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Mary on the Prairie

By Timothy George


The city of Bismarck was founded in 1872 in what was then the Dakota Territory, at a bend in the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark had stopped on their famous expedition to the West. Bismarck was chosen as the city’s name after the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck in hopes of luring German settlers and German investments to a part of the world far removed from the Rhineland. And the settlers came, Germans and others, attracted in part by a gold rush in the Black Hills not far away.

On March 21, 1878, The Bismarck Tribune carried this short notice on the front page: “Five Sisters arrived here Tuesday morning to take charge of the new Catholic School.” Such were the humble beginnings of what is today the University of Mary, a thriving institution of Catholic higher education on the windswept prairies of North Dakota. When I visited the campus earlier this fall, I found a robust student body of some 3,300 and a school where piety and intellect, prayer and public policy seem to belong naturally together.

Rather than running away from its heritage or speaking in sheepish terms about its Catholic identity, the University of Mary seeks to be “faithfully Christian, joyfully Catholic, and gratefully Benedictine.” The University of Mary is led today by Monsignor James Shea, a diocesan priest and son of North Dakota. When he assumed his present post in 2009, Shea was thirty-four years old, the youngest university president in America. He has said: “We sense a call to greatness that transcends our own place and time because we find ourselves not so much in an age of change, but in a change of age. The stakes are high. But what an opportunity for a university founded on the timeless principles which have always guided the human quest for lasting joy and happiness!”

Ever since the promulgation in 1990 of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the relationship of American Catholic colleges and universities to the Catholic Church has been a matter of concern to many academics. The issues which led to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, though, had been long brewing in Catholic higher education. Already in 1967, the distinguished scholar Philip Gleason had asked these questions:

In what sense is a university Catholic if it is composed predominantly of lay professionals who employ, in their teaching and research, the same methods and norms as their counterparts in secular universities, and who are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge in autonomous spheres that are in no way dependent upon the overall ‘Catholic position’? What, in short, is the reason for being of the Catholic college or university?

From my own Protestant perspective the issue is not so much what percentage of the faculty is laity or clergy but rather which values, norms, and presuppositions shape their teaching and work. About such matters there is room for concern not only among Catholic institutions but across the entire spectrum of Christian higher education within all confessional traditions.

Although most Catholic colleges and universities were founded by religious orders, in many places that relationship has grown distant and detached. At the University of Mary, however, the Benedictine Sisters continue to live in their own monastery in the midst of the campus. They regularly pray the liturgy of the hours and welcome students of the university to their services. From the beginning of their time in Bismarck, the nuns have provided healthcare as well as education to the children of immigrants and all others in need. In 1885, they founded the first hospital between St. Paul and Seattle where they cared for Missouri River boatmen at ninety cents a day. This legacy is still reflected at the university in the strong nursing program and other healthcare disciplines.

As we have seen through the imposition of the HHS Mandate and other controversial initiatives, the assault on pre-born human life often proceeds under the guise of providing “better” medical services. Thus I was encouraged to find at the University of Mary a thriving chapter of “Collegians for Life.” Their purpose is to promote “the sanctity of human life in all stages of development . . . and to protect those most vulnerable among us, namely, the unborn, the sick and the elderly.” The proposed North Dakota constitutional amendment protecting human life has received national attention. Students at the university were made aware of the unfolding political process and the public policy implications of this issue. 

Chapter 33 of the Rule of Benedict admonishes, “Give yourself frequently to prayer.” While visiting the university, I attended a Sunday evening Mass in a beautiful chapel packed with hundreds of students. The liturgy was decorous, the students were reverent (and well dressed!). The homily was based on solid biblical exposition. About 50 percent of the students at the university are Roman Catholics, and 50 percent are evangelicals and Protestants of various sorts. Without diminishing the robust Catholic character of the institution, the university extends a generous hospitality—a great Benedictine virtue—to members of the community who are not Catholics. Recently an ordained Baptist minister has been hired to work with evangelical students and contribute to the ecumenical witness of the entire campus. This approach is in keeping with the Lund Principle, which affirms that Christians should act together in all aspects of their common life in Christ—except where important differences of conscience and conviction prevent them from doing so.

But there was something slightly disconcerting about my visit to the University of Mary. Its mascot is a marauder, which the dictionary defines as a plunderer, pillager, looter, robber, bandit. The athletic teams of the university are known as Mary’s Marauders. There seemed to be a dissonance between this image and the portrayal of gentle Mary meek and mild.

Monsignor Shea, however, defended this term with alacrity. First, he said, the term had sufficient ferocity built into it and thus needed no embellishment, as is sometimes the case with mascots, for example, the “bellicose” blue jays or the “killer” kangaroos. Further, he alleged, there was no concern about being politically incorrect or giving undue offense. (Several years ago Wheaton College changed its mascot from a crusader to thunder.)

Well and good, but it occurred to me that there might be yet another reason why Mary’s Marauders is worth keeping. In medieval times, Mary was sometimes depicted as a warrior—a celestial Joan of Arc figure—who led the Church in battle against Satan and his pomp. Admittedly, that’s a different image of Mary than that of a young mother tending the babe of Bethlehem on a silent night. But for a university that seeks to be both hospitable and thickly Catholic in a culture where doing both is increasingly difficult, perhaps it is a good thing to be reminded—even on the sports field—that Christians today, like the first monks of the early church, are called to be both “athletes of God” and the “militia of Christ.” St. Paul admonishes us to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11). Mary’s Marauders may just fit the bill.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave a talk at the University of Mary not long ago. I resonate with what he said on that occasion. “We—the rest of the country, the rest of the world—are watching you, because you represent something fresh and daring. You represent something exciting and promising, and we are watching. And we like what we see. Terrific things are happening at Mary!”

Published at First Things, 10.6.14

Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.