The integration of faith and life
In honor of Don Briel, founder of the nation’s first Catholic Studies program
When we consider who has influenced and shaped our lives most, after parents and priests, teachers are next in line. In the great desert that is higher education of the last 50 years, impactful professors stand out all the more as we encounter them as oases of truth.
In 2000, when I arrived at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., it didn’t take long to identify the Catholic Studies program as a center of vitality on campus for both solid academics and community life.
Dr. Don Briel founded the nation’s first Catholic Studies program at St. Thomas in 1993, when he served as chair of the theology department. The program has grown to one of the largest majors in the School of Arts and Sciences, with over 300 students, a Rome campus, and a Master of Arts degree. In addition, the Center for Catholic Studies has founded Logos, a journal of Catholic thought and culture, the Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership (which offers many opportunities for student formation), the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, and the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy. Such staggering fruitfulness over the course of only 25 years gives evidence that Catholic Studies clearly addressed a key need in Catholic higher education.
The program’s unique interdisciplinary focus arose in response to the fragmentation of higher education and flowed from the thought of Blessed John Henry Newman and Christopher Dawson. Newman’s Idea of a University laid out a model for a complete and integrated education and formation. Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education called for the restoration of purpose and vision within modern education through the interdisciplinary study of Christian culture. In addition, Catholic Studies enunciated the importance of immersing students in the Catholic artistic tradition, the thought of the Fathers and St. Thomas, the lives and writings of the saints, and thinkers such as Chesterton, Guardini, and Pieper.
Another key element of the program, which distinguishes it from theological studies, comes from the deliberate integration of the Catholic vision into other majors and career preparation. Most Catholic Studies students have been double majors, able to take cross-listed courses in areas such as psychology, law, and business. All students take courses integrating theology, philosophy, history, and the arts. Graduates have brought the vision of Catholic Studies into a multitude of careers and the program has produced a large number of teachers, priests, and religious.
Recently, when I spoke to Briel, he told me that the essence of Catholic Studies entails coming to know the truth and integrating it into everything that we do. I think this integration of faith and life explains the program’s powerful impact on so many of its students. My two degrees in Catholic Studies laid the foundation for my thought and career: interdisciplinary, imaginative, faithful, and missionary. The program formed so many of my friends and laid the foundation for my own family life as my wife and I went through the program together.
Catholic Studies alumni were recently grieved to hear that Dr. Briel was diagnosed with acute leukemia. We have been rallying together in our prayers and support for Don and his family, and also for each other as we work through this difficult news. We affectionately called him “the Don” on campus, acknowledging his ability to orchestrate all things wisely for the program (in the midst of constant challenges from the broader university), and to mentor us astutely with such great care. His legacy will continue through the life and work of all the Catholic Studies alumni.
I will be forever grateful to the Catholic Studies program and its phenomenal faculty, but especially to its visionary founder, Dr. Don J. Briel. Please join me in praying for Don, honoring him for his pioneering work in Catholic Studies as we and continue to work for the renewal of Catholic education.
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