Pope Francis has captivated audiences of all religions and nationalities across the world since being elected to lead the Catholic Church in 2013, but the pontiff’s six-day, three-city tour of the U.S. late last month was especially inspiring for many Catholics at Marist College.
Although Marist is an independent institution, its Catholic origins are undeniable. The college was established in 1929 by the Marist Brothers, an international community of Catholic priests, and remained affiliated with the Church until 1969 when it was sold to an independent board of trustees. Today, the campus is full of reminders of the college’s Catholic legacy, including the chapel in the center of campus, a grotto and a statue of St. Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist Brothers.
“There is a Catholic presence on campus,” said Dr. Sally Dwyer-McNulty, an associate professor of history at Marist. “For people paying attention, it is stronger, but for others, they might not notice it quite as much.”
Last year, Dwyer-McNulty published “Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism,” and contributed to the documentary film series, “Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia.”
Although she is not a practicing Catholic, she has devoted much of her academic career to studying the cultural significance of Catholicism in American society. Lately, she says it has been especially exciting to witness how her students at Marist have reacted to Pope Francis’ recent visit to the U.S.
“There are so many people that are impressed with [Pope Francis] and admire his approach to religion, to people and to diplomacy,” Dwyer-McNulty said. “I talk to people all the time about it and I mention it in my classes, and students seem to be interested and paying attention. He’s the kind of guy you want to invite to dinner.”
Marist College President Dennis J. Murray echoed Dwyer-McNulty’s analysis.
“I think Pope Francis’s visit has inspired all Americans, including those at Marist, to focus on the needy in our society,” President Murray wrote in an email. “His call to be of service to others is an important part of the Marist mission and I am sure we will all try to be better human beings because of the time he spent with us.”
The Pope’s visit, however, was much more than a source of inspiration for the American Catholic community. It was also a chance for Catholics at Marist to reflect on the role Catholicism has at their college – a role that Father Richard LaMorte says has declined in recent years.
“I don’t think [Catholicism] plays any dominant role currently,” said LaMorte, a priest at Marist. “The college tries to meet the needs of Catholic students as well as students of other faiths. However, given the number of Catholics [at Marist], the college has consistently had a Catholic service on campus. The only other thing I can see on campus is that there are three Marist brothers who live here, including myself. But other than that, there’s nothing specifically Catholic about the school.”
LaMorte holds bi-monthly meetings with a group called Catholic Connections, a campus club of about 35 members that meets to discuss current events and issues related to college students and the Church. He is also one of the four ministers of Campus Ministry, a religious organization at Marist that works “to foster a culture of faith for all people by building and nourishing a community of hospitality, prayer, service and education,” according to the club’s website. LaMorte says Campus Ministry is predominantly Catholic, although non-denominational in nature, and is the largest club on campus with roughly 1,200 members.
Beyond Campus Ministry, LaMorte says roughly 70 percent of the Marist student body self-identify as Catholic. Marist collects this data by administering surveys about the religious preferences of incoming freshmen each year.
Although a majority of Marist students come from Catholic backgrounds, the college has consistently defined itself as independent of the Catholic Church. This was no more evident than in 2003, when Marist invited then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to speak at that year’s commencement ceremony. The Cardinal Newman Society, a Va.-based organization that promotes Catholic education around the country, condemned the invitation because of Spitzer’s pro-choice advocacy.
CNS protested the event and subsequently demanded that the college clarify its status as a Catholic school. The protest prompted the Archdiocese of New York to officially declare that Marist “is no longer a Catholic institution,” thereby allowing Marist to diverge from the teachings of the Catholic Church. Marist also lost the privilege of advertising itself as a Catholic college in various Church-related periodicals, including the Official Catholic Directory.
Since the Spitzer controversy, Dwyer-McNulty says it became clear that Marist had no intention of passing off as a Catholic institution. Even students and parents, she says, stopped viewing Marist as a Catholic college.
“For some people, they are comforted by fact they went to Catholic school or they practice Catholicism, and they are attracted to [Marists’] Catholic origin,” Dwyer-McNulty said. “But, anecdotally, I’ve spoken to parents who, when looking for a Catholic college, they don’t include Marist.”
Much like Marist’s relationship with the Catholic Church, Father LaMorte says that his role as Campus Minister also evolved after the Spitzer protests. He says that he now spends at least a third of his time “working on interfaith projects that will support and identify faiths other than the Catholic faith.”
But as much as Marist proclaims to be independent, the college administration has tried to avoid completely detaching itself from its Catholic origins.
“Although Marist is an independent institution, the values of the Marist Brothers can be seen in our daily work at the college through commitment to academic quality, a sense of community, and service to others,” President Murray wrote. “All these values are very much alive at Marist.”
But it is Murray’s personal take on faith that seems to guide the religious orientation of Marist – an orientation that aims at remaining close to its roots while broadening its appeal to people of all religions and backgrounds.
“I try to live my faith quietly, and it’s not something I wear on my shirtsleeve,” Murray wrote. “I believe the best way to prove one’s faith is by example. How you live your life indicates the type of person you really are.”