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Great books in the great outdoors

cover-sept15Wyoming Catholic College marks 10 years of forming extraordinary leaders

To say there’s something unique about Wyoming Catholic College may be a bit of an understatement.

Founded 10 years ago, this faithful Catholic college is turning hearts and minds to Lander, Wyo. — literally the middle of “God’s Country” — on the southeast edge of the majestic Wind River Mountain Range.

“There has been a lot of excitement about Wyoming Catholic College,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “It’s an absolutely wonderful institution which has focused on the classical approach to higher education.”

Learning leadership

Wyoming Catholic College’s objective is to offer a world-class, traditional liberal arts education in a holistic way: mind, body and spirit. The college’s approach is truly unique. All freshmen begin their studies by going on a three-week leadership camping trip.

Anthony Vercio

Anthony Vercio

“Learning leadership in the outdoors is ideal,” said Anthony Vercio, a WCC senior from Virginia. “In the back country, the consequences of your decisions can be seen so much more clearly. You really get to know yourself — your strengths and weaknesses.”

While some colleges offer voluntary three-to eight-day camping trips, no other U.S. college has a mandatory 21-day camping trip for freshmen, which incorporates leadership training as well as Catholic spirituality.

In August, the college welcomed its largest-ever freshman class of 58 students, bringing its student body to 150 students. Each of those freshmen will complete four camping trips in their first year. Upper-class students are required to go on at least two weeklong camping trips per year. The spiritual aspect of these trips sets WCC apart.

“We get to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God in relationship with other people,” Vercio explained. “It transformed the way I looked at the world.”

Every WCC freshman is also required to take a one-year course in horsemanship — learning to ride and care for horses.

Vercio said working with horses is a great lesson in humility. “It’s sometimes difficult to work with a horse,” he said. “You learn how to lead others to do what you would like. You have to learn to work with them with understanding.”

Unmistakably Catholic

Legate Kevin Roberts poses with his wife Michelle and their four children (Kristy Cardinal)

Legate Kevin Roberts poses with his wife Michelle and their four children (Kristy Cardinal)

WCC’s curriculum builds on itself over four years. The classes are chronologically organized as well as integrated among themselves. All students read the Great Books of Western Civilization. They take classes in history, imaginative literature, writing, reasoning, oratory, Latin, art history, music, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, spirituality, outdoor leadership, and horsemanship.

“We integrate everything we do,” said Dr. Kevin Roberts, a member of Legatus’ Denver Chapter who has served as WCC president since 2013. “Every student takes the same set of classes, so they can have the same foundation for great conversations. This is what we call the ‘cultivation of wonderment.’”

Judy Barrett, a WCC board member and a member of Legatus’ Napa Valley Chapter, sees real value in this kind of education.

“Many people don’t understand the value of a liberal arts program,” said Barrett. “Somewhere along the way we became results-oriented as a country. But many employers don’t want someone who comes from a specific background. They want someone who has the capacity to think. A liberal arts program prepares students for everything.”

wyomingcollege-featureReilly, from the Cardinal Newman Society, has been following WCC’s growth for years.

“The reality is that a student who gets a strong liberal arts degree tends to do better as their career progresses,” he said. “They have thinking and communication skills, which aren’t common. It usually pays off.”

WCC is unmistakably Catholic with a predominance of Benedictine and Carmelite spirituality. There are daily opportunities for Mass, Confession and Eucharistic adoration. Non-Catholic students are invited to take part in the spiritual formation available on campus.

“We take theology classes all four years here,” said Laura Kaiser, a senior from California. “So you see a development within yourself each year. Each year that passes, you move on to another level of the spiritual life.”

All WCC faculty make a public profession of the faith and oath of fidelity at the beginning of each academic year. Non-Catholic faculty make a pledge of respect to the Catholic Church and her teaching authority.

National reputation

Judy Barrett

Judy Barrett

Established in 2005, WCC opened its doors to 34 freshmen in 2007. The school is on a roll with its largest class ever this fall and, despite its relatively small size, WCC is drawing interest from across the country.

“One of the things that excites me is that WCC is developing a national reputation,” Barrett explained. “Students come from everywhere — and it has been this way since the beginning.”

The college’s graduates have taken diverse career paths. The most common has been teaching in Catholic or charter schools. Some have gone on to work in Catholic/Christian ministries, enrolled in graduate school or entered the religious life. Others have started businesses.

“We have one student who is getting a Masters in engineering,” said Roberts. “One is going to law school. One graduate is the press secretary for the lone member of Congress from Wyoming.”

WCC’s campus is in downtown Lander, a west-central Wyoming city of 7,500. Although its campus isn’t considered permanent, Roberts says the college will stay in Lander instead of moving (as originally planned) outside the city to Broken Anvil Ranch, a 600-acre property owned by the college.

Laura Keiser

Laura Keiser

The school is moving toward full accreditation. One year ago, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) granted WCC “candidacy” status, which means the college’s credits are now accepted at other colleges and graduate school programs.

Candidacy status also qualified WCC to receive federal grants and student loans. However, because of the political climate, WCC’s board decided unanimously to forego all federal funds.

“Even student loans carry some strings for participating colleges, and there is real concern that regulators have been trying to push policies regarding sexual activity and transgender students that conflict with Catholic teaching,” Reilly explained. “So if a Catholic college can do well without federal aid, it’s a great way to safeguard Catholic identity.”

Roberts said WCC will never compromise its Catholic identity.

“One thing is for sure, we will never sign anything that will cause us to go against our beliefs,” he said.

In its 10th year of operation, Wyoming Catholic College continues to form students as bold and joyful witnesses in the public square.

“If you’re looking to be pushed to grow in mind, body and spirit, this is the place to be,” Kaiser said. “WCC pushes you outside your comfort zone. You are allowed to grow more than you ever thought possible — and this growth is towards God.”

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

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A new captain at the helm

Ave Maria School of Law emerges from turbulent waters

Kevin Cieply

Kevin Cieply

When Kevin Cieply became dean and president of Ave Maria School of Law a little more than a year ago, he knew he was assuming the helm of a ship that had passed through some rough waters.

But today, the retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) Officer is convinced the school has emerged from the turbulence that followed its move from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Naples, FLA. Cieply believes it’s on the way to becoming an influential, significant law school in southwest Florida as well as the nation.

Growing success

Despite a successful start following its founding by Tom Monaghan in 1999, Ave Maria Law lost students and faculty with its 2009 move to Naples, and it slipped to the bottom of state bar exam passage rankings.

As a newcomer to the law school, Cieply said he brings “a fresh look at the school and a look that is not necessarily tethered to that experience.”

Indeed, a string of successes followed the new dean’s arrival in Naples, although he credits many others for their work preceding his appointment.

In October, for example, the school won a favorable federal court ruling in its challenge to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate. Cieply said the case was underway before he arrived and that his predecessor did a great deal of work on it.

“I came in at the end — right before the decision,” he said, adding that the school is now awaiting a ruling in a case involving EWTN. “Whatever is decided in the 11th Circuit in that case will dictate how our case eventually goes.”

Another indication that things are going well for Ave Maria School of Law is its move in February from the bottom to the top (83%) of Florida’s rankings for first-time passage of the state bar exam. Also, in March, the Diocese of Venice officially recognized the school as a Catholic institute of higher learning. Then, in April, Ave Maria Law announced a $1 million gift and purchase of the North Naples campus it had been renting from Ave Maria University.

A member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter, Cieply said these successes represent work by many people. “There’s no way I would say they’re my accomplishment, but the school’s. You just don’t accomplish those things by yourself.”


Undergirding the school’s success is clarity about its mission, Cieply said.

“We know what our purpose is,” he explained. “We aren’t struggling to find our niche or our relevance. We know we’ve got a clearly defined mission, and I see us as the manifestation of Tom Monaghan’s dream to make Catholic education relevant and a change agent for society.”

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education, said Ave Maria stands apart from other Catholic law schools with its strong emphasis on Catholic identity.

Reilly said he’s been encouraged by Cieply’s confident approach in recruiting students based on that identity. “Even some faithful Catholic institutions tend to downplay their character and he has made it a strong marketing point for the law school.”

Thomas Flickinger, a member of Legatus’ Grand Rapids Chapter, was in the law school’s first graduating class. Flickinger said he thinks the school’s greatest strength is its loyalty to the Church and its ability to train future lawyers to think not only of what can be accomplished legally, but what is ethical and morally permitted.

“Many people today figure ‘if it’s legal, it must be moral,’ but we were also trained to consider the ethics of the situation,” he explained.

Every class he took, Flickinger said, tied into the Catholic faith — whether it was reading encyclicals in property class or studying Thomistic philosopher Germain Grisez in professional liability class.

Besides infusing Church teachings into the curriculum, the school expresses its Catholic identity by opening classes with prayer and providing two Masses a day, a crucifix in every classroom, and a chaplain on campus.

To bolster its Catholic identity, Ave Maria Law has made an effort to recruit students from colleges and universities listed in the Cardinal Newman Society’s Newman Guide, which recommends schools committed to a faithful Catholic education.

Newman Guide schools, Reilly said, not only provide an outstanding liberal arts education that lends itself to a law degree, but have a strong mission fit with Ave Maria.

Last year, he said, with funding from Monaghan, the law school instituted a program offering full scholarships for students graduating from Newman Guide colleges and universities.

Twenty new students are entering the law school this fall on those scholarships. They, along with other students recruited from Newman Guide schools, will boost the Catholic student body, which last year was at 63%.

The school accepts students from all faiths without shying away from the fact that it’s Catholic, Cieply said.

“We pride ourselves on having a special fidelity to the Catholic Church and its teachings as well as the natural law,” he explained.

“We welcome anybody and everybody that will respect our mission.”

Challenges and priorities

In 2014, Ave Maria School of Law was named the best Catholic law school in the U.S. for the devout by National Jurist’s PreLaw Magazine.

To sustain and build on its high bar passage rate, Cieply said the school has hired a director of bar passage and made curriculum changes related to bar exam performance —including the addition of a one-credit course, Legal Case Analysis and Skills Enrichment. The new course, which will be offered for the first time during orientation week this fall, covers critical thinking and reading, how to brief cases, and how to structure answers for law school exams.

Cieply said his greatest challenge at this juncture is to improve the school’s financial position. The purchase of the North Naples campus was a step in that direction — in part because it will provide naming opportunities for buildings, attracting more substantial benefactors.

Among his top priorities is getting Ave Maria Law off a U.S. Department of Education financial watch list, where it has been for the last 11 years. Its presence on the list is unrelated to management of money, he said, but indicates that the school is tuition-dependent and without significant assets, endowments or equity. The school is slowly building a sound financial base, he said, adding he is hopeful that with some additional gifts, it can move off the list.

As Ave Maria approaches its 15th anniversary, Flickinger said he sees the biggest challenge as continuing to build its reputation in the legal community.

“Too many people still don’t know about the school and the many successful attorneys it has trained,” he said. “But the focus cannot simply be on the worldly view of success. The school was inspired by the encyclical Fides et Ratio; both faith and reason must flourish at AMSL for it to be truly successful.”

JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Learn more: avemarialaw.edu

Cardinal Newman and Notre Dame

Patrick Reilly writes that Catholic higher education is in urgent need of renewal . . .

Patrick Reilly

Patrick Reilly

The 19th-century convert, theologian and scholar John Henry Cardinal Newman is on the road to sainthood. The Vatican announced on July 3 that Pope Benedict XVI had recognized the miraculous healing of an American deacon through Newman’s intercession. That completes the final step toward his beatification, which is expected to occur next spring.

Newman’s beatification carries great significance for the Church as Catholic higher education faces a difficult crossroads. Newman’s celebrated work, The Idea of a University, declared principles that resonate clearly today: the primacy of theology, the integration of knowledge, and the certainty that all truth comes from God.

Newman was critical of his fellow Oxford intellectuals, many of whom were enthralled with science and had come to distrust any religious truth that could not be proven by observation.

In his Essays Critical and Historical he wrote: “The Rationalist makes himself his own center, not his Maker; he does not go to God, but he implies that God must come to him…. Instead of looking out of ourselves and trying to catch glimpses of God’s workings … we sit at home bringing everything to ourselves, enthroning ourselves in our own views and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon us as true.”

Strikingly, Newman’s words written about 150 years ago paint an accurate portrait of contemporary America and American education. For the most part, teachers, professors and students — as well as politicians, physicians and others — sit on the thrones of their own expertise, their own ideas, their own causes with minimal regard for the Truth revealed by God.

Teaching and knowledge have become increasingly fragmented, with emphasis not on understanding reality, but on building expertise in marketable skills and knowledge. Genuine academic discourse and rational debate have given way to issue advocacy and political correctness.

Consider last spring’s spectacle at the University of Notre Dame, which claimed to engage in “dialogue” by publicly honoring the nation’s pro-abortion president. The leaders of the most-celebrated Catholic university in America don’t seem to have a clue anymore as to the meaning and practice of genuine intellectual dialogue, academic freedom or Catholic mission. But they were willing to thumb their noses at the U.S. bishops for a spot on the evening news.

So it’s not surprising that what alarmed Newman in the 19th century also alarms Pope Benedict today. Secularism has overtaken the West, with our schools and colleges leading the charge. During his April 2008 address to Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America, Pope Benedict said “the contemporary ‘crisis of truth’ is rooted in a ‘crisis of faith.’ Only through faith can we freely give our assent to God’s testimony and acknowledge Him as the transcendent guarantor of the truth He reveals.”

But for too many educators, faith is viewed as contrary to reason and truth. “In the United States, Catholic universities have been very apologetic, almost embarrassed by their obligation to adhere to the faith of the Church,” Cardinal Avery Dulles noted in a 2001 address to The Cardinal Newman Society. “For Newman … any university that lacks the guidance of Christian revelation and the oversight of the Catholic Magisterium is, by that very fact, impeded in its mission to find and transmit truth.”

Pope Benedict challenged American educators last year “to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief.” Is that what we find at Notre Dame? At Georgetown? At the University of San Francisco?

Catholic higher education is in urgent need of renewal — and of a growing cadre of leaders of that renewal. We need the witness of those who — like the 367,000 Catholics who signed our petition opposing Notre Dame’s honor to President Obama — refuse simply to give up on the Catholic colleges and universities that were founded, funded and attended by faithful Catholics for decades and even centuries.

“Now is the time for a ‘second spring’ in Catholic university education in the United States,” Fr. C. John McCloskey wrote in a paper last year for the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education. “This reform and renewal will have consequences far beyond our borders — into the universal Church. It is our moment to evangelize and engage and apply the saving balm of the heart and mind of Christ to our society, which suffers much more from internal decay than it ever will from outside terrorists.”

All this will come about by prayer — and the Church would greatly benefit from a modern patron of Catholic colleges and universities, sharing the title with St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps it is no small matter that Newman’s approved miracle healed a spine. Cardinal Newman, ora pro nobis!

Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization to help renew and strengthen Catholic higher education.

The Notre Dame moment

What honoring President Obama means for Catholic higher education in America . . .

President Obama receives honors from Notre Dame on May 17

President Obama receives honors from Notre Dame on May 17

Faithful Catholics were almost universally outraged when President Barack Obama received an honorary degree from Notre Dame University last spring. Catholic college and university leaders across the country watched closely as the event put a spotlight on the increasingly problematic consequences for Catholic schools honoring pro-abortion politicians.

“This was the perfect storm,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization committed to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America’s Catholic colleges and universities.

“The most notable Catholic university in the country invites the high-profile president of the U.S. who had just taken some very disturbing actions with the federal funding of stem-cell research and abortion overseas,” he said.

Catholic identity

Catholics were initially angered by Notre Dame’s invitation to have Obama speak at its May 17 commencement. But discontent turned to outrage when they learned that the university would also award the president an honorary doctorate of laws.

Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins said the honor didn’t mean the university endorsed all of Obama’s positions. Yet critics questioned whether the same award would have been given to someone who endorsed slavery, supported racial segregation or practiced polygamy.

“There was great disappointment in Notre Dame for failing to act in conformity with its Catholic identity,” Reilly said.

Legatus member Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, agreed.

“It’s not that people should only focus on one issue,” he said. “But when a person is opposed to a fundamental Catholic teaching, you don’t invite that person if that college is trying to strengthen its Catholic identity.”

Obama’s Notre Dame moment has led some Catholic college leaders to reflect on their identity and where they want to go. “Generally, President Obama’s speech brought a heightened sense of importance to the Catholic identity of our institutions,” said Daniel Elsener, president of Marian University and member of Legatus’ Indianapolis Chapter.

“It’s clear that the Church does not want its institutions used as a platform for politicians to mislead or confuse the faithful,” he said. “The importance the Church places on key matters of faith — such as the enviable responsibility of leaders to protect life, especially the most innocent and vulnerable — must be clearly articulated and supported.”

Bishops’ role

Bishop John D’Arcy, whose diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend encompasses Notre Dame, vehemently opposed the Obama invitation, but the university’s leadership ignored him.

A total of 83 bishops —including five cardinals — opposed to Notre Dame’s decision to honor Obama. Though the university refused to budge, the bishops’ combined voice brought the issue to every kitchen table in the country.

Reilly noted that the faithful rallied behind the bishops with an unprecedented 367,000 people signing a petition protesting the Notre Dame invitation.

“The bishops are on record as finding this offensive,” he said. “They have stepped up.”

The bishops pointed out that Notre Dame was in direct violation of their 2004 document Catholics in Political Life which says, “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

The left-leaning Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) — which represents 245 Catholic colleges and universities — echoed Notre Dame’s talking point that “the bishops’ document is unclear.”

“The 2004 statement was not directed at Catholic colleges,” ACCU president Richard Yanikoski told Legatus Magazine. “It was more concerned with whether or not a pro-abortion politician should receive communion. Catholic education is not explicitly mentioned.”

Yanikoski said the ACCU is currently working with the bishops’ education committee to revise the document. But Reilly said the ACCU wants to scuttle the guidelines.

O’Donnell says that although the policy is not perfect, Catholic colleges are still free to invite speakers who disagree with Church teachings. However, colleges may not honor such speakers.

Some bishops are taking measures a step further by enacting stronger diocesan policies. Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., enacted such a policy in his diocese in 1997. Catholic facilities cannot invite or give an award to a politician whose voting record is against Church teaching.

“When Hillary Clinton was honored at Mercy Hearst College last year during graduation, I objected strongly to her being invited,” said Bishop Trautman. “I declined to attend the graduation last year. This year we built bridges with the college and I attended.”

When a Catholic college invites pro-abortion politicians year after year, he said, local bishops should take action and question the college’s Catholic identity.

“Bishops have the authority to take away the title of ‘Catholic’ from a college,” he said. “To my knowledge it has never been done thus far.”

Overall, analysts say, the Notre Dame episode was a net positive for the Church.

“We’ve seen a real change in the conversation about Catholic higher education,” Reilly said. “Fifteen years ago it was difficult to talk about these kinds of problems. Now it’s conventional wisdom. It has brought U.S. bishops toward real action to correct real abuses. Notre Dame will be viewed as a watershed moment towards the strengthening of Catholic education.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.


On that day …

Complaints began to flood Fr. John Jenkins’ office within hours of his March 20 announcement that President Obama would be this year’s commencement speaker. The national outcry continued until graduation day.

Obama told the 12,000-member audience at the May 17 commencement that in the abortion debate, “on some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” Although Obama pledged in the speech “to reduce abortions,” his policies are having the opposite effect.

Across campus, Priests for Life’s Fr. Frank Pavone offered an “alternate commencement” at the invitation of pro-life graduating students. Outside the university, police arrested at least 27 of the approximately 300 protestors.