In her article on Friday, ‘Professors in the pulpit’ published in UVa Today , Caroline Newman introduces us to some of the members of the faculty at the University who are also religious leaders in the local community. Michael F. Suarez, S.J. has served as Director of the Rare Book School, Professor of English, University Professor, and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia since 2009. He is also a priest affiliated with Holy Comforter Roman Catholic Church in downtown Charlottesville, established just a year prior to Jefferson’s death.
Prior to coming to UVa, Prof. Suarez lived in a Jesuit community for nearly 30 years, assisting as a parish priest in the city of Oxford, after his ordination, He is the editor, with H. R. Woudhuysen, of ‘The Oxford Companion to the Book,’ published in 2010, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a monument to mankind’s most effective means of communication.” His most recent publication is ‘The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Volume VII: The Dublin Notebook 1st Edition,’ for which he served as an editor, with Lesley J. Higgins, providing “rare access to the Jesuit poet’s private, poetic, religious, and academic thoughts and words during his final years in Dublin.”
In August of this year, President Obama nominated Professor Suarez to serve on the National Council on the Humanities, which is the advisory board comprised of 26 distinguished private citizens appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, each serving for a term of six years. Suarez holds two master’s degrees in English; two master’s degrees in theology; and a D.Phil. in English, from the University of Oxford.
Professor Suarez is one of several faculty members who satisfy their academic interests and responsibilities, while serving in their discretionary time as leaders in a range of religious congregations; each carefully distinguishing between their academic roles and their religious roles.
On November 2, 1822, Jefferson wrote from Monticello to Dr. Thomas Cooper:
“In our village of Charlottesville, there is a good degree of religion, with a small spice only of fanaticism. We have four sects, but without either church or meeting-house. Unitarianism… will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.
The court-house is the common temple, one Sunday in the month to each. Here, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist, meet together, join in hymning their Maker, listen with attention and devotion to each others’ preachers, and all mix in society with perfect harmony.”
At one point, having just presided over a funeral, professor wore his Roman collar to class. “I got a lot of stares,” he mentions. Jefferson was not a big fan of the Jesuits, whose educational efforts had been subject to a good deal of misinformation which had led to their efforts having been suppressed for a time. John Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1816, complaining about them in very stark terms as Adams often had characterized various others.
UVa Today’s Caroline Newman writes:
“UVA founder Thomas Jefferson famously disapproved of the Jesuits. He called their reemergence during his presidency “a step backwards from light into darkness.” However, Suarez believes that Jefferson would approve of the many religious perspectives welcomed on Grounds today. I am very proud to be part of a community that honors Jefferson’s vision of pluriformity of religious perspective, and happy to contribute what little I can to it. Part of the power of the University as a community of diverse thinking is having people with many religious points of view “For me, the work that I do as an explicit leader of a faith community presiding at liturgy and the work that I do as a professor in the English department are mutually enriching.”
In his letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Jefferson notes:
“In our university you know there is no Professorship of Divinity. A handle has been made of this, to disseminate an idea that this is an institution, not merely of no religion, but against all religion. Occasion was taken at the last meeting of the Visitors, to bring forward an idea that might silence this calumny, which weighed on the minds of some honest friends to the institution.
In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there, and have the free use of our library, and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other.
This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences. I think the invitation will be accepted, by some sects from candid intentions, and by others from jealousy and rivalship. And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”
Michael Suarez entered the Jesuit order as a college graduate, and studied for 12 years, before his ordination in 1994:
“I very much like the spirituality of finding God in all things, one of the hallmarks of the Jesuit order,” Suarez said. “Jesuits have traditionally been bridge builders between the intellectual life and the spiritual life. They have always taught, from the 16th century onward, that the two are not inimical, but rather that the incarnation of God as Jesus calls us to a profound engagement with what is authentically human.”