Educators find a friend in the professor-made-pope
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s always nice to get a thumbs up from the boss — especially when your boss is Pope Benedict XVI.
So when on April 17, the pope praised Catholic educators in an address to more than 400 Catholic college presidents and superintendents at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., his audience couldn’t have been happier.
“It was just a tremendous shot in the arm,” said Kathy O’Hara, superintendent of archdiocesan schools. “He was so affirming of the importance of Catholic schools, and he praised the church in America for being so committed to Catholic schools and the teaching ministry of the church.”
Stephen Minnis, president of Benedictine College, said the pope told the educators what they needed to hear.
“I think [his address] was right on,” said Minnis. “He thinks that we have a duty to bring our students closer to Christ, and that students are provided with additional freedoms for that at schools like ours.
“I appreciated the fact,” he continued, “that he has a strong belief in academic freedom, but he also recognizes that in the end you want to foster your Catholic identity, and you don’t want to use academic freedom . . . to do things contrary to the church’s teachings.”
O’Hara was struck by the pope’s soft voice, his spiffy red shoes, and his vibrant walk.
“What struck me immediately [when he entered] was how healthy and vibrant he looked, how spry,” she said. “He walked up the steps with absolutely no assistance — was almost springy.”
For Minnis, the papal address had a quality of déjà vu. His first close encounter of the papal kind occurred almost 29 years ago, when as a Benedictine College sophomore he rode an uncomfortable school bus up to Iowa to see the church’s new pontiff, Pope John Paul II.
Minnis and O’Hara were seated very close to the pope, in the second and third rows, and shoulder to shoulder with presidents from such heavyweights as Seton Hall, Notre Dame, and Regis.
Although for security reasons, the educators were seated before the pope arrived and had to remain in their assigned seats, large-screen televisions gave the educators an opportunity to see the pope’s arrival and departure.
Minnis had an opportunity to see Pope Benedict at the White House arrival ceremony and the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast as well. Still, he was thrilled to see the pope at a third venue. For many media types, the pope was not what they expected.
“Before every speech, before every visit, the press always expects him to be harsh or judgmental, or shaking his finger at people, and it didn’t happen,” said Minnis. “This is a pope that preaches love and hope, and hope doesn’t disappoint. . . . He’s surprised a lot of people in a good way with his message of love and hope.”