Edmundites say they are all-in with students, College

March 8, 2017

“Coming together” is the best way to propel Saint Michael’s College and its founders forward, suggested Rev. Stephen Hornat ’72, superior general of the Society of Saint Edmund, which evidently has no plans to diminish its commitment to the institution that it established in 1904.

Hornat developed his theme during a late-afternoon panel presentation in the Dion Family Student Center Roy Room Tuesday titled “Sustaining a Legacy: Edmundite Visions for the Future of Saint Michael’s College,” and it had double-edged pertinence:

First, it encapsulated the Society’s plans to consolidate its now geographically widespread if thinly manned ministries (Alabama, Venezuela, Europe, Vermont parishes) by calling back into resident ministry at Saint Michael’s some of the presently farther-flung Edmundites so they might better support any receptive students or members of the wider community in a “ministry of accompaniment” that will become the order’s more singular focus. The late Father Mike Cronogue SSE, with his nonjudgmental, all-embracing manner and gift for being “encouraging and present to those most in need” (as Pope Francis has exhorted) gave an ideal example of what that might look like, Hornat said.

Panelists said they observe first-hand, and often hear in conversations with Student Life staff, that today’s students in growing numbers seem to arrive with emotional or spiritual uneasiness, unmoored and often without the most basic religious literacy as they search for greater sustenance beyond what secular society commonly offers.

As the Edmundites see it, this presents an opportunity to be helpful fellow human travelers in a way that is entirely consonant with their history. “A lot of Vermont today looks a lot like France after the Revolution when the Edmundites came into being — a very secularized environment … and a lot of Catholics alienated from the church – so it’s a perfect environment to do our work!” Hornat said.

Also, some panelists and audience questioners reminded the gathering (either directly or indirectly) that Hornat’s words — “we need to come together” — were just as relevant to another prominent topic of Tuesday’s discussion – the multiple hate-based racial incidents of recent months that brought to light ugly and polarizing tears in the College’s community fabric – many suggest a reflection of present national social currents. Hornat, also a Saint Michael’s trustee, said it was a priority during the recent Trustee meeting the previous weekend to talk about this  pressing need to increase diversity and sensitivity among faculty and students, and how best to do that.

Edmundites on Tuesday’s panel suggested they can offer useful resources and perspective for addressing those issues, as well as shed light on curriculum and mission questions. The starting-point is a “spirit of hope and possibility,” they said, despite trends in modern higher education that run counter to the great Catholic intellectual and social traditions. The Society continues to advocate those traditions, even in our fast-changing times, they said, noting that some of the Society’s best work in history has arisen as a result of being countercultural whether in post-Revolution France or the Jim Crow American South, so that is not a stumbling block.

Other panelists joining the superior general Tuesday before an audience of nearly 50 people were Rev. David Theroux, SSE, local superior; Deacon Michael Carter ’12, a campus minister and religious studies instructor this semester; and Rev. Marcel Rainville ’67, a campus minister and former longtime missionary in Venezuela who now is deeply involved with Edmundite Heritage campus groups and trips to Europe.

Hornat opened by recounting Edmundite history: The new religious society in 1852 was “founded in the ashes of the French Revolution” by Father Muard with just 8 members; subsequently, the Edmundites repeatedly weathered dark periods, but “always moving forward, with that sense of hope and possibility,” which landed them at Pontigny Abbey and later found them starting  schools at many locations in France before having to seek refuge from government persecution of clerics by coming to Canada and the U.S.–  and starting Saint Michael’s College —  as the 20th Century dawned, he said.

Given that history, “Our future is here – I want to make that clear,” Hornat said. “We’ve walked with the institution since its founding and want to continue giving life to Edmundite traditions” – traditions that he said still are those most closely and positively identified with the College, such as community, hospitality and justice. They also are “charisms” that many lay people have advanced alongside or on behalf of the Society when needed since 1904, he said, as priest numbers dwindled since their peak of more than 140 members in the late 1960s. One example he gave was longtime psychology instructor and counselor Dave Landers carrying on Father Maurice Ouellette’s important founding of a College counseling center.

The superior general said this means that “a lot of members of our community not here now will be coming to the College,” with three more moving to the Nicolle residence in May and the youngest Edmundites, Deacon Michael Carter and Fr. Lino Oropeza, committing long-term to the institution. “We feel if there’s any reinventing ourselves and growing as a religious community, this is where we need to be,” he said.

Fr. David Theroux next addressed “Catholicity and what it means to be a … college in the Catholic intellectual tradition,” as expressed in the Saint Michael’s mission statement, which refers to advancing individuals and human culture “in light of the Catholic faith.”

Fundamentally, that means helping students develop empathy and understanding in a very diverse world through “a dialogue between faith and reason that sees no conflict” between those two mutually illuminating forces that can unite in a robust search for truth. Being a Catholic college also means helping students “reflect on and celebrate the spiritual dimensions of their lives, welcoming all who want to explore talking and thinking about God, the nature of life, the question of souls, regardless of beliefs or background” (but also respecting “whose home it is” even while welcoming all into that warm and inclusive home); it also means acknowledging sin’s effects on humanity, and seeing  the search for truth and God as “drawing us toward fulfillment other than what we know at the moment.”

The end goal, he said, is “helping individual students develop their own lives.” All that stands in contrast to what we see happening in American education by and large, he said, with professionalism, job preparation and scholarship commonly emphasized over faith, and with fewer than half of students even at Saint Michael’s professing as Catholics or even religious. Even so, Catholic education still can and ought to be “formative” more than just “informative,” he said, while honestly recognizing where students are coming from today.

Deacon Michael Carter, at age 27 the youngest Edmundite by a long shot, carried that theme forward. In his subjective neophyte’s view, he humorously qualified, “It’s only right and proper” that students be the focus for himself and the Edmundites at Saint Michael’s — and in his “student-centric” work this year both as campus minister and religious studies classroom teacher, he has seen “a positive response of kids of all backgrounds” to a certain approach. “What I try to do is meet people where they are at a given moment — Have an open door and just listen” – that’s one way he’s found of living the “ministry of accompaniment” that Hornat earlier had spoken of.  Simply as an observation of fact rather than a criticism, Carter said that when teaching, he sees that “the baseline knowledge of Christianity or Catholicism is very low” among the majority of typical students, which the Edmundites are suited to help address.

Father Rainville told how his experiences with a campus group promoting and studying Edmundite heritage through books and programs — the Pontigny Society — and by leading numerous trips to sites in France and England to explore that same heritage (as one upcoming next year as part of the Society’s plans under Rev. Richard Berube for its coming 175th anniversary celebration that starts August 15) has “helped deepen my and others’ sense of our spiritual, incarnational roots.” Building on Fr. Theroux’s notion that academic disciplines at this Catholic college can, or ideally, would “be of one piece” in an integrated faith-informed quest for truth, Rainville told faculty: “you who have been given the gift to teach provide students a unique chance to span the human-divine divide…we’re privileged to do the kind of mentoring that takes us to the edge — a place of vision,” which he likened to Vermont peak he once climbed with a student group and still vividly recalls looking out from together.

“I would suggest we take our humanness seriously, acknowledge the wonder of our existence and seek the holy in the lowly — something we can all do as a way to participate in the Edmundite mission,” said the mild-mannered Fr. Rainville, who told how he grew up on a Franklin County dairy farm. MOVE service work is a good example of this “holy-lowly” nexus that animates the College and Edmundite history, in his view.

Notable moments from an extended question-answer session included:

  • Professor Ray Patterson of the religious studies faculty gave a shout-out to the beautiful upgrade at St. Anne’s Shrine in the Champlain Islands as a most effective way of exposing students, from sports teams to ministry groups, to the Edmundites in a positive way when the students go there on retreats – mostly thanks to the efforts there of Fr. Brian Cummings, SSE, the Shrine and Campus Ministry director.
  • Trish Siplon of the political science faculty asked about the future of the Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice and the Peace and Justice major, long run by Professor Laurie Gagne, who has retired. The center was responsible for bringing many big-name popular speakers to campus. Theroux said its future “is being held in abeyance” until a decision can be made by the administration based on as-now unforeseeable factors.
  • Katie Kirby of the philosophy faculty wondered what the Edmundites saw as their role in assuring that students targeted in recent racial or hate incidents got more than uplifting words from College leaders. Hornat agreed with her priority and said he was glad to be part of a good discussion last weekend with Trustees and administrators who also agree that the board itself needs to diversify as a good starting point. He noted how he and Fr. Theroux both spent many years in the Edmundite Southern Missions as pastors at black churches, and feel they can help connect to some possible leaders of color for the board, and also bring insight from their own long and rich experiences — though they confessed that gaining sensitivity to race issues was a learning curve for them as it likely would be for others on campus. Fr. Theroux recalled the courses that he and other Edmundites from the missions took at historically black Xavier University in New Orleans to immerse themselves in black culture for better understanding. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something in the core curriculum to address those things,” he wondered. “It’s about “breaking down our perception of others so we can hear what others are saying.” Maybe if students, who in many cases bring a lot of family prejudice to college with them, had such a course early, it could head off some problems early on, he suggested.
  • Professor Vince Bolduc of the sociology faculty said sensitivity training of that nature might even be useful to bridge what he called “a significant cultural gap between religious people and non-religious people … to help all of us be better at discussing what is sometimes now an awkward conversation” – much as the conversation on race and hate also sometimes has proven to be.

Hornat said at some student retreats, he sees “a certain ecumenism” that helps conversations be less awkward. “With many students being ‘unchurched,’ that’s also an advantage because they don’t have prejudices and are easier to deal with, in a way,” he said. Offered Deacon Michael Carter, “When people see I wear a collar, they may have good or bad predispositions toward that — but I’m human, and we connect on that level.”

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