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Former DePaul University President Discusses Nature of a Catholic University

Thursday, May 3, 2018

What does it mean to be a Catholic university? This question was posed by Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., Ed.D., during a conference entitled, “Faculty Conversations on the Modern Catholic University,” held April 23 in the D’Angelo Center on St. John’s University’s Queens, NY, campus.

Fr. Holtschneider is President Emeritus of DePaul University and current Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the United States and the world's largest Catholic health system. Earlier in his career, he also served as an administrator and faculty member at St. John’s.

The conference was sponsored by the Vincentian Center for Church and Society and was the third in a series of discussions with St. John’s faculty about what it means to be a Catholic and Vincentian University. “Fr. Holtschneider brought a wealth of knowledge, experience, and commitment to the issue of maintaining a Catholic university,” said Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director for the Center.

“He welcomes colleagues into conversation so that we discover together what can and should be done,” Fr. Griffin noted. “His presentation did not dwell upon theory, but flowed into his deep and practical love for Catholic higher education.” During his talk, Fr. Holtschneider engaged St. John’s faculty on a variety of topics relating to Catholic higher education, as well as how they might accomplish future goals.

Many institutions, including St. John’s University, were created to advance social initiatives, Fr. Holtschneider remarked. St. John’s was originally founded by the Congregation of the Mission to educate the children of immigrants and to serve those most in need. “Priorities may evolve over time, but I think St. John’s has determined their founding goal is still necessary.”

He added that many institutions work to bolster faith. “Notice I did not say convert,” Fr. Holtschneider stressed. “You are not finding many Catholic universities who see it in their purview to convert [students] to Catholicism.”

“However, we do say, without apology, that you are going to encounter faith. We want you to wonder about it, because students are at that perfect moment in life where they are questioning everything.”

Fr. Holtschneider observed that students who never had a religious education “are intrigued by religion. We show them people of faith who pray in very public ways. We constantly advertise opportunities for retreats, where [people can] reflect with those who actually have a faith tradition.”

Research is also a critical aspect of the intellectual life of a Catholic university, Fr. Holtschneider said. Catholic universities are a place where the issues of the day can be viewed through a lens of faith. “How do we wrestle with those questions, and bring together the deeply held convictions about the world and humanity that come with religion? How do we enter that fray? The answer is research.” He added, “We try to help people think about what is important.”