By Susan Fox
Feb. 16, 2006 -- Last year, I attended a healing service at my parish. I was asked to pray for the person sitting next to me.
The next night on the internet I found Ave Maria University of Naples, Florida.
And last weekend, I visited this university at their open house. Today, I am simply marveling that such a wonderful Catholic education is available to our sons and daughters. You probably know the horror stories at other universities. One of my friends overheard a mother bragging that her husband didn’t have to send their daughter any condoms at college because the university issued 50 to each student every semester. This university happened to have an excellent Math program.
One of the AMU students told us he had the ability to play the ukulele, and people used to make fun of him for it. But when he came to Ave Maria University, they said, “Ahh, you have a talent.” That summed up the attitude I saw in every adult involved in that school.
The school’s provost, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. is a stunning example. The founder of Ignatius Press and a former student of Pope Benedict XVI, with whom he maintains a warm and cordial relationship, Fr. Fessio lives in a little yellow house next to the campus pool and cafeteria, a central meeting place on the temporary campus. And when he turns the light on at his house, all are welcome to knock, although we found it more likely to see him running around campus or sitting in a group with students. The other priests on campus also can be interrupted at any time in order to ask for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
With regard to the liturgy, they cater to every taste, including those of charismatics, but on Sunday we attended the “festive Latin Mass.” Fr. Fessio celebrated the Mass. He explained in the sermon why all of the students at Ave Maria – even the Math majors -- are required to take Latin by reading the opening prayer of the Mass in English, and then giving us a true translation from the Latin.
The banal English of the prayer, easily ignored as irrelevant, suddenly was transformed into something quite lovely. The English translation read, “God Our Father, you have promised to remain forever with those who do what is just and right. Help us to live in your presence.” But by our own power, we don’t do “what is just and right.” And the Latin reflected this. It showed that God’s work is to help us live in holiness so that we can live in His presence. Obviously, to be Catholic in the future means to be able to read our Latin heritage.
Fr. Fessio faced the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word, but he turned his back to the congregation and directed his attention toward the East -- the rising Christ -- during the second half of the Mass. This posture is called Ad Orientum. With this posture, the priest is no longer the center of attention. God is.
Meanwhile, a group of students sitting in the back conducted the music portion of the Mass. They sang Gregorian chant and other Latin and English songs from our Catholic heritage. Everything they performed was reverent and lovely – never boring. The music actually led me to prayer instead of distracting me. Ave Maria is building a strong music curriculum. They hope they are training the future liturgists for all the parishes in the United States. If they are successful, we will see our Holy Mass in English restored to its original loveliness. They require all students to take chorus, even the Math majors. Music is part of being Catholic.
The multipurpose room on Saturday night was transformed into an Irish Festival. A curtain covered the altar, and white cloth was placed over the pictures of Peter and Paul, and the Stations of the Cross. Green shamrock lights were everywhere, and tables were set up like a dinner theatre. The University’s Irish dance club performed. Admissions Director Richard Dittus with his six home-schooled children and wife performed some of the loveliest Irish music I’ve ever heard. Priests and sisters mingled with Ave Maria students, enjoying the festivities, eating cookies and drinking punch. There was no alcohol. All were able to get up later in the evening and learn the Irish dance. It was enormous fun.
Such entertainment was not just for the open house weekend. They recently held an 19th century ball in full costume, and one of the young men told me he had enjoyed learning formal dance! The story is that Fr. Fessio ran into some of the Ave Maria students crammed into a small car on a Saturday night, and he asked them where they were going. They said, “To the movies.” He thought that was a pitiful source of entertainment. Now the university has intramural sports, drama clubs, swing dancing, a barbershop quartet, Frisbee tournaments at midnight and lots of other things for the youth to do. I asked one student if he had EWTN on the dorm television. He said, “I don’t know.” I looked at him, and said, “You don’t watch TV, do you?” No, he didn’t.
A number of young men are discerning a vocation to the priesthood. They live on the second floor of the men’s dorm with a priest in residence. They are given spiritual direction, have their own chapel and say the liturgy in common. If they decide not to become a priest, Fr. Fessio says the formation will make them excellent husbands. We met one of these, a senior at Ave Maria, who told us he had the vocation to be a friar. He said this would be an active vocation with contemplation as its basis. He was looking for a discalced (shoeless) order of Franciscans. I said, “You want to live barefoot? In an active vocation?” And he nodded.
I suddenly remembered the first 12 Franciscan missionaries, who landed at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1524 in order to convert the Aztecs to Christianity. They walked barefoot 125 miles from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, as did all their Franciscan successors for the next 250 years -- Fr. Junipero Serra among them. In fact that is how the great saint of California’s evangelization became lame. He received a poisonous bite on his foot on that first journey to Mexico City in 1749. Now in 2006, I was sitting in Florida with a young man who wanted to make the same sacrifice. “What kind of love must have pierced this young heart?” I wondered.
My husband recognized the source. Just before we came to Ave Maria, he had a dream of trees planted near water with roots growing all down their sides. These were naturally very healthy trees. The psalms and the Book of Revelation discuss such trees as an allegory for the soul who puts his roots deep into the Life of God. Nothing can disturb or harm such a tree. The trees my husband saw in his dream actually exist near the hotel we stayed at in North Naples within three miles of the temporary campus. Neither of us had ever seen such trees before, but they must be common in the Everglades – just as Eucharistic Adoration is common at AMU.
James enjoyed meeting his future Math and Physics teachers. As I look over the faculty listing for Ave Maria, it seems like almost all have PhD’s from excellent universities. Both the Math and Physics teachers probably gave up good positions to come to an unaccredited new school. The Math professor said he took the job because he believed in Catholic education. My son is going to major in Math and minor in Physics, which is the basic preparation for an engineer. The teachers said by having a strong science background in his degree, he will actually have a better preparation for engineering than if he had an engineering degree. Currently, they have degrees in Economics, Politics, Biology, the Classics, History, Literature, Philosophy, Theology, Music and Mathematics. A pre-law program is formed by combining Politics, Economics and History. Pre-med is done similarly, and there is an Economics degree with a Business emphasis. Fr. Fessio said he plans to add the following bachelor’s degrees to the university: Physics and Computer Science.
But what about accreditation? Ave Maria is pre-accredited with the American Academy of Liberal Education with full accreditation expected next year. That means if you are eligible for a federal grant you can receive it now while attending AMU. The regional accreditation is expected by 2010. Last year, all 20 plus grads of the school got the jobs they wanted or got into their preferred graduate school, according to Fr. Fessio, minus one that is still undecided.
One gutsy young woman told us she had just transferred from another Catholic university in the middle of her sophomore year because she didn’t like wondering if her teachers were giving her Catholic truth or their own agenda. She was a pre-Med student. The basic courses required for Medical school are Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Math. All are offered at Ave Maria. But on top of that, this co-ed is getting a beautiful core curriculum with all the basics of our Catholic heritage: Western and American Civilization, philosophy, theology, Fine Arts and Music, natural sciences, mathematics, Sacred Doctrine, Scripture, Literature of Western Civilization and Latin. Ave Maria is unique in that it requires half of their degree credits be in liberal arts.
Asked to describe Ave Maria in just one word, a panel of students came up with this partial list: “truth,” “balanced,” “faith.” Ah, faith. That word resonated with me. It took faith for my family to apply to a university that costs $22,000 a year. Academic scholarships are available based on GPA and SAT scores. It pays to take the SAT more than once. They use your highest score regardless of whether you took it first or last. Last year, they gave out 28 academic scholarships ranging from full to partial tuition out of a Freshman class of 125. But there is no fixed number of academic scholarships. They are based solely on the individual student’s performance.
I myself went to a Catholic university in the 1970s, and I loved the daily availability of the Mass – even if it was celebrated hippie-like with our arms around each other in a circle around the altar while we sang meaningless songs about love. But nothing ever happened on that campus like what I experienced at noon on Sunday Feb. 12 in the noisy student cafeteria at Ave Maria University. A bell rang, and every single person in the room stood, faced the crucifix and with great reverence prayed the Angelus. “And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. . . And the Word was made Flesh. And dwelt among us.” Ave Maria!