2017 Fall Conference Overview

Two weekends ago, representatives from the six Network schools met for the second bi-annual Catholic Council Network conference hosted by the University of Dallas. 

The conference began with presentations that gave an overview of each school and explained the structure, strengths, weaknesses, and goals of their student government organization. This was helpful because it allowed the different councils to compare how they manage projects and challenged all to look for ways to improve the efficiency of their operations. On Saturday morning, the first keynote address was given by UD chaplain, Fr. Thomas More. Fittingly, the talk was on the role of leadership and the importance of accountability in maintaining a vibrant Catholic identity on campus. Father Thomas More’s talk was followed by a lecture given by UD professor of politics, Dr. David Burns. This talk focused on one of the Network’s three key pillars: solidarity. Dr. Burns explored what it means to live in solidarity as a Christian, particularly in our state of life as students. The series of talks concluded with a panel of SGA members from different schools discussing their experience as a part of student government and advice for younger members of SGA. 

All in all, the weekend provided an opportunity for the different councils to attend leadership seminars, deepen relationships, pray together, discuss campus issues, and collaborate to find solutions to the problems they face- and have fun in the process.

Leadership, Accountability and Catholic Identity: Fr. Thomas More

What is the relationship between leadership, accountability, and Catholic identity? 

Father Thomas More took on this question in the first keynote lecture of the fall 2017 Network conference. Father began his talk by discussing the difference between private and public persons. Private persons, such as the general student body, speak and represent themselves alone whereas public persons such as members of student government, represent not only themselves, but also their peers, organization, and school. 

As public persons, our thoughts and actions are more visible and therefore more open to criticism than those of other students. As leaders, we have a greater influence on others and use this to inspire others to rise to the same standard or encourage them to do the opposite. With great power comes great responsibility - the responsibility to use the opportunity we’re presented in a leadership position for the good.  Therefore, it is important that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than if we were just representing ourselves.

This leadership by example applies also to the Christian life. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth…are the saints and the beauty that the faith has generated.” As we strive to be living saints, our good example creates a powerful witness to the value of a life grounded in Christ and his teachings.

The life of Saint Thomas More exemplifies this idea. Saint Thomas More might be best known for his instructive writings, but his writings gained a certain weight because they were the same beliefs expressed through his actions. Thomas More spoke first with his actions, and secondly with his words. When we live a life that witnesses to the teachings of Christ, we show that not only do we take our beliefs seriously, but that our beliefs are worth living out. 

We have a lot of responsibility as leaders and recognize that this role takes on additional significance as Christians. We also know that we aren’t perfect. This is where the need for accountability comes in. As humans suffering the effects of original sin, it is only too apparent that we will stray from the straight and narrow at some point. That’s why it’s important to recognize that we need a community of friends and peers that can encourage us, support us, and hold us accountable for our actions as we make our way through life’s journey. 

As members of the Network, we strive to be this community for each other. It is only in realizing our role as Christian leaders on our campus and having a community to hold us accountable that we can embody the Catholic spirit that makes our schools great. 


Q&A with Fr. Thomas More

What are the characteristics of a person we should ask feedback from?

Find someone who disagrees with you. It is essential for a good leader to seek out different perspectives in order to see things in a different light. Also, look to people of strong character who will offer wise and well-balanced advice.   

How can we as students remain virtuous in a world seemingly devoid of it? 

Examine your convictions - read books, discuss ideas, and be around people who disagree with your beliefs so that you are challenged to think more critically about them. At the same time, it is extremely important to find those who you do agree with and be part of a community that supports each other when others tear you down. 

Underage drinking is often times in our culture and on our campuses. What can we do to address this? 

See this as a challenge to put on an event that’s more fun and enjoyable than the alternative. Don’t be afraid to have a social event that competes timing-wise with these parties. Don’t underestimate the power of community - do what they do, but better.

Sometimes administrators and faculty have a hard time seeing the goodness in the students. What can we do about this? 

It is unfortunate when administrators and faculty lose faith in the good intentions of the students. The best way to combat this is to remind ourselves that at the end of the day, we all desire to do good. It is easy to criticize and often hard to presume the good intention of the other. Both attitudes become show forth in our actions. When we presume the good intentions of the other we are able to have more respectful and fruitful interactions with the other. Even if this effort is not acknowledged, we should not be discouraged and must remind ourselves that we can only control our own actions and not those of others.

Solidarity while in College: Dr. Daniel Burns

Dr. Daniel Burns, assistant professor of politics at UD, gave the second keynote address of the fall conference. Dr. Burns discussed the concept of ‘solidarity,’ a relatively new term for an age old concept: helping the poor. Dr. Burns spoke on finding the balance between ministering to the poor and maintaining academic performance during college. 

It can be a struggle to live out solidarity as a student. It can often seem that the best opportunities to live out solidarity come later in life. We might want to help with the mental needs of the poor, but not have the life experience yet to be able to offer sound counsel. Maybe we want to be political activists that advocate for better care for the poor, but don’t yet have the political background or ability to implement changes. We might want to help with the logistical side of organizations that help the poor, but would be more valuable later in life with more business expertise. As students, we have certain limitations, such as balancing academics and service, that we will not have later on in life. So how can we live out the Christian idea of ‘solidarity’ in our state in life as students? Burns stressed the importance of long-term thinking to help the poor. Dr. Burns suggested that we hit the books and make the most of our education so that we can use these formative years to create a strong foundation for service later in life. 

Dr. Burns also discussed a form of poverty we probably encounter more often in daily interactions: spiritual poverty. The effects of spiritual poverty are felt sharply on our campuses as we see peers struggle with drugs, depression, loneliness, anxiety, and addictions. 

In a culture that pushes the vice of thoughtlessness, it is easy to see how these symptoms can creep into our lives. Living in solidarity with one another, sharing the fraternal love of Christ with those who are starving for human connection, is the first step to healing the disease of spiritual poverty that has become rampant in the world. 


Q&A with Dr. Daniel Burns

For those of us planning to go into a corporate work environment and putting our focus on those we can help in the long-run, should we seek to help everyday people or people on the street?

There’s no one size fit all answer to this question. Each of us has a unique set of talents and we should take this into consideration as we determine where we can best minister to others. Some of us might be better able to minister to coworkers struggling with spiritual poverty while others can better minister to the homeless. 

How can we, as leaders, reach out to invite people to those virtues when they are experiencing spiritual poverty, anxiety, etc.?

It is our job as student leaders to help ourselves and fellow students to be good students and good people. When students are resistant to this effort, it is important to challenge them to think like citizens rather than subjects. Often universities patronize students, treating them as a parent does to young children. Instead, we should encourage students to recognize that they have the power to take charge of their problems and bring about the positive change they want to see on their campus.  


What We Learned: Campus Life and Culture

Ave Maria University was so happy that they were able to host the first Catholic Council Network Conference in January, uniting Student Government leaders from Benedictine College, University of Mary, University of Dallas, and Ave Maria University together to share our thoughts and ideas about higher Catholic education.

Here are some of the things we learned in our discussion on Campus Life and Culture.

How is athletics integrated into campus?

University of Dallas has a freshman-athlete integration program, where certain athletes are assigned to freshmen. They believe it's key is to be   approachable, welcoming, show genuine care, and know who your student-athletes are.
University of Mary has a program where the football team helps the freshmen move into their dorms during orientation.
How will we have helped our communities once we graduate?

Ave Maria students volunteer through the Mother Teresa Project and Champions of Charity - two of the ways students are encouraged give back to their community.
University of Mary has a Day of Service, where students volunteer to help the local area, working with United Way on various projects around town.

What We Learned: Catholic Identity, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and Academics

Student Government leaders from Benedictine College, University of Mary, and University of Dallas joined Ave Maria University for a conference in January and we couldn't be happier with the outcome.

Not only did we build friendships, but we also exchanged ideas that will lead toward the improvement of our institutions and, hopefully, higher Catholic education.

Here are some of the things we learned in our discussion with Dr. Seana Sugrue, Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Ave Maria University. Our discussion focused on three questions, and here we've included the questions and many of our notes.

What challenges do we face as Catholic leaders, as students and beyond, and how can we help to solve them?

We need inspiration rooted in faith. Our inspiration often comes from others, who support and encourage us. Most importantly, it comes from God, and through the sacraments, spiritual direction, coming to terms with our imperfection and dependence, and getting back to the basic realization that Christ is with us, we are able to stay inspired.
We need to be reflective on truth and knowledge. We need to have a connection with the deepest truths of the faith and truth in general - this is a university, after all. Reality is much larger than us. However, looking at different areas of knowledge (such as our majors and programs), we can get a glimpse of the unity of truth.
We need to be faithful and serve others. As Christians, we are called to bring the light of our faith into our vocations, with a humble spirit and joyful attitude.
How can we help our respective schools stay true to our Catholic identity?

When we are excellent versions of ourselves, we can help others be the best versions of themselves. We can use our gifts to serve our schools, even after graduation. As government leaders, we should be open and practical, test each other's ideas, and maintain a spirit of awe for truth.
How can we promote academic research and ideas on campus?

Discovery Day.  Benedictine College brought a unique idea to the table. At BC, Student Government helps facilitate "Discovery Day," where students are encouraged to share about their most fascinating discovery from the year.
Books.  At the University of Dallas, the Student Government Executive Board reads different books throughout the year to instigate discussion. We think this is an interesting idea worth exploring.
While the notes on this page give a good overview, unfortunately we can't encapsulate our entire discussion on the web. There's still much more to be said, and as The Network develops, we are optimistic about the future development of these ideas.