by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One worry many parents have is that the child they send to college in August will return home a shiny, new atheist by Thanksgiving.
Time spent at a college or university is a critical time for a young person, said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, new president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas.
“I always tell people that between age 18 and 25, most young men and women have to go from a faith they inherited to a faith they own as their own,” said Msgr. Swetland.
“They also discern, usually, the beginning of a vocation — what God’s calling them to do,” he continued. “And, of course, they often make their most significant friendships and maybe [meet] their spouse.”
Msgr. Swetland knows what he’s talking about. He has experienced it personally.
He left his devout Protestant home in rural Pennsylvania as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and entered a very different world at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Getting the cold shoulder at a “peace church” in town led him to put religion in the deep freeze during his academy days.
The big chill ended at Oxford University in England in 1981, where he had gone to study on a Rhodes scholarship. The food there was not so great, so he and a group of other students — most of them Catholic — formed a supper club.
“I was fortunate enough to run into some very good Catholic students who evangelized me and set good witness for me when I was searching for answers to faith at Oxford,” said Msgr. Swetland.
They had peace and joy — two things he didn’t have, which he wanted. And he wanted, like his supper club friends, to live a life where faith and reason were integrated.
“I was studying what a lot of religions and philosophies believed and taught, and I was trying to figure out what was true,” he said. “I was truly searching and searching, at first, very broadly.”
He began to narrow his search down to Catholicism, but couldn’t quite make the jump.
What sealed the deal was something his supper club friend, Dermot Quinn, said.
“[He said], ‘You could spend your whole life searching everything the Catholic Church teaches and you might at the end of the day end up agreeing with it all, but that wouldn’t make you Catholic,’” said Msgr. Swetland.
To be Catholic means that one believes that the church is what it says it is — the church founded by Jesus Christ, Quinn told him. If a person believes that, they’ve got to become Catholic. If they don’t believe it, it doesn’t matter if they agree with everything the church teaches, because they don’t have that Catholic spirit.
Msgr. Swetland became a Catholic at the Thomas More Chapel at Oxford, and he chose Thomas More as his confirmation name. Soon after, he returned to active service in the Navy.
It was while serving in the Navy that he had his “most Catholic” post-conversion experience.
His ship had been at sea for two months and, consequently, he couldn’t go to Mass. Finally, the ship docked in Oslo, Norway, and he learned about a late Sunday evening Mass at St. Olaf Parish.
“When I got there, there was a very large group of people from Vietnam praying in Vietnamese,” said Msgr. Swetland. “So we had a Danish priest in Norway, celebrating the Mass in English, with 90 percent of the congregation from Vietnam. I said, ‘This is Catholicism — this is the Catholic Church writ large.’ It was stunning and beautiful.”
He resigned his naval commission in the fall of 1987 and entered the seminary.
The arc of Msgr. Swetland’s life has carried him now from his days as a Newman Center convert to his current position as president of Donnelly College.
So why Donnelly?
“Catholics don’t have jobs, they have vocations,” he said. “Where we work is part of our vocation. For myself, I was trying to discern what God wanted me to do next in my life.”
He was very taken by the call of Pope Francis to participate in the new evangelization and be attentive to those who might be underserved or left out by the current socioeconomic system.
“I’ve been involved in the apostolate of Catholic higher education for the last decade, so it all came together at Donnelly,” said Msgr. Swetland.
“If Donnelly didn’t exist we’d have to build it,” he continued, “and this is the kind of place Pope Francis had in mind. When every other college and university or institution left this neighborhood, we stayed.”
One thing that impressed him about Donnelly was its sense of mission.
“It’s exciting to come on board a place that is so mission-driven,” said Msgr. Swetland. “The one thing that popped out at me when I interviewed here at Donnelly was how everybody was on mission, and how the archdiocese was supporting this place.”
One member of Donnelly’s presidential search committee was impressed by Msgr. Swetland’s commitment to Catholic identity.
“Monsignor [Swetland] has expressed a desire for Donnelly to be known not only as a college of excellence and opportunity, but also as a Catholic campus for our community,” said Daniel J. Haake, with Hutchins & Haake, LLC, Certified Public Accountants in Kansas City, Kansas.
“Allowing our institution to become a Catholic center for Kansas City is a unique and needed mission in Kansas City.”
And it was the Msgr. Swetland’s expertise in education and in faith that impressed archdiocesan superintendent Kathy O’Hara.
“What Msgr. Swetland brought to the interview process — and he brings now to the position — is the depth and breadth of experience in matters of both education and faith,” she said.
O’Hara liked what he said during an informal board presentation.
“His thoughtfulness, ability to assess a variety of circumstances and determine a course of action, to weave the foundations of our Catholic faith into all he says and does, and his sensitivity to the pace of any change, were demonstrated in his remarks,” said O’Hara.
Msgr. Swetland wants to perpetuate the mission and vision of Donnelly and make it more widely known.
“Donnelly was started as a two-year college, but it’s now a four-year college,” he said. “I don’t think that’s as well known as it should be. So I do want to get the good news about Donnelly out farther and wider.”
“We want everyone to know that one can get his or her bachelor’s degree here very reasonably and conveniently,” he continued. “We also want them to have faith and reason integrated into their experience. Here, we’re proudly Catholic, and we want to present that Catholic intellectual tradition because we think it provides that unifying focus and vision.”
Donnelly in a nutshell, he said, “is education that works and values that last.”