Culture, Essays

Christian Education and Residence Life

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I woke up one Friday morning to shouts and pounding at my door. It was just before 6am, and I leapt out of bed and stumbled across my apartment, opening the door to find two frantic women from Building Services. They informed me that a resident had gotten sick and clogged his sink, accidentally leaving the water running for hours: it had flooded his room and the entire hallway outside of it. “I’m not even on duty!” I remember thinking. Welcome to Spring Break 2016.

We Christians have been living in community since the very beginning. The Acts of the Apostles describes the first community of Christian believers, telling us that they “were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Various forms of monasticism arose in the first four centuries, with St. Benedict of Nursia laying down his Rule around 530 AD. Today, we find scattered throughout the globe not only monasteries but parishes, schools, Small Christian Communities (or SCCs), seminaries, ecumenical charismatic communities, convents, and a host of others. In this essay, I would like to reflect on my experience in another type of community that we might not typically associate with the groups mentioned above: an undergraduate men’s residence hall. Over the past three years, I have served as an Assistant Rector in two male residence halls on Notre Dame’s campus: two years in Fisher Hall, home to 183 residents as well as the Fisher Regatta, and one year in Dunne Hall, Notre Dame’s newest men’s hall and home to 221 “Sentinels.” As I prepare to transition into a new role in Residential Life, what follows is an attempt to reflect on the past three years of forming, educating, guiding, and simply sharing life with college-aged young men

Basil Moreau, C.S.C. and the Telos of Christian Education

It is important to first sketch the context in which I engage this work, and the philosophy that informs it. My own approach to residence life ministry has been heavily influenced by the educational philosophy of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the order which founded the University of Notre Dame, and in particular the writings of the Congregation’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C. Moreau lived during a time when his native France was undergoing a spiritual and educational crisis wrought by the French Revolution, and Holy Cross was formed, in large part, to address this crisis. As Moreau directed his fledgling community in this very practical project of rebuilding a dismantled education system, a vision of Christian education in the modern world began to emerge.

Characteristic of Moreau’s vision was a commitment to the sanctification of the youth entrusted to the care of Holy Cross teachers and institutions. This sanctification, not reducible to mere moral formation, consisted of nothing less than the conforming of students to Christ. The goal of all Christian education, for Moreau, can be summarized by Paul’s words to the Galatians: “My children for whom I labor again and again until Christ is within you” (Gal 4:19). In a short work entitled Christian Education, published in 1856, Moreau exhorted Christian educators to “make haste, therefore; take up this work of the resurrection, never forgetting that the particular goal of your institution is, above all, to sanctify youth.”[1]

Thus pedagogy (or education) for Moreau, is the art of “forming youth,” of making of youth “people who are conformed to Jesus Christ, their model.” Moreau writes:

For education—which, according to its etymology can mean to pull out of ignorance or disorder—consists precisely in reforming human nature, tainted by original sin, by giving to reason the light that illuminated it before the fall of our first father, and by giving our hearts proper guidance to our feeling. This notion, founded on the Catholic faith, suffices to give the highest form of pedagogy and to make understood that it is the art of arts.[2]

Sanctification, then, understood as conformity to Christ, is the first goal of a Holy Cross education. This requires teachers who are, first and foremost, faithful—they must buy into the project. Those who do not, Moreau notes, while they “may be able to help students develop intellectually, and though they may pass on some knowledge that is useful in life, the important knowledge that students need—the knowledge that leads them to the totality and completeness of the Christian life—is neglected.”[3] Moreau goes on to write that “such teachers may develop scholars, but they will not develop Christians.”[4]

While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.

In sum, the goal of Christian education in this context is to bring students “to the completeness of the Christian life.” The completeness of the Christian life is to love, imitate, and thereby become another Christ. Thus Moreau can say that the first end of Christian education is to “make of youth people who are conformed to Jesus Christ.”[5] Teachers who succeed in this will “shine like the stars of the heavens for all eternity” (Dn 12:3). This is also why liturgical spirituality is so important for Moreau, as the end of Christian education and the end of liturgical asceticism is one and the same: sharing in the life of God. Liturgical prayer, for Moreau, “provided the most important way to contemplate and conform one’s life to Christ’s Incarnation and the paschal mystery.”[6] For this reason Moreau devotes considerable space to underscoring the importance of formation in liturgy, catechism, prayer, the regular reception of the sacraments, and even sacred music.[7]

But while sanctification is indeed the first and most important end of Christian education, according to Moreau, it is not the only goal, as “faith without knowledge makes a teacher useless and compromises the honor of the teacher’s mission.”[8] As Moreau put it in an 1849 Circular Letter:

Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No, we wish to accept science without prejudice and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know. To this end, we shall shrink from no sacrifice.[9]

The goal of forming citizens for heaven, then, is one that is always held in tension with the formation of citizens for earth. For Moreau goes on to say:

But we shall never forget that virtue, as Bacon puts it, is the spice which preserves science. We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart. While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.[10]

This, in broad strokes, is the ideal of Christian education as articulated by Basil Moreau. It holds together faithfulness coupled with knowledge, sanctification with instruction. In short, it is an education of the mind and heart.

Residence Life & the Art of Forming Youth

Much of this formation takes place in the classroom, and the classroom is perhaps best understood as the proper arena for the playing out of a university’s vocation. But the kind of instruction Moreau calls for cannot be contained to the classroom alone. Residence life thus plays an indispensable role in the project of Christian education, as it is in the residence hall where a great deal of life happens: it is the furnace where hearts are forged.

Students participate in the Fisher Regatta. Photo: Barbara Johnston.

But how does one go about educating a heart? It begins with building community, with acknowledging that a residence hall is more than just a place to live. Within the framework of a Holy Cross education, residence halls are called to become this “something more.” It is a difficult task, but we are called “to strive to abide so attentively together that people will observe: ‘See how they love one another.’ We will then be a sign in an alienated world: men who have, for love of their Lord, become closest neighbors, trustworthy friends, brothers.”[11] As members of Hall Staff, our goal is to build communities that are “signs in an alienated world,” where we love the God whom we cannot see by loving the brothers (and sisters) whom we can see. We also work to assist students in recognizing and developing their own gifts and to discover the “deepest longing in their lives.”[12] In the process of undertaking such a project, hearts are formed.

But this work brings with it many difficulties. The Constitutions, or rule of life, for the Congregation of Holy Cross speak to this reality:

As men who share their lives in community, we come to know one another closely. Faults and shortcomings will make us each a trial to others from time to time. Differences of opinion, misunderstanding and resentment can and occasionally will unravel the peace in our community. Thus it is part of our lives to extend brotherly correction and apology to one another and in frank yet discreet ways to reconcile. Our very failures can then be transformed by God’s grace into closer comradeship.[13]

This offers a very honest window into the reality of forming hearts through community. Residence halls, like any community, are constant sites of misunderstanding and apology, failure and transformation. This constant interplay between failure and transformation, whether it be resolving conflicts between roommates or helping a young man grow from a conduct incident, is where formation happens—it is where hearts are formed. 

Evangelizing a Residence Hall

In light of this introduction to Moreau’s vision of Christian education, let me now offer some brief observations regarding the evangelization and formation of young adults, based on my experience working with college-aged males.

Yearning for Relationship in a Modern World

Image courtesy of the author

Relationships are complicated, made all the more so by particular challenges faced by students trying to build and navigate relationships in a world of technology and instant gratification. One of the challenges this presents is the temptation to be constantly ‘plugged in,’ to allow different forms of technology to pervade and influence our relationships. Too often, merely sharing space in front of a computer or TV screen passes for human interaction and relationship. Computers, Netflix, and video games, though they can be opportunities for spending time together, can act as impediments to fostering genuine relationships by making it possible for young men to spend hours together without ever speaking a word or having a meaningful interaction.

Many of the men whom I have worked with express a desire for marriage and fatherhood, but have never been formed in how to actually engage the kind of discernment that leads to life-giving, deep, and spiritually fruitful relationships.

This also spills over into dating relationships, as the deep desire young people have to love and be loved is often numbed not only by alcohol but also by popular apps such as Tinder. This allows users to engage in no-strings-attached hookups, and to have the façade of a relationship without the substance or commitment. This perpetuates a culture of ‘hooking up’ and hinders authentic marital discernment. Many of the men whom I have worked with express a desire for marriage and fatherhood, but have never been formed in how to actually engage the kind of discernment that leads to life-giving, deep, and spiritually fruitful relationships. I could certainly think of many counter-examples to this observation, even just based on the few years I have spent living with college-aged males. Nevertheless, this presents a significant area that needs to be evangelized by those working in residence life.

Thus, a challenge (or perhaps more appropriately, opportunity) posed to residence life ministers is to find creative ways to offer an alternative vision of community: one that calls residents to a deeper understanding of relationship. 

Spiritual and Liturgical Formation

As noted above, the goal of Christian education is to bring students “to the completeness of the Christian life.” Spiritual and liturgical formation, therefore, forms an integral part of residence hall ministry. This is challenging for a number of reasons. First, many young men entering college have had little religious, spiritual, or catechetical formation beyond high school religion classes (in some cases). Others embrace moral therapeutic deism, or place an emphasis on social justice and practical acts of spirituality while overlooking the need for contemplation, private prayer, personal relationship with God, and liturgy. At the same time, however, there also seems to be a hunger among many of the men for more ‘traditional’ forms of prayer like Eucharistic Adoration and the Liturgy of the Hours.

A Ministry of Accompaniment

Above all, the characteristic posture of residence hall evangelization is one of accompaniment. This is what young men and women entering the collegiate world desire from their Hall Staff, and it is the model of evangelization to which we are called. This means that our chief concern is building a community of love. As Pope Francis put it:

The Lord’s missionary mandate includes a call to growth in faith: “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Hence it is clear that the first proclamation also calls for ongoing formation and maturation. Evangelization aims at a process of growth which entails taking seriously each person and God’s plan for his or her life. . . . It would not be right to see this call to growth exclusively or primarily in terms of doctrinal formation. It has to do with ‘observing’ all that the Lord has shown us as the way of responding to his love. Along with the virtues, this means above all the new commandment, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). (Evangelii Gaudium, §§160–161)

This formation for love is the first task of the residence hall minister, for “the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the whole law . . . therefore love of neighbor is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8, 10, emphasis added). Moreover, this formation for love happens by means of accompaniment. While evangelization is a fundamental duty of any Christian, the command to evangelize necessitates first and foremost a spirit of personal accompaniment in the trials, difficulties, and turmoil that students will face during their time on campus. Here, again, Pope Francis is worth quoting in full:

In a culture paradoxically suffering from anonymity and at the same time obsessed with the details of other people’s lives, shamelessly given over to morbid curiosity, the Church must look more closely and sympathetically at others whenever necessary. In our world, ordained ministers and other pastoral workers can make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze. The Church will have to initiate everyone . . . into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates, and encourages growth in the Christian life. (EG §169)

This accompaniment, which makes present “the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze,” is at the heart of evangelization. We have a model in this accompaniment: the Blessed Virgin Mary, who shows us the “revolutionary nature of love and tenderness” (EG §288). For, as Pope Francis writes,

On the cross, when Jesus endured in his own flesh the dramatic encounter of the sin of the world and God’s mercy, he could feel at his feet the consoling presence of his mother and his friend. (EG §285)

The resident who finds him- or herself in the midst of a crisis does not first need catechesis but accompaniment.

By adopting this Marian posture of accompaniment, those engaged in residence hall ministry have the unique opportunity to become a similar “consoling presence” to those in their communities. It is important to note, however, that personal accompaniment is not the same as unequivocal affirmation or therapy, as spiritual accompaniment must, in the end, lead others ever closer to God. If accompaniment is reduced to therapy, then those we are accompanying “cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere” (EG §170).

Students pray in Fisher Hall Chapel. Photo: Matt Cashore.

This evangelization also means putting aside eagerness in order “to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way” (EG §170). Francis describes this model of accompaniment as “touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others” (EG §24). Evangelizers “take on the ‘smell of the sheep,” as Francis likes to say, because they are willing to embrace and walk with their sheep. This accompaniment is not only the starting point for further growth and formation, but in a way, it is also the very heart of evangelization itself. The resident who finds him- or herself in the midst of a crisis does not first need catechesis but accompaniment. Perhaps through a minister’s willingness to accompany those entrusted to his or her care, students will catch a whiff of the fragrance of the Good Shepherd and be attracted to the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty), which in turn will lead them deeper into true freedom and the intimate life of the Church. 

It Has to Be a Vocation

Although it is full of joys and laughter, working in residence life is not easy. It requires zeal, humility, a certain light-heartedness, and a great deal of patience. For this reason Moreau lists “vocation” as the first quality that every teacher must have, followed by faithfulness, knowledge, zeal, vigilance, seriousness, gentleness, patience, prudence, and firmness. Moreau writes:

Since God alone provides the means for the successful accomplishment of any task, it seems evident that a person needs to be called by God to be an effective teacher. Without this call to teaching, how will anyone be able to put up with everything that teachers face daily?[14]

So, too, do those working in residence life need to be called to their roles, and must ultimately be animated by a burning desire to bring students to “the completeness of the Christian life” and “to make God known, loved, and served, and thus to bring knowledge of salvation” to those we serve.[15] This means that residence life at a Catholic university must be a ministry, and not just employment.[16] Only then can we say, along with the Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross, that:

Our mission is the Lord’s and so is the strength for it. We turn to him in prayer that he will clasp us more firmly to himself and use our hands and wits to do the work that only he can do. Then our work itself becomes a prayer: a service that speaks to the Lord who works through us.[17]

Featured Photo: Fisher Hall, Matt Cashore.

[1] Kevin Grove, C.S.C. and Andrew Gawrych, C.S.C., eds., Basil Moreau: Essential Writings (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2014), 376.

[2] Ibid., 333.

[3] Ibid., 335–336.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 333.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Cf. ibid., 361–376.

[8] Ibid., 336.

[9] Ibid., 417.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Basil Moreau, C.S.C., Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross, 4.42.

[12] Ibid., 2.16.

[13] Ibid., 4.41.

[14] Grove and Gawrych, eds., Basil Moreau: Essential Writings, 334.

[15] Ibid., 336, 337.

[16] Cf. Moreau, Constitutions, 4.33.

[17] Ibid., 2.20.

Anthony J. Oleck

Anthony Oleck holds a Master of Theological Studies ('16) from the University of Notre Dame and is the full-time Assistant Rector of Dunne Hall.