For those who have studied Theology at seminaries and pursued third-level education at Pontifical universities, the Catholic University and its mission and purpose may not seem very challenging, confusing or problematic. There may be an implicit and, perhaps, unspoken understanding of what the Catholic University stands for but, if this is not discussed with others, it may also create confusion for those for whom a Catholic University is considered to be the same as any other university. And, to a certain extent, the latter is true. The Catholic University does share aspects with other universities.

However, there is an expectation that the Catholic University will serve the world and the Church in a particular way, and this mission in itself sets it apart as being distinctive. But it is, in fact, in this very distinctiveness that we find ourselves in what James L Heft (2021) describes as an ‘open circle.’ The Catholic University is ‘distinctive’ and yet it is ‘open.’ Heft’s work points out that the distinctiveness may be seen as a negative by some, as it could be interpreted as something that is ‘closed’, ‘set in stone’, and perhaps even something that stands against what we might mean by the concept of progress (Heft, 2021).

On the other hand, however, the openness can be interpreted as something which is entirely disconnected from the mission of the Catholic University and therefore the university is expected to proceed without any reference to it whatsoever.

The ideal is to find a healthy balance between expressing the unique mission and character of the Catholic University whilst also respecting its openness to new research, progress in understanding human dignity, and providing education for as many people as possible which helps to shape minds and character at one and the same time.

In this sense, we need to engage with people respectfully and slowly in order to articulate exactly what our Catholic Mission is about and explain it in an inclusive way – bearing in mind that few might understand the theological underpinnings right away. Patience in dialogue is a key approach which should help us to be cautious and careful so that people feel they can express themselves fully -whatever their view might be - and subsequently begin to engage in healthy conversations about what Catholic Mission in a university might look like today. Looking inward, we need to respect tradition and heritage. But, looking outwards, we need to remain competitive, worldly and relevant in all aspects of what we do and how we behave.

In relation to how this could play out for Faculty staff members, we could potentially say that staff who work at a Catholic University are engaged in the task of finding ways of teaching and working that help to ‘humanise the world.’ Our business professors should be seeking to provide solutions to economic initiatives that disadvantage the poor. Our Humanities professors should be seeking ways of expressing who we are in the depth of our humanity so that we have a deeper understanding of our deeper selves, the world and others. Our nursing teams should be engaged with researching what ethically-informed care looks like and innovating as regards how to protect human dignity when people are sick and/or dying.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae makes it clear that Catholic University education includes ‘the search for an integration of knowledge, a dialogue between faith and reason an ethical concern and a theological perspective’ (ECE, 15).

Along with finding ways of teaching and pushing the boundaries of knowledge concerning the dignity of human persons, ECC makes it clear that the Catholic University should study values, world issues and global concerns and will attempt in its core business strategy to work to promote the good of society. Furthermore, in the teaching and research that takes place at the Catholic University, we must be finding ways of helping people to find themselves, to develop their moral character and to explore their own spiritual lives and the life of faith more generally, that is, if the latter is what they freely choose to do.

For the Catholic Saint John Henry Newman, the pursuit of academic knowledge is for its own sake. But this search for truth and understanding is always incomplete and in need of perfection by faith. It is in this sense that the Catholic tradition articulates the phrase: ‘faith-seeking understanding.’

The education that we should expect to receive, grow, develop and continue at the Catholic University should be one of hope. As Pope Francis – in a video recorded in 2020 in which he paid tribute to academic who had been heavily involved in UNESCO’s Mission 4.7 asserts ‘Education is an act of hope that, from the present, looks to the future.’

Cardinal José Tolentino Medonça’s perspective develops this further when he argues that: [w]e have to strive for Catholic Universities to be good universities. But we must also bear in mind that this is not enough. In Pope Francis’ mind, Catholic Universities shouldn’t just deliver quality degrees and ensure the pursuit of ambitious careers for their students. As the Pope said in his World Day of Peace message of 2021, the Church wishes our institutions of higher learning to shine as world universities that, by offering their educational services, are in a capacity to “pass on a system of values based on the recognition of the dignity of each person, each linguistic, ethnic and religious community and each people, as well as the fundamental rights arising from the recognition” (Cardinal José Tolentino Medonça, Prefect for the Dicastery for Culture and Education, Holy See).

In this respect, therefore, the Catholic University is asked to provide excellent education but also to pass on values for a more humanised world – one that is able to look at the world’s issues and have a view on how to make them more bearable, to change them, or to provide a platform where the issues can be recognised. The pursuit of truth is central to the mission of the Catholic University as it is in the reflection upon truth in every age and our ability to read the ‘signs of the times’ and respond appropriately that will help us to create a new world – one that, as Cardinal Tolentino Medonça argues, is ‘more open and inclusive, capable of patient listening, constructive dialogue and better mutual understanding.’

This chimes very much with what Saint John Henry Newman was arguing for when he wrote and spoke about the nature and mission of the university. The Catholic University should be a place where scholarship takes place but also where there is a ‘sympathetic environment where spiritual matters can be explored with openness, patience, and nuance, and where an intelligent, recollected discipleship can be cultivated’ (Fisher 2023, p. 400).

Newman is famously remembered for having said that ‘to be perfect is to have changed often.’ The Catholic University and its mission is similar to this. It needs to change in the light of the Church’s reaching of the ‘signs of the times’ and in light of the new ground that its researchers may break in their search for a better world. Without falling prey to ideological trends of the time, the Catholic University and the scholarship that comes from it will be authentic, rigorous and will hopefully challenge us to think again about the conditions that we need to bring about for the common good – of all persons of goodwill.

Therefore, dialogue, debate, critical engagement with issues of significance for our times are very much the remit of the Catholic University. Education should offer the depth of exploration as well as a stress on the need for good character to be a compass for how we live and work in the world. Character, virtue and academic excellence all work hand in hand here. In short, as Fisher (2023) puts it, the Catholic University should prepare ‘intelligent, well-instructed people to act well in this life and so serve the betterment of self in society’ p. 408).

For this to happen, the teaching of ethics and values must also be a part of what the Catholic University can and should offer – as well as a safe space for students and staff to explore, to learn and grown together, to share the journey of learning together, to bear the joys and griefs of transforming into the people of the future and to do this will a sense of justice and love. Faith and reason are part and parcel of this intellectual journey which is why faith continues to be a central aspect of the life of Catholic University – for it is in faith and our hope for what the Catholic University can really achieve is to be found.

At Leeds Trinity University, we are very proud to say that our Foundresses, The Sisters of the Cross and Passion, have continued this mission of Catholic education by providing education for the poor as part of their service to humanity and to the Church. This mission continues today on our Main Campus in Horsforth as the values we articulate and demonstrate in our classrooms and in our strategic plan continue to inform and shape the educational offer. We offer all students a safe and supportive environment to grow and development as a ‘whole person’ as well as providing a critical lens in our academic provision that can help to inform future thinking about how we can help to mend our fractured world. Bringing hope to students, staff and the wider world is what strive to do. This is no easy task. But the first step is for us to be proud that this is what we stand for and to acknowledge together that this is the torch we hold out to our students and to the world and the mission that helps us to shape partnerships, research and strategic decisions. ‘Education for Hope’ is shorthand for who we are and what we do best.