It is amazing what is happening in what many people call an “overflown” country, where many Catholics are quietly engaged in the work of rebuilding the heart of the nation. On a recent road trip through Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, my family explored a corridor through the middle of the country, home to many vibrant communities that can serve as models in our efforts to live the faith and share its beauty. .
Starting in Denver, we followed the South Platte River into Nebraska, leading us to Lincoln, with its Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, founded by Bishop James Conley. Housed in the Newman Center, with its magnificent church, it offers University of Nebraska students an immersion in the Great Books. After a family reunion in southern Iowa, we headed south to Missouri, praying alongside the heavenly-voiced nuns at Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower (who released many popular CDs). Their average age appeared to be under 30, with enough vocations for a new foundation, St. Joseph’s Monastery in Ava, Missouri. From there we went to see friends in Atchison, Kansas, the home of Benedictine College, a major site for collegiate renewal, perched on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. We headed further south to Fort Scott to check out developments at Saint Martin Academy, a boarding school for high school students, which integrates regular agricultural work and practical experiences. Finally we landed at Clear Creek Abbey, outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I am an Oblate. I gave a lecture to the monks on the relationship between beauty and worship, and my four boys and I were able to enjoy healthy abbey food grown and produced on the abbey grounds. The monastery was founded in 2000 with just 12 monks, and they are now approaching 60, with a new wing of the monastery rising alongside their half-completed Romanesque church.
Like these growing institutions, there is a story to tell about Catholic efforts to rebuild Christian culture. Todd Hartch started painting this picture in his A Time to Rebuild: How to Find the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in America (Angelico, 2021). In fact, I found the book on our trip on the coffee table of my good friend, Dr. Richard Meloche, director of the Alcuin Institute for the Diocese of Tulsa, which immerses teachers and catechists in the treasures of Catholic culture. Hartch points out that while many committed Catholics read books or study theology, “they don’t know how to spend their time. The culture noticeably declines, their local church offers little of interest, and the world of politics seems crude and unchanging, so they work, read, pray, and attend mass but make no difference to the world around them. They know they should do something, but they don’t know what to do or how to do it. They may know what is true, but they don’t know how to communicate or teach the truth. They may know what is good, but they don’t know how to do good or are afraid to start. The ugliness and the banality of their world despair them, but they do not know how to embellish it” (14).
To help us think about what to do, his book identifies “those who have lived well so that 21st century American Catholics can follow their example. Of course, your own gifts and talents are unique, as is your specific situation, so you shouldn’t blindly or mechanically copy them. On the contrary, study them, take inspiration from them and adapt their ideas and methods to your situation” (2). Its examples are the sculpture of Frederick Hart, the Sisters of Life, the Dominicans of St. Joseph Province, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Notre Dame School of Architecture, and Mayor Joe Riley’s work revitalizing Charleston.
Chapter Three focuses on one of the most impactful educational programs of the last century, one that influenced many places we visited on our trip: the University of Kansas’ Integrated Humanities Program (IHP). . Running throughout the 1970s and led by John Senior, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, IHP took undergraduates through four semesters of living immersion in the great tradition. Students read the Great Books, along with humanizing experiences that included memorizing poetry and folk songs, stargazing, Latin conversation, waltzing, and touring Europe. Students learned poetically through direct immersion in reality that stirred their minds and imaginations in wonder. This revival led more than 200 of them to the Catholic Church, inspiring vocations (including founding monks of Clear Creek) and many other initiatives to carry on the legacy of IHP, such as the Newman Institute and the St. Martin’s Academy.
As we reflect on what we can do, the wonderful work of heartland Catholics should encourage and inspire us. We too can rebuild if we bring like-minded people together to seek the true, the good and the beautiful. It’s amazing the impact even a strong community can have.