Continuing the Tradition

Editor’s note: John O’Callaghan, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, gave these remarks at the inauguration of Thomas Aquinas College’s new president on Saturday.

It is a great honor and distinct pleasure for me to join you today in congratulating Dr. Michael McLean upon his inauguration as the fourth president of Thomas Aquinas College. You enter into a new era of the extraordinary experiment in education that began here in these beautiful mountains almost forty years ago. A new president is a sign of both your past successes and your hope for the future. You have chosen very well. Rejoice and be glad, as we are wont to say.

While this event is joyous, it ought to be noted that my particular presence here is due to two events, one tragic, the other not tragic – but unwelcome. The tragedy, of course, was the untimely death of your beloved president, Tom Dillon. Dr. Dillon was a graduate of the philosophy program at Notre Dame along with Dr. McLean; he was fondly remembered there and deeply mourned. And I repeat my condolences to you and to his family. Given his success in leading the college over eighteen years, and continuing to develop it after its founding into one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, Notre Dame had much to be justly proud of in him, one of her loyal sons.

Many at Notre Dame and elsewhere wondered whether the college could find someone to fill his shoes, and were relieved to see that Dr. McLean was chosen as his successor. As one friend smiled and said to me, “They picked exactly the person at TAC to do it.” So felix culpa, we are reminded in God’s providence that Our Lord writes straight with crooked lines. You tragically lost a leader, a colleague, and a friend. But as the selection of Dr. McLean gives evidence, you have undoubtedly gained an advocate in Heaven.

The unwelcome event is the death of Ralph McInerny, who would otherwise be here. Just weeks before his death, as he lay in hospital, Ralph expressed his love of this place when he said, “I will be there even if I have to take an air ambulance.” Well, we know he is in fact here today. But how could any death be more unwelcome than Ralph’s to anyone who had the honor and pleasure of knowing him? It was not a tragic death. Indeed, though it was preceded by much suffering, it was happy. Ralph, as you all know was a writer, and a writer to the end he remained. The day before he died, he asked for a piece of paper and scribbled on it, “I commend my soul to God.” My own sister-in-law hearing of that said, “It is perhaps the single most important thing he ever wrote.” So it was a happy and peaceful death. And here again, I think you have gained an advocate.

But for so many of you, as for me, this news must have come as an unwelcome fact. After all, Ralph has been a friend of the college and defender of its goals from the very beginning. He was a friend of your founder and first president, Dr. McArthur. He had for many years served on your board of trustees. And of course he had returned time and time again to give talks to your students. I know how much he enjoyed those visits, and he often spoke of the high caliber of the discussions and quality of the students. Consider also his influence upon your faculty, many of whom he taught and whose doctoral dissertations he directed: Dr. Andres, Dr. Froelich, Dr. Kohlbeck, Dr. Letteney, Dr. Nieto, Mr. Paietta, Mr. Quakenbush, your new dean Dr. Kelly, your former president Dr. Dillon, and your new one as well. I too was his student, and all of us who had that privilege know how much we owe him. Indeed, he did not simply engage in the spiritual act of mercy instructing us, we happy few, we ignorant band of brothers, but the corporal as well, as he encouraged us to start our families, without worrying about whether we had the financial resourcesbecause he would provide them.

I know how highly he regarded Thomas Aquinas College, for several times he said to me that it is one of the last best hopes for genuine Catholic education in the United States, indeed perhaps anywhere. How many other institutions of higher learning give one the opportunity to learn the great intellectual tradition that preceded and informed the life of the Church, and the tradition that springs ex corde ecclesiae, the great texts of Western culture which simply cannot be comprehended except in relation to Christianity. Under the leadership of Dr. Dillon, you were courageous and did a great service to the academic community in resisting the fickle winds of academic fashion and political ideology in the 1990s. Thomas Aquinas College has faithfully stuck to the proposition that the intellectual tradition it explores is an important gift to be given to the world.

But unlike so many Catholic institutions in which one speaks of a kind of “Catholic mission” or “Catholic character” as a kind of “add on” or “added value” separate from the academic mission, at Thomas Aquinas you have promoted the view that knowledge of the truth about the creation and redemption of the world by God, truths the Church believes and seeks to understand, these truths are integral to the academic enterprise itself. Dear to Ralph’s heart, you have followed the Church’s steadfast recommendation that those truths are best understood in light of the philosophical and theological work of Thomas Aquinas, and so you have integrated that thought as a kind of substantial form, the soul of your college. “Well done good and faithful servants,” he would say to you.

Thus, on behalf of myself and the Jacques Maritain Center, as well as its former director Ralph McInerny, on behalf of the College of Arts and Letters of the University of Notre Dame, we offer Dr. Michael McLean, loyal son of Our Lady’s university, our praise for what you have already accomplished, and our heartfelt congratulations upon your inauguration. Indeed we congratulate Thomas Aquinas College for such a wise choice. We expect great things of you and the college. And in this beautiful chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, I add a prayer to Notre Dame, Vita, Dulcedo, et Spes Nostrae.

John O’Callaghan is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. This column is a shortened version of a presentation he made this week at the university for a conference on, “Darwin in the Twenty-First Century: Nature, Humanity, and God.”