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In My Words/Joyfully Called to Mission

As I pen this letter, I’ve just returned from the Association of Catholic Colleges & Universities annual meeting in Washington, D.C. – a gathering of leaders in Catholic higher education from around the world. I came back with even more enthusiasm and optimism than usual, with an ever more expansive lens on how and why our tripartite mission – unapologetically Catholic, Norbertine and liberal arts – has never been more essential. Has never, in fact, been more relevant in this world. Has never been more clear and vibrant, radiating into and out of every single thing we do here at SNC.

As I shared at the ACCU conference – in a presentation about mission-centered leadership – we at St. Norbert have intentionally created mission radiance. Our mission, ever ancient and ever new, shines splendidly and brightly. It guides our every decision, from curricula to hospitality, from service-learning to athletics, and from care for the whole student to care of our campus. From the smallest acts (knowing our students by name) to the weightiest decisions (creating college policy and crafting strategic direction), we purposefully lean on this profound sense of who we are – who Norbert of Xanten and our founders called us to be.

Colleges that take mission lightly, weaponize it or disingenuously apply it are struggling. They will falter, if they haven’t already. Many will eventually close. Colleges like ours, because we take mission radiance very seriously, are thriving. We remain not only relevant but revered; we generously study and embrace our 900-year-old Norbertine charism and history while continually animating our core values in ever new ways.

Without question, the greatest joy in my daily work is observing how even the most routine aspects of life on campus are saturated with evidence of our mission shining broadly and brightly. We authentically and collectively embrace mission.

Of course, our mission radiates through our professors and their care for students. As art professor Father Jim Neilson exuberantly asserts: “Our mission is authentically revealed by those too-numerous-to-mention moments wherein we connect deeply and powerfully with the heart, mind and soul of each person within our community.” Indeed. And we see our mission woven into every discipline across the curriculum as faculty challenge students to integrate faith and reason – a key feature of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Particularly exciting is the ongoing work to define an explicitly Norbertine pedagogy. Dr. Mara Brecht and Father Andrew Ciferni explain in “Charismatic Circularity: Lay Faculty, Practices of Transmission and Possibilities for Renewal” (forthcoming in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education) that a Norbertine pedagogy – one that reflects Norbert of Xanten’s own conversion – encourages students to remain open to changes of heart and mind, both large and small. It reassures students that when they face unexpected challenges they should remain encouraged to see new possibilities in unforeseen circumstances. A Norbertine pedagogy actively encourages pausing, contemplating and intentionally carving out time for reflection. It also actively encourages a teaching-learning environment rooted in deep dialogue, one that consistently honors the questions of both students and teachers.

We also see mission in evidence on the courts, in the pool and at the playing fields as our scholar-athletes and coaches care for each other, build respect, strengthen bodies – each a reflection of the Norbertine values of wellness, recreation and action.

Our mission is vibrant, understood and actively lived in every building, every residence hall, every area of campus, and in the good works of our 24,000-plus alumni serving their communities and families around the world. And while we are proud of the work being done to radiate mission – work that began 900 years ago – we also know that only when we actively invest in mission each day – asking how it can be expressed and made manifest in ever new ways – will it flourish for another 900, and beyond. Be assured, we joyfully accept this charge.

March 17, 2020