease; a lawyer needs a deep understanding of major cases and legal procedures; a scholar must possess intimate familiarity with the state of the art in a particular subject. All of these attributes, however, while necessary, are far from sufficient. The ideal of a profession should not be a mere flow of competent technocrats. A more appropriate goal is professional authority combined with "humility, humanity and humor." I want my lawyer and doctor to have a grasp of pain, love, laughter, death, religion, justice, and the limitations of science. Up-to-date information can always be acquired without too much difficulty; human understanding cannot be reduced to asking the computer a few questions." (Rosovsky, The University: An Owner's Manual, 112).
That quote would have pleased Newman enormously. For it's what we do in Catholic education. At our best, we’re preparing the next generation to be wise and fully educated. To be knowledgeable and faithful. Leaders and active members of the Church, the next generation of Catholics to be sure, but also leaders for the society around us, able to interact with a whole society while staying true to their faith convictions. People who know their bearings.
You're in this room today because these goals are also important to you. Through your leadership, your hard work, your financial support, and your advocacy, you are founding DePaul Cristo Rey High School. Through your commitment and kindness, you are preparing the next generation of civic leaders. I have enormous respect and gratitude to be a room with people of such long-range vision. This is not an easy task, and you will have challenging days ahead. May God bless you abundantly for that work, and through you, may God richly bless DePaul Cristo Rey High School.