Born and raised in Puerto Rico, I belong to a Roman Catholic family that went to Mass every Sunday, prayed the rosary every day during the month of October to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, and went to pre-dawn Mass during the Advent season before Christmas. My brothers were altar servers and my parents served in the marriage preparation ministry. I received the sacraments, including Baptism and First Communion as a child and I received Confirmation during high school.
My most vivid, faith-filled memories growing up include getting to know Jesus as pure love while preparing for my First Holy Communion, walking miles to witness Pope John Paul II’s visit to Puerto Rico, and being able to get close to Christ present in the tabernacle1 during a weekend religious retreat. These weekend retreats fostered my spiritual growth and allowed me to ask questions and share my faith with people of my own age. Because I attended a Catholic high school, I also became familiar with the history of the church, learning about the Vatican II council and reading papal encyclicals, pastoral letters written by the Pope on matters of church doctrine and often pertaining to faith and morals. In all these instances, I knew I was part of, and believed in something that was bigger than me: the Catholic Church and the Catholic Christian faith.
That is why several people around me were puzzled when I became a Catholic Biology Professor at a predominantly Protestant university. Loved ones were concerned that differences between Protestants and Catholics would challenge my mission to teach because they were afraid our worship differences would clash somewhere along the way. I disagreed; today, it is my belief that my Catholic identity is an asset to Christian higher education, be it a Protestant or Catholic institution.
First, a Christian liberal arts education is strengthened when educators and students from a multitude of Christian religious traditions teach and learn together. That is because we can learn more when we step out of our small groups into the larger Christian world. Growing up, despite going to a Catholic school, I met and learned from several Protestant friends. Through these relationships, I have learned that the Christian faith has many faces and interpretations. I find comfort in the fact that God loves us all the same. Similarly, as a professor, I have embraced opportunities to learn the faith journeys of students from different Christian denominations, including the Church of the Brethren and the United Methodist Church. Acceptance within our Christian community together with a willingness to learn from one another will foster the freedom of scholarship and enrichment that ought to exist in every academic institution.
Second, one of the assets that my Catholic identity brings is a connection to the largest Christian tradition. The word Catholic comes from the Greek katholikos that translates into “all-embracing” or universal.2 Catholics make up about 50 percent of the world’s Christians, which, in turn, make up about 30 percent of the world’s population3 As an adult, I felt connected to the Catholic faith throughout my travels. When my husband and I attended Mass while traveling in Italy, Mexico, or Keystone, Colorado, we always felt a sense of belonging. Working in a Christian institution has reminded me of all those times spent in faraway places where I felt like I was part of a group of God-loving and faith-filled individuals. Cultivating that feeling of Christian belonging has become my mantra in my daily dealings with students.
Third, all Christians can learn from the Catholic Church’s rich intellectual heritage. Even the contemporary Catholic world, as well as the church’s recent popes, includes renowned academics. Pope John Paul II was a religious scholar and prolific writer who cherished the relationship between reason and faith. He believed that “human knowledge is a work in process” and that science and research belonged to the “integral formation of a person.”4 His successor, Benedict XVI, was a noted theologian. Pope Francis I, our current pope, is a former chemist. Francis has written several works on how Christians should be stewards of the world’s natural resources given that they are part of God’s creation.5 I have learned from the writings of each of these holy men. As I reflect now, it was John Paul’s and Francis’ attention to pious living and thinking that was the beginning of my journey into faith-based scholarship. After all, deep thought is essential to innovative thinking in science.
Fourth, regardless of faith traditions, all Christians should possess a spirit of collaboration that is reflective of their faith. In my Catholic background, I have been part of many groups that worked with the common goal of serving the community. In biological research as well, I have learned that the best way to move forward in the field is to align myself with people that love and understand the discipline as much as I do and to work together with those people whenever possible. I chose a thesis advisor who not only pushed me to carry out thorough research but also toiled alongside colleagues while believing original research is the fruit of a group, rather than an individual. Collaboration is a daily goal of all scientific researchers. This desire to collaborate is part and parcel of my current faculty position. I am part of a team of exemplary science professors all focused on providing an education in biology while remaining grounded by our shared Christian faith and traditions. I daily strive to work together with my colleagues to educate future Christian scholars, whether it is in giving a lecture about science and faith or teaching a molecular biology exercise.
As I continue to progress in my career, I feel confident in my belief that Catholics like me can serve efficiently at Christian universities. Both my religious upbringing and scientific training help me every day to combine scholarly thinking and faith in my teaching practices. I have found myself thriving in a community that is open to the practice of multiple traditions within our shared Christian faith, and, at the same time, that fosters scholarship and a collaborative spirit. My family and I continue to attend Mass and practice our Catholic faith. At work, I know that God directed me exactly to where I am today. I am a scholar in a Christian university setting where I am encouraged to follow my faith while collaborating and serving among and alongside many Protestant colleagues and friends.
What a lovely reflection! As a Roman Catholic leading a predominantly Protestant arts organization, it is sometimes frustrating (yet also rewarding). Prof. Rivera-Walsh’s words made me smile and remember the beauty of collaboration. If only we could all be so embracing as this author.
As a Lutheran who is married to a Catholic and has taught for over 20 years at a Wesleyan institution, I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.
I am sorry that you even had to write this blog. In a theology school where you would be teaching Protestant Theology I could maybe understand the puzzlement. But a Biology professor? Christian colleges are having a difficult time finding science professors, so the main requirement in most schools is are you a fervent Christian and can teach and research well. In my own university Oral Roberts university some forty years ago, I came to ORU wondering if it was possible to be Christian and Catholic. There were two Catholics students on my wing whose lives made me look terrible. That was the end of my misguided pre-conception and the start of a long set of Catholic friends and bosses who corrected me and guided me in proper christian character and life. This is not to brag on my university, we have a lot of problems. But I have been to Messiah several times and found it to have a rich deep Christian tradition. It is a wonderful university. You are there because God put you there. As the Christian world slowly draws together to combat the secular onslaught it is critical that you be there to educate the few students who need to see the church universal in my humble opinion. I wish you well in your teaching career. I am near the end of mine and stand amazed at the fine science faculty who are rising to fill the bill in educating our Christian students.