By Melanie-Préjean Sullivan
The bilingual journal Tripod is published by the Holy Spirit Study Center of the Diocese of Hong Kong. In the most recent issue, a tribute to the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti [All Brothers], Melanie-Préjean Sullivan, Bellarmine’s former director of Campus Ministry, was invited to reflect upon her experience as an interfaith chaplain in an American Catholic university. The following is a summary of her article, “In God’s house, there are many rooms.”
In Fratelli Tutti [a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Catholic Church], Pope Francis calls readers to consider our world carefully. He comments on social, political and spiritual subjects in language accessible to both professionally trained theologians and to laypeople. I connected the encyclical to my own education and work, focusing on how they were underpinned by the 1965 Vatican II document on interfaith work, Nostra Aetate [In Our Time].
In considering Fratelli Tutti, I was reminded of my formation decades earlier. In Louisiana, I worked with the National Conference of Christians and Jews and with Catholic campus ministry. As I entered graduate school in Kentucky and my first career in the museum field, my commitment to Nostra Aetate affected my everyday relationships with organizations and people of all faiths. I was a member of several Jewish-Catholic dialogue groups. Later, as a teaching counselor, I collaborated with Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim families in the school where I taught, especially when there were critical events, such as untimely deaths, that required my interfaith awareness and counseling skills.
I brought these interfaith experiences to my ministry at Bellarmine and felt anchored in Nostra Aetate with a statement that became my guidepost for ministry: “We cannot truly pray to God the (Parent) of all if we treat any people as other than sisters and brothers, for all are created in God’s image.” This quote also is reflected in the tone and themes of Fratelli Tutti and in the title of my article, which referred to Jesus’ words in John 14:2, “in my Father’s house, there are many rooms.” It was at the core of our ministry on campus. As Fr. Ron Knott, a former campus minister, used to say, our office was “consciously Christian, deliberately Catholic, and unapologetically ecumenical and interfaith.” Our office motto was, “Many Faiths; One Ministry.” All were welcome, people of all faiths and none.
Having these themes of family and hospitality in mind, I considered how Fratelli Tutti affirmed our ministry programs and explained the context of that ministry with an introduction to the rich history of Bellarmine that I saw reflected in Francis’ words. With gratitude for Fr. Clyde Crews’ Bellarmine history In Veritatis Amore, I highlighted our original statement of purpose: “The College does not accept the notion that a school’s responsibility is to teach students simply to fit into the society in which they live. It submits that students must be taught to evaluate this society and to exercise their trained human powers to change it whenever necessary.”
From Bellarmine’s earliest days, human rights were our focus. Civil-rights activism was encouraged even as our first president, Msgr. Alfred Horrigan, admitted the challenge of displeasing donors with his decisions in favor of social justice. Such commitment remains in our present, with our continued care of Thomas Merton’s legacy and his call to anchor our true selves in the work of God’s justice. The role of teaching individuals to help transform society and of creating a fair world must remain at the core of our mission as a viable Catholic institution.
I used vignettes from our programs to illustrate the six sections of Fratelli Tutti. In our moves toward conscious mission integration and interfaith work, we answered Pope Francis’ invitation to be a “culture of encounter.” We did not merely talk about the gospel; we imitated Jesus inviting all to be with us in our ministry. In turn, we were invited to facilitate conversations across the curriculum, from the first and last core courses to Physical Therapy and Communications, with both undergraduates and graduates.
These frequent invitations brought us out of the campus ministry office into the academic side of campus. They reinforced our mission, which is depicted in the Holy Family relief in Our Lady of the Woods Chapel, to assist our students’ growth in “wisdom, age and grace” (Luke 2:52) or mind, body and spirit.
Not unlike Msgr. Horrigan, we met a few students and perhaps potential donors who didn’t like what we were doing. Some days, we were “too Catholic” in the morning and “not Catholic enough” by that afternoon. Yet, I am convinced that even though Pope Francis’ encyclical was written after my retirement, if it had been our benchmark document we would have lived its message to the fullest.
Besides the honor of having my words translated into Chinese, the invitation from the Holy Spirit Study Centre gave me a unique opportunity to look back on Bellarmine’s history and nearly 20 years of my memories. Dozens of students’ faces formed fresh in my mind as I wrote. I hope if they are reading this, they are smiling with me at how we lived the call to be part of the universal family of God, Fratelli Tutti.