By George Weigel
Originally published on September 5, 2018 on First Things
As this Catholic annus horribilis continues to unfold, perhaps some good news is in order; first, a little background.
In late 1991, Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione and America’s Michael Novak had an idea: create a summer seminar in which young Catholic adults with leadership potential could immerse themselves in the social doctrine of the Church, and especially the social magisterium of Pope John Paul II. Rocco and Michael recruited Father Richard John Neuhaus, the Polish Dominican Maciej Zieba, and me to the faculty team, and in July 1992 we went to Liechtenstein (where Rocco then taught) for several intensive weeks of intellectual work with some 40 graduate students from Europe and North America.
We repeated the experiment the following July. But after two weeks during which the resonant cowbells of some lovely Liechtensteiner bovines woke me every day at 4 a.m., as they meandered beneath my hotel window, I made a suggestion to my colleagues at evening prayer one night (First Vespers being celebrated from the Liturgy of the Hours and Second Vespers with W.L. Weller Special Reserve): Were we to continue this initiative, we should head east, planting our flag in one of the new democracies of east central Europe. The brethren agreed; we considered the possibilities of Prague and Cracow; John Paul II made it quite clear that he favored the latter; so the “Centesimus Annus Seminar on the Free Society” began meeting in Poland’s cultural and spiritual capital in July 1994—and has met there every summer since. Renamed the “Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society” in 2000, the seminar has graduated some 900 students; its 27th annual assembly this past July included young adults from the United States, Canada, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Russia.
When Mike Novak handed me the leadership reins in 1999, I was asked by one sponsoring donor how I measured the seminar’s success. My reply was probably frustrating, but it was accurate: “Ask me in 25 years.” The seminar’s purpose was, and is, to help prepare Catholic leaders of the free and virtuous society of the 21st century; it takes time for that leadership to express itself and leadership impact is difficult to quantify. Now, my faculty colleagues and I can look back on more than a quarter-century of work that has helped form great priests and religious; parliamentarians and civil servants; journalists and academics; doctors and lawyers; successful businessmen and philanthropists; impressive marriages and families; and, most importantly, Catholics who live the joy of the Gospel as missionary disciples in many walks of life.
Over two and a half decades, TMS (the seminar’s shorthand moniker) has evolved programmatically. Intellectual immersion in Catholic social doctrine remains the program’s substantive core. But my colleagues and I have come to understand that TMS becomes a life-transforming experience for many because study is embedded in an experience of Christian community (the students and faculty live, dine, and pray together) that also includes rich cultural encounters and, above all, the liturgy. Our daily TMS Mass is celebrated with simplicity and reverence. We sing various ancient and modern chants, and our priest faculty provide excellent, expository preaching that helps our students see the world through biblical lenses. A lot of learning—philosophical, theological, historical, and cultural—happens during TMS. What ties it all together is our shared experience of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the life of faith.
Our curriculum has changed over time to meet the new pressures on missionary discipleship in the early 21st century. Centesimus Annus and Catholic social doctrine remain the seminar’s framework. But we now spend more time on a Catholic analysis of the sexual and biotech revolutions than we did in the early 1990s, more time on the question of what Benedict XVI called “human ecology,” and more time on understanding the New Evangelization and what it means to live out the meaning of one’s baptism.
This year’s TMS XXVII—we’re now so venerable that we date ourselves like the Super Bowl—was full of impressive young men and women who have met and embraced Jesus Christ, who have zero interest in Catholic Lite, and who want to explore everything that vibrant Catholicism means, personally and in their civic and professional lives. Their eagerness to know and live the faith fully is encouraging in this time of trial and purification—and something October’s Synod on youth ministry should take seriously.