Seeing God in the Every Day of Change

January 6, 2021

By Thomas M. Evans, PhD

Q/A with Sr. Walter Maher, CCVI, vice president for Mission & Ministry

Reflections on the Catholic Identity & Mission Assessment and more

Sr. Walter Maher talking to campus membersAt UIW, Mission is the wellspring from which our dynamic University has grown and flourished. As we continue to grow and change – and face new, unprecedented challenges as we have these recent months – cultivating it, preserving its central role and assuring it continues to steer us, is critical. I spoke with my former colleague, Chris Fuller, vice president and  chief sponsorship and  mission integration officer at  Saint Joseph's College in Maine, who was part of the team that drafted the original Catholic Identity & Mission Assessment (CIMA) assessment tool developed by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Fuller made an obvious but important observation — it helps to have one person designated in a mission integration role.

“We all have taken Catholic identity somewhat for granted — we could always point to the founding congregation of Sisters or Brothers as living embodiment of mission,” he said. “As those examples become less common, the CIMA tool helps to inform an ongoing conversation about what Catholic identity and the Catholic intellectual tradition means for students and families.”

At the University of the Incarnate Word, we are fortunate to be led by Sr. Walter Maher, CCVI, vice president for Mission & Ministry, who will lead the Catholic Identity & Mission Assessment with current UIW freshmen. Working with these first-year students will help our University establish whether and how students identify with our Mission as they enter UIW and measure and examine their growth upon graduation. We asked Sr. Walter to reflect on the survey, and how she and many others tied to Mission have carried on with imagination and resourcefulness through the pandemic.

What might UIW faculty and leadership learn from administering the Catholic Identity & Mission Assessment?

Knowledge integration is a vital part of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. The survey will reveal how willing our students are to engage the conversation between faith and science. Do the liberal arts make them more aware of their personal values, and their sense of purpose? Are they learning about society’s systemic issues? What are they observing? Another way to think about it is measuring “citizenship” — the level of participation in the faith community, the social and political community, the university community. So yes, it is important to measure. Are we effective in actually turning out or having educated men and women who are concerned in enlightened citizens?

How do you see the community coping in this time of extraordinary challenge?

I think the lesson being offered — do what’s best for the greater good — is clear. Most people have responded. Some choose to be selfish and can't really get on board. I think perhaps we became too comfortable with too many things. Too accustom to thinking about ourselves. And so sometimes we have to be brought to our knees to really understand what's important. Maybe that’s the gift waiting for each us through this ordeal.

Has the pandemic shifted your focus or altered to the daily routine of Mission & Ministry?

I don't see everybody in person as often, but we quickly adapted our Mission & Ministry work to engage the community via Zoom meetings. The interactions have been phenomenal. As always, we started from the scriptural base, considering Jesus as teacher. Students made a connection immediately between the challenges of trusting experts during Covid and Jesus in the Temple as a 12-year-old, asking questions of the learned elders and doctors.

Suddenly, limited in our mobility, we are face to face with reflection.

I have received so many notes from different people across the community, saying what a wonderful gift it has been to, to think and to reflect. I think that's been the gift of the pandemic in a way, it has brought us together in a very different way, but with a deeper appreciation of, of our interconnectedness, the human dignity of each person and the contribution of each one to the life or the Mission of the University.

I think there's a much stronger sense of collaboration, maybe communion, in times of crisis. This time of racial reckoning also — it’s reminding us that it is our job to move out of silos into a consideration of the whole or the common good.

What keeps us from acknowledging how much we need one another?

We think we have it under control. This moment is teaching us to be more reflective about our lives because we never know what can happen in a day. Sometimes I will say to the provost, that's where we can see the grace. The grace is that God is already there before us. The challenge is, are we able to see, are we able to hear and are we able to name it?

Where do you see grace?

We can look at education from a different lens today, months into a time of great change. We have all had to adapt and change … and do lots of things that we would not have otherwise considered. I see the responsiveness of our faculty as grace — as God being there, as God moving with us and God inviting us to say yes and to continue for the greater good. This unfortunate pandemic has called us to a greater sense of solidarity and a greater sense of communion. And that sense that we all belong together because no one of us can actually do anything on our own. We need each other to be able to accomplish what we say we're about.

How do we mend and heal in the wake of staggering losses experienced by the community?

The number of members of families who have died from COVID for faculty, students, and staff, and food workers on campus has been quite large. Presence is the key: hearing the story, sometimes just sitting with a member who has lost someone  and whose living circumstance  is tenuous being present to them is really all that’s required. It allows the person to grieve. I think grief is very, very important. Other times, there is a clear action that needs to be taken… I figure out what the action is and what I need to do. Hopefully, we are remembering what it means to be more loving in a certain sense because we recognize our human frailty and that we are very vulnerable. In our own search for safety, we might appreciate that everyone — especially those somehow marked as different — want nothing more than to be able to create that sense of feeling safe and secure.

What do you say to anyone — student, faculty, staff — who feels the burden of this situation?

I say, try to find community here — this is a good place to give and receive in troubled times. We each play a role in seeing what’s happening in the community. Where do we see need? Where do we see God opening doors? Together, we can understand the changing needs of our students, or the needs of our housekeepers? How are we trying to respond to those needs? I think that's really where Mission is very alive because we are attentive to what God is doing.