“Knowledge joined with Love.” It is perhaps the most distinctive phrase in Alvernia University’s Mission Statement. The concept originated with St. Bonaventure, one of the first great Franciscan intellectuals. Like the far more famous Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure was a deeply spiritual man of action. But unlike Francis whose spirituality is perhaps captured by the popularly known (though apocryphal!) phrase “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words,” Bonaventure was also a talented academic who would be comfortable serving on Alvernia’s faculty!
As I start my eighth year at Alvernia, “Knowledge joined with Love” continues to resonate with me now as powerfully as it did in 2005. I have come to believe that this phrase captures well our culture at its best: faculty and staff challenge students to pursue excellence in learning and to deepen their commitment to charity and compassion. (And these are not parallel journeys but interconnected ones.) Just as our faculty share their expertise and educate with encouragement and care for individual students, our staff seek to serve effectively in a thoughtful and kind way. Accordingly, our students are urged to fuse the work of their minds, their hearts, and their souls. Our university motto still resounds: To Learn To Love To Serve.
And so although the undertaking was extraordinary, it seemed only natural that just a day after welcoming a record incoming class, the largest and most diverse in our history, I witnessed first-year students working shoulder to shoulder with faculty, staff, and alumni – some 500 strong – to clean up parks and playgrounds in the City of Reading. It was part of an ambitious project related to the book all freshmen read this summer, “Amazing Grace” by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Kozol, who will speak on campus on Oct. 10. The entire class of 2016 is spending its first year at Alvernia completing community service projects related to Kozol's idea of making a difference for children in poverty.
The Kozol event follows another memorable campus program. At our Founders Day Lecture in mid-September, we welcomed Rabbi Howard Hirsch, founder of the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue and professor of theology at Regis University. He provided an informative history and insightful reflections on changes in Jewish-Christian relationships during the last half-century since the Second Vatican Council convened. His lecture inaugurated a series of programs to be held over the next three years, in conjunction with the worldwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II (1962-1965). Through these events we hope to deepen understanding of the Council’s transformative work, global impact, and significance for Alvernia as a distinctive Franciscan university.
Rabbi Hirsch’s captivating address also launched an expanded initiative in interfaith dialogue, rooted in the inclusive mission of our founding sponsors, the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. Coordinated by the Holleran Center for Community Engagement, the multi-year initiative promotes mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation of diverse faith traditions. This spring Alvernia will participate in the President’s Interfaith Challenge, sponsored by the White House and the Department of Education, and we will also begin a new partnership with the nationally respected Interfaith Youth Core.
In recognition of the work done by Rabbi Hirsch, Alvernia trustee Michael Fromm, CEO of Fromm Electric Supply, and his wife Susan, generously created the Fromm Interfaith Award as part of their support for the Values & Vision Capital Campaign. This recognition, underscoring the Fromms’ interest in influencing young people to be voices of unity, will be presented annually to students who demonstrate leadership in interfaith dialogue and includes a grant to support related work.
Even a casual observer knows that, all too often, religion is used to divide not unite us. Interfaith dialogue, grounded in mutual understanding of our own faith traditions and those of others, is a process of exploring and discussing differences and shared values with respect, even with reverence, dare I say with love.
At a time when contemporary politics is all too often accompanied by negativity and even nastiness, when efforts toward mutual understanding and compromise are scorned, the university has an essential role, critical for the health of our democracy. It must be a “sacred space” where diverse ideas are explored and where knowledge and truth are pursued freely and respectfully. And the Catholic university, where spiritual and religious values are not simply tolerated but celebrated, has a special opportunity to emphasize the moral and ethical dimension of learning . . . and of life. Think of the challenge we issue to our entering and graduating students: “To Be Ethical Leaders With Moral Courage.”
“Knowledge joined with Love.” It is an inspiration for Alvernia and a worthy ideal for our country and our world.
Peace and All Good, Tom Flynn