The Catholic Intellectual Tradition and First Year Advising

Author: Lisa Walenceus

Rev. Donald G. LaSalle, Jr., S.M.M., is an academic advisor in the First Year of Studies and also serves as an assistant director of the FYS Peer Advising Program.

How did you get into first-year advising?

I worked for a number of years advising seminarians who were preparing for the priesthood and religious life. My job was to help them decide if that path was the right fit for them, find what their skills were, and develop those and integrate them with their theological learning — to prepare them to actually put it to work when they finished their training and made their way out into the world.

I came to Notre Dame on sabbatical from my job in Rome [Vicar General of the Montfort Missionaries]. While I was here, I saw the job posting for First Year advisor and I thought, “This is very close to what I’ve been doing all along” and I found the work of the First Year of Studies very interesting. So, that’s how I ended up here.

In your essay in Integrative Advising: Theory and Practice, you talk a lot about the need for students receiving a Catholic education to think about the integration of faith and reason. Could you expand on that a little for us?

Basically, students at Notre Dame, among other things, are called to encounter the “Catholic intellectual tradition,” which is different from the Catholic Church. Certainly it’s origins lie in the Catholic Church, but it’s a long-standing tradition of grappling with questions about how reasonable it is to be a person who believes in God and how reasonable it is to be a follower of Jesus.

Now, this intellectual tradition encourages people to engage — it doesn’t mean that anyone encountering it has to become Catholic and, I mean, hopefully, if people are already a Catholic, it will help them become better ones — but, it’s asking people to consider a number of intellectual perspectives on the world from this tradition of seeking truth. 

For example, since all creation is from God, then every part of creation, every aspect of creation is sacred. Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit, paleontologist and theologian, said, “For those who have the eyes to see, nothing is profane.” I think his point was, because God has created the world, because Jesus has become part of the world, somehow everyone in the world and every part of the world has been touched by God’s grace and presence. 

In some ways, the very desire to be educated comes from this. The very fact that someone has a question about the world and wants to find the answer to it is part of the inner drive toward the transcendent and eternal. Catholics would say that, ultimately, that drive will only be satisfied by an encounter with God. So, everything from studying theology to studying differential equations, from studying how the brain of a rat works to reading the classics of literature, are all connected in some way and connected to the fact that this world is wonderful and mysterious, and it points to the presence of God.

How does that point of view impact your first-year advising?

I think it makes me want to see where students have a sense of wonder. Sometimes, I think, unfortunately, our educational systems tend to dampen down a student’s sense of wonder.
My hope is that when they come to Notre Dame, in one way or another, their sense of wonder is going to be either reinforced or, if needed, rekindled. Part of integrative advising is to help them see that their education is meant to help them wonder about the world and to explore questions that they have. Some of the things I am trying to uncover in my conversation with a student is “What do you care about? What do you wonder about? What do you want explore?” and not simply, “You’ve got to take this course, you’ve got to take that course …” 

Obviously, the courses are there to build an expertise so that wonder can be put to work in discovering new knowledge, but I guess an important thing for me is — when a student is coming to a new academic environment with a whole new level of study skills and new requirements for managing learning, that attitude can be reclaimed, or at least certainly not left behind.