The Theology of Excellence, The Anchor, January 11, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
January 11, 2013

Right after Thanksgiving, the Diocese of Fall River hosted Carolyn Woo, the director of Catholic Relief Services, for a powerful talk at St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Dartmouth. In the presence of Bishop Coleman, many priests and deacons, faithful from numerous parishes and a large contingent of students from the five diocesan high schools, Dr. Woo described the work CRS does in 100 countries across the globe serving more than 100 million of the world’s poorest people. She also took the time, in this Year of Faith, to describe her own remarkable journey of faith.

She was born in Hong Kong, the fifth of six children in a traditional Chinese family whose parents needed to flee the communist revolution in China. As a young girl in a school run by Maryknoll Sisters, she was profoundly moved that her teachers had left the comforts of America to travel to a place of poverty and disease to teach young children. When the Sisters told her they had done so out of love for God, she knew that God had to be real in order to inspire such choices. She became a Catholic.

She was inspired by her American teachers to want to continue her education in the United States, but it was rare for Chinese women to get university degrees and her family didn’t have the money to afford American universities. Nevertheless, they raised just enough for her to be able to go for one year to Purdue. She took double the ordinary course load, anticipating that it might be the only year she would have.

At the end of the year, inspired by prayer and daily Mass, she put out into the deep and applied for a fellowship, even though such fellowships were never given to international undergraduates. She ended up getting one anyway, and then bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, eventually joining the Purdue faculty and becoming associate vice president for Academic Affairs. Since her own family lived across the world in Hong Kong, the Catholics at Purdue had become her family and celebrated all of these milestones with her.

In 1997, she moved to Notre Dame to become dean of the Mendoza School of Business, which she led to become the top-ranked business school in the country.

In January 2012, moved by her faith, she left Notre Dame to become director of Catholic Relief Services, to help implement the international charitable programs of the U.S. bishops and the Catholic Church they lead.

Hers is a powerful story of faith: the faith-filled instruction of the Maryknoll Missionaries, the faithful hospitality of Purdue Catholics, the faithful generosity of American Catholics, the faithful gratitude of millions helped by CRS across the globe, and the faithful perseverance and hard work of Dr. Woo.

The real highlight of the afternoon came at the end of a half-hour’s worth of questions. Doubtless moved by her powerful personal story and the stories she recounted from her first year as head of CRS, someone asked whether she was planning to write a book about these adventures. This is a question she gets a lot, she replied. When she eventually gets the time to write a book, she said, two chapters will be musts: one dedicated to her experiences as a lay women in the Church; the second, she said, on the “theology of excellence.”

As soon as she mentioned the expression, “the theology of excellence,” I perked up in my seat. This is a theme about which I’ve given a lot of thought, ever since two disappointing encounters early in my priesthood.

One was with the family of the valedictorian of a parish grade school. She wanted to go to Bishop Connolly High School and from there to college, but her Catholic parents thought since they never went to college and turned out “just fine,” she should just go to the vocational technical high school and get a trade. I tried to speak to them about the parable of the talents, but they weren’t particularly interested in developing their daughter’s talents. Their expectations were not for excellence, but were limited to providing their bright daughter the best chance, without a college degree, to get a full-time job at 18.

The second experience happened when a Catholic superintendent of schools gave a presentation on the Catholic high schools in his diocese. They were doing quite well, he attested, and as proof he offered their high graduation rates. I was somewhat shocked, because, frankly, Catholic high schools should have higher goals than merely helping kids graduate. I asked him what was the rate of students going on to college, and it was much lower than the graduation percentage. Another asked how many had gotten into the most competitive Catholic and non-Catholic colleges and universities; the number was just a few across the entire diocese. There’s a saying about low expectations: even if you achieve them, you do not achieve very much, and I thought that diocese had set very low expectations.

That’s the background why I was interested in Dr. Woo’s wanting to write a chapter on the “theology of excellence.” She said that much of what she’s been able to achieve in life, despite all the obstacles she had to overcome, was because she’s always had high standards. She had high standards as a student, shattering the customary ceiling for what was expected for Chinese girls. She had high standards as dean of the Mendoza School of Business, saying that they became the top-ranked business school in the country not because of some type of “destiny,” but because she and her colleagues worked harder to get better in every area over the course of her 14-year tenure. She said she also has very high standards for herself and all her collaborators at CRS that leads them to set high goals and constantly strive to improve.

When she got to Notre Dame, she met Father Theodore Hesburgh, the famous president emeritus. He told her, “Our Lady is never pleased by mediocrity.” It’s a phrase she’s never forgotten.

It’s obvious that the reason why Father Hesburgh would say such a thing, and Dr. Woo would be interested in writing a chapter on the theology of excellence, is because in the experience of both they have often found mediocrity, complacency, and low standards where, especially in Catholic institutions, they expected, if not excellence, at least the desire and striving for it.

Satisfaction with mediocrity is a spiritual cancer. The Lord calls us to the greatness of holiness, to use and develop the gifts He’s given us for His Kingdom, to serve Him and others as well as we can. The virtue of humility doesn’t mean that God wants us to get C’s in class when He’s given us the capacity to get A’s, or do lackluster work when we could do great work, or have average Catholic schools, hospitals and parishes when they could be good or great.

God calls us to be “perfect” like He is perfect, which doesn’t mean that He expects us never to make a mistake but that we develop to the full the gifts He’s given us. That’s our Christian vocation, to be an excellent father or mother, an outstanding son or daughter, a superb student, first-rate taxi driver, homemaker, or employee, and an exemplary Catholic.

As we begin a new civil year, spurred on by Dr. Woo, it’s a good time to focus anew on high standards in school, work and life, and make some resolutions, with God’s help, to strive for the excellence they require.