Saint Louis University

Cultivating a Catholic Imagination

Mass in the Grass with Fr. Collins
Fr. Collins celebrates "Mass in the Grass" on campus in May. Photo by Kevin Lowder

Curriculum changes and new events broaden the reach of the Catholic Studies Program and its mission to explore the sacred in all studies.

Christopher Collins, S.J., says he was appointed director of the Catholic Studies Program (formerly the Manresa Program) at the perfect time last year. The University was beginning the search for a new president, and faculty members across campus were holding forums to discuss what characteristics they wanted in their next leader.

“Faculty members from all disciplines were coming out of our traditional academic silos to talk about mission, community and what it means to be part of a Catholic, Jesuit university,” he said. “It was an opportune time to cultivate interdisciplinary relationships and create space for faculty from all faiths to explore an understanding of how the Catholic intellectual tradition can inform all disciplines, and in turn, be deepened by them.”

One of Collins’ primary goals as director of Catholic Studies is to keep the dialogue going. He initiated monthly reading groups during which interdisciplinary faculty explore great Catholic texts and discern the dynamic relationship between faith and reason.

“We are reaching out beyond the core subjects — philosophy, theology, history and English — into economics, political science, fine arts, the sciences and education,” he said. “Once you have a better understanding of the rich contributions of Catholicism to all things academic, you have a better idea of how you contribute to the mission of a Jesuit university.”

Dr. Bonnie Wilson, associate professor of economics, has taken part in a number of the reading groups. She’s not Catholic but says she is grateful for the opportunity to learn about and engage with the traditions and thought.

“The experience has enabled me to help students discover the connections, and sometimes tensions, between the discipline of economics — especially its underlying values and ethics — and Catholic thought,” she said. “Students are excited by that, and it's rewarding to offer the material in ways I wasn’t equipped to do so before.”

Collins also started the First Friday Mass and Speaker Series open to faculty, staff, students and alumni. Once a month following Mass, faculty members are invited to discuss their research and its relationship to Catholic intellectual tradition.

In the fall, the Catholic Studies Program co-hosted an interdisciplinary academic panel on the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis and another conference on healing the city-county divide with guest speakers Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley. Future events include a weeklong intensive reading workshop for interdisciplinary faculty funded by the Lilly Foundation and a discussion of baseball, religion and growing up in St. Louis hosted by Joe Garagiola Jr.

Collins’ other mission is to attract a wider range of students interested in pursuing a minor in Catholic Studies. He changed the curriculum to make the core more deliberately interdisciplinary. He also has celebrated "Mass in the Grass" to pray for the University community and hosted concerts and student-led discussion groups.

His efforts appear to be paying off. The number of students pursuing the minor has quadrupled during the past year.

“Students have a faith life, but it might be compartmentalized,” he said. “Many think that Mass is what they do on Sundays, but during the week they’re a business major or a biology major and that doesn’t have anything to do with their faith life. The Catholic Studies minor helps them understand that faith has everything to do with how they practice their profession and vice versa.”

Senior Gabriel Vitale is graduating with majors in education and history, as well as a minor in Catholic Studies.

“The program got me out of my education bubble and into discussions with students I normally wouldn’t interact with,” Vitale said. “We talk about what it means to be not only a teacher but a Catholic teacher, not only an engineer but a Catholic engineer. It’s a rare opportunity to see how we’re connected.”

Collins predicts this will help students succeed in the workforce.

“If students get into the habit of making connections between many disciplines all grounded in a horizon of faith, they will have a broader view of how their jobs fit in with other things,” he said. “Students coming out of the Center for Entrepreneurship, for example, want to start businesses because the endeavors will be interesting and there is the possibility of generating wealth. If they learn how to incorporate their faith perspective and consider broader social, political and cultural perspectives into their profession, it may guide where they place those businesses — maybe in impoverished areas — and who they’ll hire. It could give their businesses a sense a purpose and mission. The ripple effect could be tremendous.”

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