Newman Guide College President: ‘Work is a Spiritual Calling’

Career success is often associated with getting a good education. The purpose of education has come to be seen by many as simply preparing individuals to enter the workforce. However, there is more to both work and education than what contemporary society portrays, according to Monsignor James Shea, president of the Newman Guide-recommended University of Mary,

Msgr. Shea was featured as a keynote speaker during the recent THIRST Eucharistic conference in the diocese of Bismarck, N.D. His talk, entitled “Work, Life, and Mercy,” addressed the contemporary struggle of having an integrated life and our understanding of the role and purpose of work.

Education, he argued, is integral for forming a healthy understanding of the “glory of work and the joy of living,” but modern education has been reduced to focus solely on one’s career.

“We live in a culture in which we teach children to be ‘go-getters’ rather than ‘go-givers’, more concerned about grades, athletic achievements, and other achievements than about the good of the souls of young people, the poor of our community, the problems of our society,” he said. “Our career strategies guarantee income and security; they cluster around the notion of enlightened self-interest. And so we live a divided life, both individually and organizationally.

“Most of us would never say that being careful or making money or having status or honor are the goal of our lives, but we find ourselves falling into patterns as if they were,” he continued. “This is what a divided life looks like and feels like.”

In his address, Msgr. Shea held up the Benedictines, the founding order of the University of Mary, as exemplars of the balanced life with their unofficial motto of ora et labora, work and prayer.

Msgr. Shea noted that the understanding of work he hopes students leave with after their education at the University of Mary is one of work as “a vocation, a calling to give, to be human, to holiness; a matter of being.”

He warned against other understandings of work as merely a job or as merely a career. These reductionist meanings of work are oppressive, Msgr. Shea argued. “Our work is never merely about what we achieve,” Msgr. Shea said. “It is about who we become.”

Msgr. Shea decried the educational culture which values “good test scores and checking all the boxes necessary for the next step, but [fails] to ask the deeper questions of why we go to school.” This culture ultimately hurts students, Msgr. Shea explained:

Sometimes the more you measure something, the more you drive the spirit out of the thing. We see this from time to time in education. Sometimes … the more you test your students, the more you grade them, the more burdensome education gets, which drives the love of learning out of the student. Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Many institutions of Catholic higher education have forgotten that “learning is not meant to be an instrument for advancement, but something beautiful for its own sake,” Msgr. Shea argued. This situation has resulted in the deterioration of universities; true universities should be focused on the joy of learning and the pursuit of truth, those things which are “worth our wonder.”

A Warning Against Careerism

Msgr. Shea explained that the University of Mary strives to make “Catholic businessmen, nurses and teachers who do not push their religion to only Sunday expression. We don’t educate just for careers, but for what engages the human soul and … what develops human character.”

Msgr. Shea defined careerism as the understanding of work where doing — one’s achievements and status — takes precedent over being — one’s character and relationships. This is problematic, he explained, because “understanding work as merely a career tends toward preoccupation: What do I want to do? What fulfills me? What’s the next step for me?” A careerist will rarely ask, however, “What does the world need from me? What’s the common good and how can I contribute to it?”

At the root of this understanding of work is the lack of a spiritual calling. The question one should be asking, Msgr. Shea shared, is, “What is God asking of me in this world?”

To live life with the understanding that work is only about one’s career is a mistake. “This is a life without love,” Msgr. Shea declared. “You’ll never find happiness, you’ll never find meaning until you find a way to give yourselves away in love.”

Msgr. Shea encouraged his audience to ask themselves the important questions underlying true education: What am I working for? And, therefore, what am I living for?

A faithful Catholic education helps provide these answers.

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