In my final blog post of this academic year, and at the time when you students are scurrying on the last day of class with final examinations looming and thesis deadlines approaching, I want to share with you a few thoughts.
It was an extraordinary year at Ave Maria. By nearly any measurement, the University continued to improve (and USA Today touted our high value by ranking us among the elite public and private schools of Florida!). The highlight of the year for me was the consecration of the University to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the Feast of the Annunciation (which is also our founder Tom Monaghan’s birthday). Certainly the upcoming commencement celebration and the record number of undergraduate degrees conferred (202) will be the cause of much joy, and as of today, we have more deposited students than we did a year ago which could mean yet another record entering class (and so far the average ACT score is higher than a year ago, which also bodes well for our future). The academic conferences we had on campus and the steady procession of exceptional guest lecturers and speakers, joined by the prodigious amount of research and writing produced by our faculty, are all signs of growth and excellence in the academy. The University’s finances continue to improve. Our extremely ambitious fundraising goal for this year is within reach which amazes me and reminds me of Ave Maria’s good fortune in having such loyal and faithful trustees, President’s Council members, and other benefactors. They give millions and millions each year to a University they didn’t attend to benefit students they don’t know. Only grace and deep faith can explain such selfless generosity.
But oh, you students are worth it! In the past week Mary and I hosted in separate events our graduating seniors and the AMU students who adored the Blessed Sacrament each week in the Burke Adoration Chapel. The caliber of you men and women is simply astounding. I look forward to announcing this year’s winner of the President’s Award at the dinner the eve of commencement, and want to take this opportunity to congratulate Peter Atkinson, Thomas Helms, Lucille Pilarski, Caleb Weston, and Angela Winkels who are the finalists for this, the University’s highest honor. At Saturday’s commencement exercises we’ll also honor about a dozen seniors who will be recognized as “Mother Teresa Scholars” for fulfilling the spiritual formation and service requirements of the program (and nearly 100 additional students currently pursue this recognition within all four classes on campus – last year over 8,000 volunteer hours of service were rendered by AMU students). I also am so proud of Joey Haas and Kyle Eads who will be entering seminaries in New York in the fall, adding to the AMU Honor Roll.
This academic year was not without its growing pains at the University and some questioned whether our Catholic identity and campus culture are being preserved (and properly marketed), and our academic and admissions standards safeguarded. As one trustee put it, “These are serious concerns by serious people.” I share that sentiment. Next week the trustees will spend its entire meeting in executive session discussing these matters, and I can assure you that I and other senior administrators have been devoting an extraordinary amount of time addressing the matters that have been raised. What I can say without hesitation is this: I am very proud of where Ave Maria University is and decidedly hopeful about our future.
Sometimes we can get so consumed by campus controversies that we forget to see the bigger picture around us, and this can lead us to almost become detached from the issues and causes that command attention and action. Yes, academia has and will always have friction and dissent – they are both healthy and necessary for any university, and in fact, inevitable when you gather together so many intelligent and ambitious men and women in the pursuit of truth.
But as serious as concerns on any campus can become, they must be kept in perspective.
An email I received Sunday from my friend Fr. Gary Duckworth, MC, helped me do just that. Father Gary was one of the three men Mother Teresa chose to start her order of priests, the Missionaries of Charity Fathers. You might have met two of their priests, Fr. Rich and Fr. Jorge, when they were here on campus during vocation week. Fr. Gary’s words remind us of the grave threats Christians and Catholics throughout the world face today, but also, of the heroic beauty of those who follow Jesus in these places of turmoil and danger. His words break our hearts but also have the power to inspire us to cherish our faith and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.
Dear Jim, Easter Peace to you, Mary and your family.
Today I leave for Africa. I should be leaving for the airport in a few hours, but I just got a call from the Regional Superior in the Middle East requesting prayer support. It seems our MC Sisters in four communities in Yemen are under grave threat. Sister said that it is actually worse there at the moment than it is in Syria and Iraq.
The sisters there are being bombarded from the sea by the Arab nations, and from land by Iranian backed rebels. In Aden and Sana they have no running water, no electricity and they are running out of food as nothing is entering the country. Fuel is gone and they are now cutting down the trees in their gardens for cooking fires.
Of all the countries in the Middle East, Yemen is the poorest and so the sister’s communities (four of them) each have over 100 sick and dying people. Because of the bombing and chaos in the streets, no Muslim workers are coming any more to help with the cooking, cleaning of patients and medical attention. It is just the sisters, six per community, plus a few of their older orphan children who have to manage as best they can.
The church is not officially present in Yemen. Our sisters have no Vatican support system. They are alone, discretely living and serving the poor Muslim nation, supported only by a few elderly foreign priests of religious congregations, but now these priests have all left Yemen by boat before Holy Week, leaving consecrated Hosts in the tabernacles in the MC Chapels.
The sisters had no priest and no Easter Liturgies. They themselves had a “dry Mass”, gathering in their chapels and simply reading the Holy Week Liturgies from the Sacramentary and giving themselves the Eucharist. Now it seems each host is being divided into four for distribution, as their reserve is almost gone.
The sisters will stay with their people no matter what happens. They have tremendous Faith, but also they are tired and afraid. (And we believe the situation in the whole Middle East will continue to deteriorate.)
I am heading to Rwanda today and I remember my last visit there in 1995, just after the Rwandan Genocide. Our Sisters had stayed with their people there in Kigali, as well as hiding Tutsis within their compounds and in the front of the chapel during Perpetual Adoration. The Hutu militias would peer into the Chapel from the back and only see the backs of the crowd of nuns in constant prayer. No one was taken and killed from their compounds although the streets were littered with dead bodies. After the Genocide, the MC Sisters were admired by the surviving Rwandans who called them, “the nuns who stayed.”
Now in Middle East, our MC Sisters will once again be “the nuns who stay”, but the situation now in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc. is getting worse. Please pray for them and for the people whom they will serve until the end, all for love of Jesus and for souls.
God bless and protect them.
Fr. Gary Duckworth, MC
Let us heed Father’s request to pray for all who are in grave danger because of their faith, and commit ourselves to defend the religious freedom we enjoy that these courageous followers of Jesus bear witness to, often to the point of death.
Good luck with finals, see you graduates on the stage, have a great summer, and can’t wait to see our returning students as we welcome the Class of 2019 in August!