On a Mission From God

Antique view of Rome, Italy, with the Vatican and the San Angelo castle. Engraving by Giovanni Barberi, published in the book Veduti di Roma (1809).


When the University of San Diego celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2024, it hopes to do so as the institution that “set the standard for an engaged, contemporary Catholic university where innovative Changemakers confront humanity’s urgent challenges.”

That sentiment, from Envisioning 2024, the strategic plan for the University of San Diego, is for most in the campus community an aspirational goal. For Jeffrey Burns, PhD, it’s a to-do list.

Burns heads the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture (CCTC), the intellectual engine that drives USD to answer just what that lofty goal entails. Founded in 2008, the CCTC works to explore the connection between USD’s Catholic identity and its academic mission.

“Pope Francis encourages us to encounter with Jesus and Catholicism, not just hear it,” Burns explains. “Catholic tradition is not just about who we are; it is about who we will become.”

Deserved or not, Burns says that the church had acquired a reputation for being an austere, even somber institution; an echo chamber of thou shalt not. He says one of the most fundamental elements of the CCTC is promoting an understanding that, while rooted in tradition, the Catholic Church is vibrant and relevant for people today.

“We want to remind people of the joy of the Gospel,” he says, that joy easily detected in his voice. “This tradition, this faith, this way of living is perfectly suited to address today’s challenges.”

The CCTC engages the spiritual and intellectual life of campus community with a variety of activities. “Lessons and Carols” combines biblical readings and traditional music performed by USD’s Choral Scholars and has become a cherished campus tradition. The Switgall Lecture series is the anchor of on-campus presentations from leading Catholic scholars. Off campus — far off campus — during the center’s annual Faculty Travel Immersion seminars, faculty of every faith tradition engage in an exploration of issues affecting the church.

The faculty dimension, Burns says, is especially crucial.

“We talk about ‘Catholic education,’ and that really begins with the people doing the teaching,” he says. “Not all of our faculty are Catholic — in fact, most aren’t. But we think it’s crucial they have an understanding of what we’re about and how USD is different from other universities.”

The immersion trips have taken faculty members to Rome and Assisi to explore “Catholic Peacemaking and Diplomacy in a Time of Endless War,” and to Ireland to examine “Celtic Christianity in the Land of Saints and Scholars.” This year’s excursion took faculty to Guatemala and El Salvador to examine “Catholic Social Teaching Along the Trail of Martyrs.” In 2018, a trip to get a deeper understanding of art, architecture, engineering and politics in the Holy Land is planned.

New Faculty Catholic Identity seminars are designed to help those new to the USD community get a handle on some basic questions, including what it truly means to be a Catholic university. Burns says those sessions can be especially rewarding.

“We get a lot of questions about academic freedom,” Burns says with a smile. “Some people have their guard up, but those guards come down pretty quickly. We’re not telling anyone what to teach or how to teach it. We try to orient them to the culture they are joining, and have them feel welcomed.”

“Some come here with questions about how ‘Catholic’ they need to be in their teaching,” Burns says. “We do our best to make it clear that you absolutely do not need to be Catholic to teach here, but our academic tradition is based on the Catholic faith, so a thorough understanding of what that means is essential.”

Catholic social thought in contemporary issues is also examined through a historical lens. As immigration continues to be a contentious issue nationwide, the CCTC leaned into the roots of the immigration rights movement spearheaded by Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded what is now the United Farm Workers union.

The center launched “Cesar Chavez and Voices from the Farmworkers’ Movement,” a speaker series held in conjunction with “Cesar Chavez and Catholicism,” an Honors course team-taught by Burns and Ethnic Studies Professor Alberto Pulido. Exploring the roots of the farmworkers’ rights movement easily led to consideration of the most recent iteration of hot-button issues.

“Our purpose isn’t primarily political,” Burns says. “We don’t focus all that much on this policy or that one; the only judgements we’re making is how Chavez’s work manifested his Catholic principles. If, in the process of that examination, students gain Catholic insight into issues that are in today’s headlines, that’s a good thing.

The CCTC works hard, he adds, to present as many dimensions of those issues as possible, so that students can develop informed opinions. Burns pointed to this fall’s “The Church Moves Toward Nonviolence? Just Peace, Just War in Dialogue” as an example. The conference features Cardinal Peter Turkson, Bishop Robert McElroy and Marie Dennis of Pax Christi International to discuss the church’s stance on nonviolence, and representatives of the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy and West Point will discuss — from opposite poles — war and peace in the contemporary world.

Burns earned his doctorate at Notre Dame and came to USD after more than 30 years as the archivist of the San Francisco Archdiocese. In his Serra Hall office, he ticks off the myriad ways the center works to connect USD’s Catholic mission and academic goals. He stops himself.

“In the end, everything we do is created to answer this: Where do we see God’s work in the world, and what can we do to be a part of it and support it?” — Timothy McKernan

Learn more about the CCTC.

Image credit: Antique view of Rome, Italy, with the Vatican and the San Angelo castle. Engraving by Giovanni Barberi, published in the book Veduti di Roma (1809). Photo by N. Staykov (2007).

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