By Carol Zimmermann and Lynnea Pruzinsky Mumola
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – Right after Pope Benedict XVI's address to Catholic educators April 17 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, college presidents and superintendents were ready to do their homework.
Several of them said they wanted to carefully read and reread the pope's address to unpack its rich, detailed message.
During the address to more than 400 educators, the pope spoke softly, reading his text as prepared. His words were interrupted twice with applause -- when he expressed "profound gratitude" for the educators' work and when he implored them to continue their efforts for "those in poorer areas."
The intellectual depth of his message was not lost on these educators, nor was the fact that he spoke to them as one who understands their challenges, telling them he knows of their sacrifice and dedication from his "own days as a professor."
"He came to us as a colleague and as the Holy Father," said Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y. Referring to the pope's intellectualism and college teaching experience, she added, "Who better to understand our work and our mission?"
Jim Towey, president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., left the address feeling like he had just been in an honors seminar. "I need some time to ponder this; it was no light address," he said.
His first impression was to feel simultaneously encouraged and challenged to do more.
"He set the bar higher," he said, while also acknowledging that the pope's words were not without his "characteristic hope" that assured school leaders they could faithfully continue in their mission.
"We have a lot to pray about," Towey added.
Vincentian Father Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University in Chicago, was happy about several aspects of the pope's talk -- including his emphasis on religious orders continuing to support schools in poor areas. "A little bit of encouragement goes a long way," he said, hoping the pope's words would have an impact on the effort to keep inner-city schools open.
He also appreciated the pope's description of schools' Catholic identity not coming from "the number of Catholic students" but from the "conviction" and commitment to faith of the entire school community.
"That is a harder challenge," he said, "but he certainly hit the nail on the head."
Sister Carol Jean Vale, a Sister of St. Joseph and president of Chestnut Hill College near Philadelphia, was similarly "heartened" that the pope asked religious orders to stay committed to educating the poor.
Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association and someone who knows about Catholic inner-city school closings all too well, was similarly pleased with the pope's plea and the applause it generated.
"The pope understands the big picture of education; it's not just numbers, but the intersection of faith and reason," she said.
Weeks prior to the address, media reports had speculated that the pope might come down hard on college presidents for hosting events or speakers not in line with Catholic teaching. Instead, in the words of one president, they were given a "gentle reminder" that academic freedom should not be pursued at all costs.
"It was certainly nothing of the scolding that some alarmists had hoped," said Jesuit Father Jeffrey von Arx, president of Fairfield University in Connecticut.
Jacqueline Powers Doud, president of Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, said she never bought into the reports of a possible reprimand and "didn't think the pope would use this platform" to deliver harsh criticism.
"He acknowledged there are challenges," she said, but at the end he also "urged us to be witnesses of hope."
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College in Washington, also said she had not anticipated a scolding and said his words of affirmation "have given us an opportunity to say we're proud of our work."
Like her colleagues, she planned to carefully read his address and also was convinced it would provide a springboard for further dialogue among college presidents and other educators.
"This is a moment of renewal," she said.
John DeGioia, president of Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, called the pope's remarks "inspiring, moving and a powerful personal experience."
He recalled the tremendous opportunity to be with colleagues and witness the crowd of young people gathered outside as part of "a huge celebration. There was a wonderful spirit to the place yesterday." Later DeGioia said he felt the pope's validating conviction and "deep sense (that) what we do matters."
The superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington said the pope's message affirmed her work and the mission of Catholic schools in the region. Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill said Pope Benedict stressed the need for truth in education during his address to educators at Catholic University. The pontiff emphasized Catholic education is much more than knowledge, she said. "It is about sharing the truth."
She emphasized the pope's call for intellectual charity and the need to serve all children. "Educators have always brought hope through Catholic education to all children," Weitzel-O'Neill said.
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