LANDER, Wyo. — A small Wyoming town (population 7,500) situated under the mountains and surrounded by ranches is hardly the place you’d expect to find some of the most beautiful liturgies, along with one of the most rigorous academic programs in America. And yet that’s what greeted 54 new freshmen here at the convocation Mass in Holy Rosary Catholic Church Aug. 25, as Wyoming Catholic College launched its 2019 academic year.
After spending 21 days together on a physically and spiritually demanding wilderness trip in the breathtaking grandeur of the Wind River and Teton Mountains, the budding young scholars were welcomed “home” to an intellectually demanding school year by Cheyenne Bishop Steven Biegler. Also attending Mass and the ceremonies that followed were college staff, faculty, priests, parents, friends and neighbors.
The overarching vision for the type of classical liberal education offered at Wyoming Catholic College is to immerse students into the good, the true and the beautiful so they can come to know the world in a poetic way through the imagination and be inspired to ask the big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What is evil? What is good? What is eternity?
In an inspiring homily, Bishop Biegler spoke of the “formation of the whole person that Catholic education seeks.” An authentic Catholic education like that offered at Wyoming Catholic College, he observed, seeks to “form a young person body and mind, heart and soul, faith and reason.”
He continued, “We seek to form disciples who think, speak and act like Christ. That’s why Catholic education includes helping young people learn how to pray the way Jesus prayed.”
Incoming freshman Cecilia Wiesner, 19, from Aurora, Illinois, said this balanced emphasis on the body, mind and spirit was what initially drew her to the college. “I think a lot of problems and complicated situations come down to a lack of balance in your life,” she said. She believes the balanced way students are taught to live here is “an important mindset to have” — and hard to find in our present society.
Another freshman, 18-year-old Sofia Piliero from Vail, Colorado, said that while she’s fascinated with fine art and fine-art restoration, she realized she couldn’t pursue art well “without coming here first. I thought that to fully live life, I needed to be formed wholly. And the eduation here —this whole integral view of life — is everything: your mind, body, and soul all coming together.”
Anthony Lizzio, 20, from Hartland, Michigan, had gone to a community college and was planning to transfer to a state university to study welding and engineering when a friend who attends the college convinced him a liberal education like that at Wyoming Catholic “forms you to do things well. It doesn’t just give you the tools. It forms you as a person to be able to learn whatever [you’re called] to learn and do it so much better than anyone else. So that’s where the practical aspect of this college comes in.” He also likes the fact the college “takes your cellphone away from you” when you arrive. He said being torn away from the world you were once in and being tossed into the wilderness for three weeks “forces you to think in a certain way and to encounter God” in a new way that’s impossible amid so many worldly distractions. In the community college he attended, he didn’t make a single friend in two years. But being out in the wilderness, crossing rivers and climbing peaks, has given him “a bond with these men that I would never have found anywhere else.”
To further its mission of integrating faith with reason and educating the whole person, the college now has two chaplains: Father Paul Ward, who offers Holy Mass in both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman Rite, and Byzantine Rite chaplain Father David Anderson, a well-known lecturer on liturgical theology and the early Church Fathers. The two priests work together as a team, along with Holy Rosary priest Father James Schumacher, to provide students with a complete immersion in both Eastern and Western liturgical traditions.
“Every time we celebrate the Eucharist ... we find in the Body and Blood we share ... the call to our unity,” the Pope wrote. Noting “that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church,” he observed, the “first need” for Roman Catholics “is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity.”
The college’s president, Glenn Arbery, expands on this idea, saying, “When Pope John Paul spoke of the ‘two lungs’ of the Church — and what a superb metaphor it was — he was calling for an end to the attempt to draw upon only half the available spirituality. Students at Wyoming Catholic College now have the rare opportunity to experience the wholeness of the traditional faith.”
Incoming freshman Zechary Lee, son of a Byzantine Rite Catholic priest in Sugar Creek, Missouri, suggested that the Byzantine liturgy, with its icons, singing and incense — which engage “all of your senses” — has “a very special place at Wyoming Catholic. I know they’ve had opportunities for [the Byzantine liturgy] before, but never with this intensity.”
The integrated form of Great Books education the new freshmen receive here is rare in many ways. According to David Delio, president of The Newman Idea, about 4.5 million Catholic students are currently attending colleges and universities in the United States. Yet approximately 14,000 — fewer than half of 1% of all Catholic undergraduates in higher education in America — are attending schools ranked as “recommended” by the Cardinal Newman Society for their adherence to Catholic teaching. A reluctance to promote teaching the traditional faith may even have led some Catholic colleges to fold. “Catholic colleges with small enrollments and endowments that downplay their distinctive religious identity,” Delio observed, “tend to become lost and even swallowed up by the fierce competition in the higher education marketplace.”
Between 2016 and 2019, he said, “We lost about 10 Catholic colleges and universities, and that number appears to be going up.”
Happily, amid such dark news, Wyoming Catholic College is one place where the light of Christ still shines brightly.
Conceived in 2005 by former Wyoming Bishop David Ricken, now of Green Bay, Wisconsin, WCC was founded to address what the college’s philosophical vision statement calls “the crisis of disintegration we now face in Western culture, especially in education.” What’s more, even while refusing to take federal tax dollars, which have too many strings attached, the college is flourishing. Student enrollment has grown from 35 in 2007 (when the school opened its doors) is 179 today. “We expect enrollment to surpass 200 students within a few years, with an ultimate goal of no more than 400,” Arbery said. The student body at the college is almost 100% Catholic.
In his homily, Bishop Biegler spoke of the rigorously disciplined physical, intellectual and spiritual challenges the new students will face. Pointing out that discipline is not simply punishment for wrongdoing, but that it is also agonizing training in discipleship (the two go hand in hand), Bishop Biegler said, “Discipline means staying the course when life gets tough in the trials of life. It means persevering to the end by the grace of God.”
The bishop firmly yet gently exhorted the excited novitiates to see themselves as being in “a school of discipleship.”
“See yourself as a beloved son or daughter, learning from God. See your journey as being guided by the loving hand of our Father in heaven,” he said. “Seek to grow as a disciple of Jesus.” He further urged faculty, staff and chaplains present to “help [these young people] listen to the voice of the Lord more than to your voice. Remember, you’re training disciples.”
Sue Ellen Browder writes from Lander, Wyoming.
This story was updated after posting.