John Paul II and the vocation of the student

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Seniors Anna Stevenson, Jessica Pratt, and Beth Ann Arcement. Photo by Emily Ashman

Last week, we celebrated the feast day of St. John Paul II, one of the finest men of the last century. In light of this great day, it is worth reflecting on his incisive reflections on the vocation of the college student, given in his addresses to students at the Catholic University of America and at the University of Santo Tomas.

The Church has historically been a champion of scholars, focused on building a community of truth-seekers. As an accomplished philosopher himself, John Paul II distinctly understood the connection between vibrant education of the youth and the Church’s mission, for  “to be young means possessing within oneself an incessant newness of spirit, nourishing a continual quest for good.” 

He thematizes the vitality gifted to the young, highlighting “the intensity of [their] feelings,” which are essential to catholicity, for the Church is characterized by “an intrinsic dynamism that is in perfect accord with the enthusiasm of youth.” He compares youthful intensity to abundant rainfall, containing an inherent power to either rush in and destroy or to irrigate and nurture the earth. 

This potential must be channelled to its proper end.  John Paul II suggests young people assert themselves through directing their creativity and freshness to the pursuit of truth.

The privilege of a university education “offers [students] a whole array of excellent means for completing [their] formation … [they] have at [their] disposal abundant means that [they] must learn to know and appreciate fully.” 

Young people ought to mirror Christ in their maturation. John Paul II reminds us of the verse in Luke’s gospel, “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man,” a growth which can be accomplished through intentional self-discipline and studiousness. 

The studiousness cultivated by Catholic universities should be conducted in line with the three ends John Paul II details. 

Firstly, universities must prioritize the relentless search for the truth of things, through a “specific contribution to the Church and to society through high-quality scientific research, in-depth study of problems, and a just sense of history.” 

This method refuses to accept ideology. Rather, it “surrender[s] to objectivity and [to] the exploration of all aspects of nature and man,” opening the Christian scholar to reality, just as it is, and truly becoming “enlightened by his faith in the creation of God and the Redemption of Christ.” 

Ultimately, the university’s activity unearths the “deepest and noblest aspiration of the human person: the desire to come to the knowledge of truth.” 

As a survivor of Soviet propaganda and eradication of Christian faculty in the Polish intelligentsia, John Paul II’s perspective brings a truly serious tone to intellectual freedom, one so committed to truth that he risked his life to continue covertly learning. 

The second end of Catholic universities is “to train young men and women of outstanding knowledge who … hav[e] made a personal synthesis between faith and culture” in order to serve their community and the society at large. 

This integration requires refining. John Paul II recommends each individual examine himself, evaluating the “organic synthesis” between their faith and life in order to be able “to bear witness to their faith before the world.” 

The integrated ideal of a mature student is summarized in John Paul II’s imperative to “make Jesus always part of your hunger for truth and justice, and part of your dedication to the well-being of your fellow human beings.” 

Catholic universities must offer the means through which young people can develop in intellect, virtue and faith in order to send them forth as mature Christians equipped for mission.

The final end of the Catholic university, John Paul II explains, is genuine community between professors and students. Fostering a place where scholars and students interact, learn and live together provides the best framework for personal and societal growth.

By channelling the immense vivacity of the youth through intense study and formation provided by the Catholic university, young people can fulfill their “threefold mission as fully mature adults, servants of society and representatives of the Gospel.” 

John Paul II attests that university students “have a special testimony to give,” which if we fail to deliver “would … deprive humanity of an expert and necessary contribution.” 

We ought to marvel at the peculiar opportunity placed before us, one that allows for fearless pursuit of the truth and a clear call to Christian mission. 

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