I have been an avid student of history all my life. From as far back as I can remember, my favorite books have always been histories, the vast majority of my family’s vacations were to sites of historical significance, and all my greatest academic successes came from studying history. As a student at Notre Dame I even chose history as my undergraduate major despite the uncertainty of not knowing what kind of job it might get me!
Since entering formation for Holy Cross my superiors and peers have always encouraged and supported my desire to pursue higher studies in American history. I recently graduated from The Catholic University of America with a Master of Arts in History, and in August I will move to New York to begin doctoral studies in history at Columbia University.
I’ll be following in the footsteps of some of the great priest-scholars of Holy Cross. Fr. Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., studied at Columbia and went on to become a pioneer in the field of American Catholic history. More recently, Fr. Thomas Blantz, C.S.C., earned his doctorate from Columbia and is still a beloved teacher of history at Notre Dame.
My own scholarly work focuses on 20th century American religion and politics, with a particular eye toward understanding how Catholics in the United States have shaped – and have been shaped by – the legal and political landscape of the nation. To be honest, this isn’t always a pleasant story to tell. Throughout the history of the United States, Catholics have often been the victims of prejudice, and even today faithful Catholics must still fight to preserve their right to religious freedom.
But nonetheless I find that studying the history of the Church in the United States is a perfect compliment to my priestly ministry. In my preaching and sacramental ministry I am privileged to proclaim the story of Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection and to invite the Baptized into a deeper share in Christ’s life.
So, too, as a student and teacher of American Catholic history I am able to tell the amazing stories of how our ancestors planted and nourished the Church in this land. Hopefully in doing so I can also inspire faithful Catholics of today to bravely make their contribution to our country.
Ultimately, all this study of history has led me to two all-important lessons. The first lesson disabuses us of the egotistical notion that we live in an entirely unique age. I suppose it is simple human nature to think that no people, nation, or culture, has ever before lived as we live. We either imagine that no one has ever had it better than we do now thanks to our science and technology, or that no one has ever faced the struggles and challenges that we face in the modern age.
While there is certainly some truth to the uniqueness of each time and place, there is perhaps much greater truth in the old aphorisms, “the more things change the more they stay the same,” and “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
However worrisome the struggles the Church faces today – including attacks on religious freedom at home and even the martyrdom of many of our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East – it is, in fact, nothing the Church has not already overcome in every time and place since the time of our Lord!
Which leads to the second and most important lesson. For the person of faith, all of history – even the darkest portions – bear out our Lord’s promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) and His assurance that “the gates of Hell will not prevail” against the Church (Matthew 16:19).
To study history, therefore, is to unfold the beautiful mystery of our salvation and to seek out the presence of the Lord in our own time and culture. As a priest-scholar I see the study of history as a means of proclaiming with faith and joy the beautiful prayer we say each year during the great Paschal Vigil: “Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to Him, and all the ages. To Him be glory and power through every age and forever. Amen!”
Fr. Stephen Koeth, C.S.C., professed Final Vows in the Congregation of Holy Cross on August 26, 2006 and then was ordained to the priesthood on April 14, 2007. He writes about his vocation to religious priesthood as gift and mystery. In the fall, he will continue his graduate studies in history by enrolling in the PhD Program at Columbia University. He is one of over a dozen Holy Cross priests in the Unites States Provinces pursing advanced degrees to better serve as educators in the faith. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross in education, as well as hear from some of the other Holy Cross religious in advanced studies.