A Catholic University at the End of the World

All roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world. – G. K. Chesterton

These words, with which Chesterton concludes his book on Charles Dickens, have always been favorites of mine. They evoke a trysting place, an oasis of spiritual refreshment after a life of toil in this land of exile, this vale of tears. They suggest a celestial inn where we will feel at home because God is the Landlord. They resonate with the words of Aquinas’ hymn, O salutaris Hostia, which ends with a prayer that encapsulates the great desire of all Christians: Qui vitam sine termino / Donet nobis in patria. (O grant us endless length of days / In our true native land with Thee.) We seem to know that Chesterton’s tavern is not at the end of the world but beyond the end of the world, beyond our exile and our tears, in that one true native land where all are eternally at home.

I have never been to Chesterton’s tavern at the end of the world, except in my imagination and my dreams, but I have recently returned from the university at the end of the world, and not merely figuratively but literally. On March 22, I gave the keynote address at the inauguration ceremony for the new academic year at la Universidad Finis Terrae, a Catholic university of more than 7,000 undergraduate students and around 1,500 graduate students in Santiago in Chile.

Why, I asked my Chilean hosts, would a Catholic university be called the University at the End of the World, or the University at the World’s End? Was it some apocalyptic allusion, or something more prosaic and worldly? It was the latter, I was told. The University is named after the place in which it is situated, Santiago in Chile being dubbed “finis terrae” because it was at the uttermost and outermost extreme of the known world when European explorers first travelled there. One could go no further. It was indeed the end of the world, or, at any rate, the end of the earth.

This latest trip was not my first to Santiago. I have returned on several occasions and have a relatively clear idea of the situation with regard to Catholic education in the city. Prior to 1981, when private colleges and universities were first legalized, the only non-state university in the city, and presumably the whole country, was the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Founded in 1888 and still by far the largest Catholic university in the country, Catholic University is Chile’s equivalent of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., at least in theory. In practice, it more resembles Georgetown, in the sense that it has lost its way spiritually, preferring to model itself on its secular peers than on its original mission. It is for this reason that the new generation of independent Catholic universities are so important.

In the past, I have served as a visiting professor at Universidad Gabriela Mistral (UGM), teaching intensive courses on British Literature. UGM was among the first wave of independent colleges, founded in 1981, and has, I believe, a couple of thousand students. This was, however, my first invitation to Universidad Finis Terrae (UFT), which is UGM’s neighbor, not only in terms of theology but in terms of physical location, the two campuses being only a few blocks apart in the Providencia district of the city.

UFT was founded in 1988 and is therefore celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It began as a secular institution but is now solidly Catholic, at least in terms of the administration. Although it might be said to be somewhat schizophrenic in its academic structure and offerings, reflecting simultaneously both its original secular character and its new Catholic mission, the overall and overarching trend is nonetheless and unmistakably in the right direction.

My own keynote address, which focused on the good, true, and beautiful as being foundational to authentic education, reflected UFT’s own mission statement. Indeed, having had dinner and discussion with the senior administration, including the president and his vice-presidents, I have no doubt that they reflect in their own mission goals for UFT the educational vision of The Cardinal Newman Society.

Another interesting fact about my visit, and one which is encouraging for the future of Catholic education in Chile, is that the new Chilean Minister for Education Gerardo Varela was present as a guest of honor, making a brief speech which immediately preceded my own. A friend who was seated beside Mr. Varelo while I was giving my talk told me that he postponed his plans to leave early for another engagement, preferring to listen to what I had to say and even making copious notes! Dare we hope that my defense of an integrated approach to the humanities might become part of the new government’s education policy? Either way, I returned home reinvigorated by my latest encounter with authentic Catholic education in South America, and, in particular, by my engagement with the university at the end of the world.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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