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Notre Dame catholicism as a force for change

Jillian Mueller | Thursday, October 26, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the third of three columns calling for greater attention to the global health crisis as discussed in the academic forum earlier this semester.

In light of the recent events on campus involving the President’s Forum on Global Health and the latest issue of Notre Dame Magazine, which explores our “moral obligation to those in need,” I have been reflecting on Catholicism and how it is expressed at Notre Dame. I can’t help but think there is a disparity between the teachings of Jesus concerning feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and sheltering the homeless and the forms that our Catholic faith takes on a daily basis here on campus and throughout our lives.

At the forum, a panel addressed global health problems and the systems of poverty that underlie them. One of the panelists, Dr. Paul Farmer, addressed the Notre Dame community not just as a group of students and academics, but as fellow Catholics. Farmer also contributed an article to the latest issue of Notre Dame Magazine entitled “If We Fail to Act.” If you read his biography, you know that Farmer was raised Catholic but withdrew from his faith until he encountered the people and politics of Haiti shortly after completing his undergraduate education. In Haiti, Catholicism came alive for him in the doctrine of liberation theology. Developed by Latin American theologians and embraced by many Latin American bishops and other conscientious Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, liberation theology speaks out against institutionalized poverty, promotes the preferential option for the poor inherent in the teachings of Jesus and calls for activism to fight for social justice and human rights. In witnessing the faith of Haitians and the systemic injustices that impoverish this nation, Farmer now lives and breaths his mission to put Jesus’ message into action, helping the poor and suffering throughout the world.

I experienced a similar transformation this past spring, though on a much smaller scale. I was raised Catholic in a family that dutifully attended Mass each week, and though I completed 17 years of Catholic education, I strayed from my religion during high school and college. By my senior year of college at Saint Louis University, I was not what I would term religious. But it took only one week in El Salvador during that senior year to rediscover Catholicism through liberation theology as Farmer did.

I was awed by the way the Salvadorans’ faith was thoroughly ingrained into all aspects of their lives. It was through that faith and the proliferation of liberation theology by Archbishop Oscar Romero and other Jesuit priests, many of whom were martyred and massacred, that inspired Salvadorans to fight for human rights during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. The struggle continues today, still supported by the liberation theology of the Jesuit community at the University of Central America in San Salvador and its community outreach efforts. After just one week in the country, I thought, this is it. I had found the core of the Catholic faith in the vibrant lives and beliefs of these resilient people.

My trip to El Salvador opened my eyes to what being a Catholic can truly mean. One of Farmer’s remarks sums up my experience well: “Wow, this isn’t the Catholicism I remember!” Being a Catholic should go beyond simply following a set of guidelines, attending Mass and supporting charity work from a distance as items on life’s checklist. Being a Catholic should mean embracing Jesus’ message, standing in solidarity with the poor and fighting to remove the institutionalized injustices that keep them impoverished and without basic human rights. For Farmer, it means living a life dedicated to the poor, public health problems and social injustice. For me, it means participating in Notre Dame’s GLOBES Ph.D. program where we seek to understand the connections between the environment, social systems and global health and to develop the tools needed to address these problems at a global scale.

What does it mean for you?

The Notre Dame community is overwhelmingly Catholic and has a huge set of resources at its disposal, including outstanding students and faculty. Our university already has international programs and projects with the Center for Social Concerns, and 10 percent of each graduating class enters into full-time service programs. Many undergraduates participate in service activities as well. While this is certainly admirable and already above the curve compared to most universities, we can do better. Only 20 percent of those service programs are international, and, on average, the Notre Dame student spends just over 28 hours per year doing service. What could we accomplish if we invested as much interest, money and energy in poverty issues and developing countries as we do in football? What could we learn and be exposed to if there was as much desire to study in Latin America as there is for studying in Ireland? Our university has a mission that seeks to translate learning and scholarship into service for justice. It’s time to step up and fully embody that mission by placing our talents and assets at the service of the poor.

Jillian Mueller is a biology graduate student participating in the new Global Linkages of Biology, the Environment, and Society (GLOBES) program. She can be contacted at jmuelle4@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.