The New Evangelization is taking root in the picturesque country setting of Donegal — a beautiful part of northwest Ireland where local traditions and Irish culture remain vibrant.
With a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean, the bay, beaches and windswept hills, a small group of American and Irish college students gather at Ards Friary for three weeks every summer to learn how Catholicism shaped the soul of Ireland — and how they have a role to play in revitalizing the Christian roots of Western Civilization.
“Ireland is a country that, if it were to rediscover its Christian roots and really become fervent, could, within two generations, really turn around and have a profound impact on Europe and the rest of the world,” said Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.
O’Donnell, a member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, said the St. Columcille Institute exists to form leaders for the New Evangelization. Since Christendom College instituted the program four years ago, dozens of students from Christendom and other American colleges have traveled to Ireland to study the Catholic faith with local Irish college students.
The students learn about the Catholic sacramental imagination, not only in the classroom but in nature. In the morning, they are attending Mass, classes and Eucharistic adoration, then later in the day they are hiking mountains, taking in scenic ocean views, visiting shrines or having a pint of Guinness in a local pub.
“They get a sense of what Catholic festivity really means, and what the true foundation of friendship is,” O’Donnell said, noting that the great Christian writers G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis used to vacation in Donegal.
“There is a Catholic-Christian pedigree in this area,” O’Donnell said. “It allows the students to get back into contact with the beauty of God’s creation and form really good friendships. So you end up having conversations not only in the classroom, but over meals and when you’re going on hikes and walks together in the evening.”
The St. Columcille Institute is named after a sixth-century missionary evangelist born in County Donegal who founded a number of monasteries in Ireland and on the island of Iona, where he began a great mission to Scotland. Trained in the school of Christian asceticism and monasticism, Columcille was one of the great lights of the early Middle Ages.
The institute grew out of an idea that O’Donnell and other Christendom leaders had been mulling over for several years. In 2012, during a Eucharistic Congress in Dublin where O’Donnell was a featured speaker, many Irish attendees expressed their desire for solid doctrinal teaching and catechesis.
Discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit, O’Donnell said Christendom College decided to launch the St. Columcille Institute in 2012. The program focuses on three areas: apologetics, history and literature.
With apologetics, students learn how to present and defend the Catholic faith. A theology course examines timeless questions surrounding the problem of evil, the historicity of the gospels and the resurrection of Jesus. Students also read papal encyclicals and writings on the New Evangelization.
“The New Evangelization is really the old evangelization, but new in the sense that there are many people in countries where the Gospel has been proclaimed previously who have not been evangelized at all,” O’Donnell explained.
Students also learn the importance of using modern means of communication, such as film, television, social media and the Internet to proclaim the New Evangelization. For example, Vatican Radio’s director of English-language programming teaches workshops for the institute on the art of communication.
“The whole focus of the apologetics class is learning to defend the faith gently, but strongly, so you can connect with people,” said Eily Weichert, a Christendom alumnus who graduated this past spring. Weichert, 21, attended the St. Columcille Institute in 2015, and said she learned a lot about her Catholic faith.
“The overall message of the program was defending your faith in really subtle ways,” she explained. “It was very moving.”
In addition to apologetics, students also learn Irish history and the incredible contributions that Ireland made to the Catholic Church — particularly from the sixth to ninth centuries. As O’Donnell noted, Pope St. John Paul II taught that a country which doesn’t know its history will have no future.
“We want to give the students a sense of the history, the patrimony, the remarkable story, oftentimes untold, about the role that Ireland had in Western culture and Western civilization,” O’Donnell said.
Closely related to the patrimonial lesson is literature. Students read several short stories and other writings by notable Irish and European authors that raise fundamental questions about the meaning of life, death, marriage, family and what it means to be a good man or good woman.
James Sheehan, a member of Legatus’ Dublin Chapter, presents a leadership talk at the St. Columcille Institute. He tells students the importance of their taking on leadership roles in society.
“It’s a dynamic program for young people,” Sheehan said. “Those students I spoke with seemed to be entirely enjoying the experience.”
Weichert said she not only learned a great deal in the classroom, but also from taking nature hikes with her peers and instructors — and while sitting in pubs and conversing with local residents.
“It was gorgeous scenery and the people were very genuine and interested in hearing about you,” she said. “It was a life-changing event for me in many ways.”
Of course, Catholic spiritual formation is woven through the three weeks that the students stay at Ards Friary, which is owned by Franciscan Capuchins and includes more than 200 acres of scenic waterfront countryside.
The program offers morning Eucharistic adoration, followed by breakfast, then classes, daily Mass and a common meal. Some of the local Irish college students who attend the program are not familiar with devotions like Eucharistic adoration, but they quickly learn.
“Everything is done to communicate that the faith should be like the air we breathe,” O’Donnell explained. “It’s not just something we do on Sunday. So you get into the rhythm of regular prayer, and it just flows out of the beauty of God’s creation.”
Christendom may expand the St. Columcille Institute to two summer sessions if interest and demand continue to increase, though he said the program as currently organized is working well.
Said O’Donnell, “We’ll just see where the Holy Spirit wants us to go.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.