New faith centre at St. Thomas More College just right for its time

Dr. Chris Hrynkow has been named director of the Centre for Faith, Reason, Peace and Justice at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon. (Photo courtesy of Chris Hrynkow)

By Wendy-Ann Clarke,  The Catholic Register

Roughly a decade in development, the new Centre for Faith, Reason, Peace and Justice at St. Thomas More College couldn’t be more timely.

In a polarized social and political climate grappling with ways to find common ground, the centre at the Catholic college on the University of Saskatchewan campus aims to create spaces to foster relevant discourse to enable students to contribute to a more just society.

“There are skills that need to be developed to be able to engage in respectful dialogue, across difference in different histories, different experiences, different worldviews,” said Dr. Gertrude Rompré, director of Mission and Ministry at the Saskatoon college. “I think the role of a Catholic liberal arts college and certainly the role of the centre is to foster in our students those basic skills of dialogue — respectful dialogue — across difference.”

The centre will serve as an academic home for the college’s three founding programs: Catholic Studies focused on the ongoing dialogue between faith and reason and its significance for our culture; Critical Perspectives on Social Justice and the Common Good, which explores justice and solidarity across cultures; and Peace Studies, which will analyze and address conflict and its resolution.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol took place in the lead up to the centre’s launch on Jan. 28, an event that underscores the reason the centre’s newly named director Chris Hrynkow believes these intersections are important to explore. Political divisions and various longstanding social injustices have left many in North America and across the world feeling cynical about the prospect of building bridges, but for Hrynkow hope is not lost.

“One of the things that I think links the three (programs) is hope for a better world,” said Hrynkow. “Part of Catholic tradition and Catholic study is this idea of having an imagination and faith-driven energy that’s related to hope. To that feeling of despair that’s quite natural amidst lockdown and this contraction of community that we’re experiencing right now. I think each of these areas has something to offer that is healing.”

Ideals of compassion, equality and justice for all are preached from pulpits and idealized in Catholic academic institutions, leaving many confused as to how that messaging in some cases becomes disconnected from the ideologies of everyday people within faith communities.

In the age of fake news, conspiracy theories, controversies over mask wearing, social distancing, vaccinations, xenophobia and racism among many other divisions, for Hrynkow, understanding the interplay between faith and reason within Catholic tradition becomes even more critical. For example, counter-intuitive actions that help communities, such as social distancing, can be supported in Catholic social teaching principles based on community participation, solidarity, social justice and health.

“One of the characterizations is that people of faith are not reasonable, not dialogue partners, not partners for peace and social justice,” said Hrynkow. “The folks that are associated with the centre, our community partners, and the people excited about it, provide counterexamples to that. I think bringing that all together is beneficial to both Catholic traditions, peace and social justice traditions.”

A large part of the program will also involve learning from community partners, including the Diocese of Saskatoon, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools and the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan. The centre looks to build on existing relationships and growing partnerships in diverse communities both within and outside of Catholic tradition to nurture mutually beneficial learning spaces and relationship building.

The centre is engaging in discussions reflecting on the 2019 synod on the Amazon and works to strengthen partnerships in Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan. It is currently working on a panel discussion on Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ October 2020 encyclical which speaks to how the pandemic has revealed cracks in the system. The centre looks to consider ways the Catholic faith community can help society to build back better coming out of the pandemic.

College officials hope the centre will be a living organism and continue to grow and evolve, placing value on the feedback and contributions of community partners and the student body.

“I think it’s a great moment to start to think that we can do things differently,” said St. Thomas More president Carl Still. “We can invite new voices in and be a little more courageous about making sure everyone has a chance to speak and to be heard and then we try to act on what we’re hearing.”