Relocating temporarily from Washington, D.C., to Florida from January 10 to February 20 was a kind providence. True, Florida had its coldest weather in 50 years, but don’t cry for me, northern America. Down there, “cold” means about 45 degrees Fahrenheit early in the morning, rarely below that. Some afternoons it hit 70 degrees. Meanwhile, Washington had some three feet of snow. My visiting nephew had to have the flat part of Karen’s studio roof shoveled after each of the two storms, lest the weight of the snow and backed-up ice do serious damage. But the great joy for me was not the weather. It was teaching a mini-course on “Religion and the U.S. Founding” at Ave Maria University. It reminded me that my true vocation, next to writing, is teaching young people. I loved all ten of the “kids” in my seminar. We covered much ground in a short amount of time (and they got it), and we had good talks including a weekly lunch. They took down clear outlines of key points, and had a lot of laughs at my stumbling efforts to recover old skills at teaching. (I meander more than I used to.) Each student wrote two papers — for extra credit, some wrote a third — and they were all really quite good.
Nearly all the students were sophomores or juniors. They hailed from everywhere from the Philippines to Honduras; from Goa, India, to Toronto, Canada; as well as from Texas and California to Bethesda, Md. One was a very impressive Marine, another an aspiring (and already experienced) political leader in Canada. There are about 850 others like them on campus at Ave Maria University this year. Incoming classes now number 300 or more — 500 soon, we hope.
I have never lived in a more Catholic culture than Ave Maria’s — well, maybe once before, in St. Pius X Seminary during my college years at Stonehill College. From my room on the Piazza to the Oratory, embraced by the Piazza like a horseshoe, the distance was about 75 yards, and to the Adoration Chapel on the side of the Canizaro Library, 100 yards. All day and all night, students and staff are found in the latter according to formal voluntary shifts, and as the Spirit moves a steady trickle all day. On Sundays, some 97 percent of the whole town goes to Mass, and on weekdays about 65 percent of the students.
What most impressed me, though, was what Dostoevsky called the “humble charity” of those one meets — the good manners, the willingness to help and even to seek occasions to help. One of the storeowners came out on the sidewalk to ask if she could bring me food or other things from Publix on her trip later that afternoon; two days later, she stopped at Walgreens in nearby Naples for a prescription I needed.
Further, I was invited out to dinner often by faculty members, and rejoiced in the big families a great many had underfoot. I met a lot of holy people. I admired the serious learning of a remarkably committed and self-sacrificing faculty, and (according to students) the seriousness and impressiveness of their teaching. Prof. Mark Guerra with a colleague from another university won a huge grant from the University of Chicago, from a field of 700 applicants and 40 finalists.
Michael Waldstein of Austria is one of the most distinguished theologians in the world, who under Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna in the 1990s established the International Theology Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family. He now lives, teaches, and writes at Ave Maria (praise be to God). He is also a warm, pleasant, light-hearted, learned man, with a very keen and clear mind. Professor Waldstein wrote recently that he, too, has found the Catholic environment at Ave Maria the most impressive he has ever known, including even that of the ITI, which he himself had founded:
Profoundly fruitful contemplation, characteristic of a genuinely Catholic intellectual life, is taking place [at Ave Maria University] among the theology professors and graduate students. I know of no better program for forming future theologians. I include in this judgment the program of ITI, which I helped to build up. The impression I have of the undergraduates in my classes and of faculty and students in other departments is similar. The University, as I have experienced it first hand, is genuinely Catholic. A particular love for John Paul II and Benedict XVI is a hallmark of its life.
So I must report that I have come to love Ave Maria deeply, and feel a very strong pull to live out my final years in such a place. The Board of Trustees (of whom I am one) do not wish Ave Maria to be a small Christian enclave, a hothouse, but a large, cosmopolitan university, ultimately the size of Princeton. Already the University’s students have a proportion from overseas that, at 13 percent, may be among the highest in the land. They already include three or four Muslim students.
The university does not yet have a large body of alumni, but it does effectively own a thousand acres of great Florida land, on which one major new golf course is being planned. The university will also benefit from a half interest in another 9,000 acres surrounding the campus and forming the town of Ave Maria, which already boasts a very fine golf course, retail shops, and extensive parks and recreation areas. Ground has been broken for the Golisano Gymnasium, which should be up by next October, and a Fine Arts Center is on the drawing boards. Last year, our development office brought in $12 million, and in the first seven months of this fiscal year $16 million. More is on its way to being pledged or given outright, and bequests from people we have not even met keep arriving. The Oratory is drawing some 50,000 visitors per year. A great new Carrara marble sculpture of the Annunciation will be lifted up on its façade within the next year. It is being patiently but boldly carved on the green in front of the Oratory by the great Hungarian sculptor Márton Váró.
It was great to have our local ordinary, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., and his teacher Adam Cardinal Maida of Detroit join our Board at this February’s meeting.
As I read Catholic history, every time there is a great work of God in the making, the Prince of Lies sows a cloud of mischief trying to disrupt it. By that sign, Our Lady really wants this University. The Lord has, as is His wont, given it obstacle after obstacle to surmount. Just as He set before Our Lady in her own life.
This has been for me these past weeks, right on site, a good place to magnify the Lord.
Published in National Review Online March 1, 2010