Professional Training in an Authentically Catholic Context

By Monsignor James P. Shea, Ph.L.*

Monsignor James P. Shea during a presentation at the university to students and parents.

In the times through which we’re living, the importance of genuinely Catholic education can hardly be overestimated. Our culture has been moving away from Christianity for many decades, and the pace is only accelerating. 

It’s good to note this challenging situation, but not as a cause for fear or hand-wringing. We know that everything is in the providence of our Heavenly Father, in whom we place all our trust! 

But this is also not a time for complacency. When the culture moves away from the Faith and even begins to pose a stern threat to its vitality, the Faith needs to look to its own institutions to be sure that deep foundations are being laid for an authentic and impressive witness to the life-saving message of Christ. For our colleges and universities — which have been given a special responsibility for the intellectual training of our young minds — that means a serious re-engagement with the foundations of the Christian faith at all levels of the institution.

By the grace of God there are many Catholic colleges and universities that are attempting to take up this task; and may there be many more! The University of Mary is grateful to be able to be counted among them. Like other devoted, mission-driven institutions, we are trying to be faithful to the Gospel and to the young minds and spirits that come to us, such that they can encounter the richness of Christ’s life in all its intellectual and spiritual vitality.

The University of Mary was founded more than 60 years ago, with a special interest in training Catholics for professional life. This has given us a particular set of strengths. We are able to offer our students both the richness of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition and also technical training in various fields. For example, the University of Mary houses a School of Business, a School of Education, and a new School of Engineering. We offer nearly 60 undergraduate degrees, 15 master’s degrees, and 4 doctorates.

A view of the campus. The university was founded by Benedictine nuns

Perhaps our most noteworthy effort in regard to professional training is our School of Health Sciences. Questions of health science and medical ethics, it hardly needs to be said, touch upon areas of serious cultural concern and controversy. Healthcare carries the potential for providing crucial services to those in need; but it is also increasingly an arena where anti-Christian practices and attitudes have gained great strength in the wider culture. Our St. Gianna School of Health Sciences was named for St. Gianna Beretta Molla, with the kind permission of her family. We wanted to name the school after this impressive woman who was both a saint and a physician as a way to express our dedication to the teaching and practice of healthcare rooted in a Catholic understanding of the human person, one that unites respect for human dignity within the utmost professional competence. The St. Gianna School offers more than 30 degrees, including doctorates in Nursing, Physical Therapy, and Occupational Therapy. Our Nursing program was ranked #1 in the country last year.

Our entire faculty in Health Sciences, nearly 60 professors, traveled with me on pilgrimage in 2017 to Germany and France. We visited the Dachau  concentration camp, ground-zero for the Nazis’ medical experimentation and the “Final Solution.” We went to Nuremberg, where the war criminal trials took place at the end of the war, 75 years ago. There, in the main courtroom, we read the testimonies of nurses and doctors who participated in atrocities against human life and dignity.

Then, having encountered a vision of the Culture of Death, we traveled to Lourdes. In that holy sanctuary of the Blessed Mother, our faculty spent a week caring for the sick, meeting them at the train station, assisting them in the hospitals and baths, taking part in the Eucharistic and evening torchlight rosary processions. They even participated in the deliberations of the Medical Bureau of Lourdes, which weighs claims of medical cures! It was a stunning contrast for all of us between the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death, between medicine turned towards or against the true  service of the human person. I wanted our faculty to experience firsthand, and convey to their students, the nobility and true importance of ethical healthcare practice according to Catholic principles. 

Another unique, even unparalleled, expression of the University of Mary’s educational project is Mary College at Arizona State University (ASU). Mary College represents a partnership with Arizona State through which ASU students can take courses in Catholic Studies to fulfill their general studies requirements — or even earn a dual degree — all taught by University of Mary faculty. Students are thus able to benefit from the technical training available at ASU while entering into the great tradition of Catholic thought and culture. Mary College is far more than a program or a set of course offerings. It is a genuine home for the students involved. Housed in Old St. Mary’s at the heart of the campus, Mary College gives our students an integrated experience of education at a time when the intellectual vision of universities is increasingly fragmented and chaotic. We are hoping that this remarkable partnership with Arizona State might provide a template for bringing a serious Catholic education to the many thousands of Catholic students at our secular universities in the United States.

The webpage of the St. Gianna Catholic Health Academy and the new website called Prime Matters. Both of these groups are associated with the educational activities of the university

A final project sponsored by the University that I would like to note is the recent launch of a new website called Prime Matters. We are keenly aware of the need for our young Catholics to gain more from their education than simply a set of skills. They are navigating a world that is increasingly disintegrated in many directions. How are they to understand the relations of the liberal arts, the sciences, the humanities, and training in the professions? How do matters of morality affect the life of the mind? How is spiritual life to be integrated with what is being learned in classrooms? What is the place of social life, of friendship and community? What is the proper place of sports and recreation? How should they rightly understand the pursuit of the invisible world and engagement with this world?

The answer comes with an encounter of the whole of reality rooted in the truths revealed by God. Our hope is to present our students with a vision and an experience of a Catholic life in which all things are rightly related to one another under the wisdom given by Christ. has been developed with this vision in mind. We intend it to be a means of awakening the Catholic imaginative vision in all its integrated fullness.

It’s true that we are facing a challenging cultural moment as Catholics, with serious threats against which to contend. But it is also a deeply hopeful moment, and a time to live with deep dependence upon God and the Truth He gives us in Jesus Christ. If the right kind of formation does not take place for this rising generation, things will be tough for them. But if it does, our time brings many opportunities: for witness, for heroism, for serious mission from Christ as He continues His work of speaking, revealing,  enlightening, saving, in every generation. The University of Mary, under Our Lady’s patronage and protection, is doing our part, and we’re honored to do so!

*President, the University of Mary, Bismarck, North Dakota, USA

Facebook Comments