Saturday, March 17, 2007

Louvain at 150

This weekend, a good bit of the traveling scene has descended on the heart of Belgium to celebrate the sesquicentenary of the American College of the Immaculate Conception at the Catholic University of Louvain.

On 19 March 1857, the college's history says that the bishops of the United States established it "with the dual purpose of training young European men to serve as missionary priests in North America and of offering to American seminarians the philosophical and theological riches available at Europe's oldest Catholic university." While the founding of the American College preceded that of its Roman counterpart by almost three years, as with many sibling relationships, the elder plays the role of the unassuming, low-profile one.

Topping the list of attendees are two princes of the church: Cardinals William Levada, prefect of the CDF, and Godfried Danneels of Mechelen- Brussels, each of whom is presiding at celebratory liturgies. At this afternoon's civic reception, Levada appeared in his cardinalatial ferraiolo and biretta, while Danneels donned a simple overcoat over his house cassock. Also in for the weekend is Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, nuncio to Brussels and -- even more importantly -- fifth widow of Benelli.

The festivities began yesterday, as ACL rector Fr Kevin Codd defended his doctoral dissertation in ecclesiastical history. Appropriately enough for a priest of Spokane, it's a study of the role played by missionaries trained at the college in the birth of the church in the Pacific Northwest from 1857 to 1907. Having held the rector's post since 2001, at the end of his term in July Codd will be succeeded by Fr Ross Schecterle, a priest of Milwaukee currently on the formation team at the college's younger, better-known sibling.

Representing the American hierarchy are Bishops Tod Brown of Orange, his auxiliary Dominic Mai Luong and Luong's fellow New Orleanean, Crescent City auxiliary Roger Morin. None are Louvain alums -- an episcopal caucus that got a recent boost with the appointment of Morin's new collaborator, NO auxiliary Shelton Fabre (Class of '89).

Other living bishop-graduates of the American College include Archbishop Patrick Pinder ('79) of Nassau in the Bahamas, Bishops Edward Braxton ('75) of Belleville, Robert Mulvee, emeritus of Providence, auxiliary of Manchester Francis Christian ('68) and David Ricken ('80) of Cheyenne. A onetime staffer at Clero, Ricken's been called a rising star among the US bishops; he serves as chair of Louvain's de facto board of trustees, the USCCB's Committee for the American College.

Arguably, however, the college's greatest legacy to the church in the US remains its formation of the cleric considered the most influential figure in the four-century history of American Catholicism.

By his own admission, it was at the American College that Fulton J. Sheen first desired the episcopacy, saying a Hail Mary to that end at each of the Seven Dolors painted on the wall of the city's St Michael's Church whenever he passed. There, he earned the university's highest degree -- the famed agrégé -- and with the highest distinction, to boot.

Returning to his native land, his prayers eventually answered, the captivating prelate took to the airwaves, serving to eviscerate almost singlehandedly what remained of centuries of prejudice and confusion that plagued the church in this land, so completing the journey of American Catholics from the suspicion and persecution of the ghetto to the confidence and clout of the cultural mainstream.

"There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church," the product of Peoria who became a New Yorker once said. "There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing."

Sure, they may remember Erasmus more fondly and more often ten miles outside Brussels. But for the church in the States, Sheen was Louvain's richest yield. His cause for beatification continues, and here's a clip of the great one in the work.

In thanksgiving for a century and a half of many gifts, all wishes to the ACL community for a very Happy Anniversary.

American College of the Immaculate Conception