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An Interview with the
Most Rev. Robert Joseph McManus, S.T.D.

Posted: January 5, 2021

Note: The Most Rev. Robert Joseph McManus, S.T.D., Bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, was the 2020 Convocation Speaker at Thomas Aquinas College, New England.


In your homily at the 2019 Convocation Mass on our New England campus, you focused on the words of the Psalmist, “renew the face of the earth.” What part can Catholic education play in this important calling?

What the Church has in the Catholic intellectual tradition is a realization that all education is a journey in pursuit of the truth. Christ Himself said in the Gospel that the truth will set you free. And that is what the Church, in her academic institutions, can offer contemporary society: the use of faith and reason.

Additionally, what is fundamentally important in these times is that an education provide a proper understanding of what it means to be human. Many of the problems in our secular society are the result of people in politics and in education working with a faulty anthropology. The Church must re-introduce into education — and even into the public square, in terms of formation of conscience — an understanding of what it means to be human: We are created in the image and likeness of God. There is a fundamental, metaphysical difference between what it means to be a man or a woman. And we have a dignity that is not bestowed upon us by society, or culture, or the government, but by the very creative hand of God.

John Cardinal Wright, who was the first Bishop of Worcester, said that sometime after the Second Vatican Council a collective amnesia settled over the Church, and, I think — broadly speaking — over society. The Church, particularly through the institutions of Catholic education, can help restore the public’s understanding of truths about fundamental realities. And the acquisition of truth leads to true wisdom, as well as to the motivation to renew the face of the earth.

How well do you think Catholic schools are prepared to undertake this task?

It varies. Our secular colleges and universities have become very left wing in their approach to learning, which has become so trendy and politically correct. Unfortunately, this secular worldview has crept into some of our Catholic institutions of higher learning, too. However, there’s a very interesting phenomenon going on in the United States at the present time, and I presume in other parts of the world. It’s the formation of higher institutions of learning such as Thomas Aquinas College.

Here in New England alone we have several colleges that are authentically Catholic, that introduce their students to the Catholic intellectual tradition in a very broad way, based on the Great Books. These colleges are very much carrying out what the Church expects from institutions of higher learning that claim to be Catholic. Colleges such as Thomas Aquinas present Catholic doctrine in an intelligent, reasonable, and complete way.

Some Catholic universities that have had a great reputation in the past have squandered their Catholic identity in pursuit of a more secular approach. But there is a corrective to this problem, and we see an example of that corrective in California and in Western Massachusetts at Thomas Aquinas College.

What were your impressions of your time on campus?

My first impression was on Saturday morning, when we arrived on campus. We went into the dining hall where the students were having their breakfast, and I was just immediately impressed by how friendly everyone was. “Good morning, Your Excellency, welcome to the College.” And there seemed to be a great level of camaraderie among the young men and women. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of happy banter. I was very impressed.

On the other hand, during the celebration of the Mass, there was a level of appreciation of the sacred, of what we were celebrating in the Holy Eucharist. So overall, I was very, very impressed. And even at the Matriculation ceremony, I was impressed with how the young people — freshmen in college — comported themselves in a very dignified and true way.

Last year’s Convocation speaker, the Most Rev. Mitchell Rozanski — then Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts — cited polls showing Massachusetts as the second-least religious state in the country. How would you characterize the local environment for Catholic institutions: friendly, hostile, indifferent?

With American society becoming so rapidly secularized, it’s not an exaggeration to say that our religious freedom is being called into question. The New York Times recently ran a full-page article about Judge Amy Coney Barrett in which the anti-Catholicism was barely veiled. It reminded me of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s remark that the only respectable prejudice left in the United States is anti-Catholicism. We see it, especially, in some of these hearings for public offices. In one case, Kamala Harris suggested that a candidate was unsuitable for the federal bench because he belonged to the Knights of Columbus. It’s outrageous.

To say that there is no attempt to curtail our religious freedom, or that such a threat doesn’t exist, is terribly naive. Just listen to the language. Some politicians now speak only of “freedom of worship,” as opposed to “freedom of religion.” The First Amendment’s free-exercise clause guarantees much more than just the freedom to go to Mass on Sunday. It means that we can seek, with an informed conscience, to work for public policy that is in the service of the common good.

What role can the Church play in healing the country’s divisions and fostering the shared sense of common good that’s essential for the function of our political order?

The Church can be instrumental in this regard because of our tradition of dialogue. The Church does not approach truth as either/or, but both/and. And so what we can do — and what the Church has done throughout the ages — is follow the example of the College’s patron, Thomas Aquinas. He took the best of ancient Greek wisdom and was able to use that as a type of lens through which to understand the Word of God and the use of our reason. And look at what it’s produced: one of the greatest bodies of learning in the history of Western civilization!

The Church has a time-tested approach, one of trying to glean from the context of a particular time in history all that is true, good, and beautiful — and to see all of that in the light of divine revelation. In that way, the Church is very broad in its outreach, trying to reconcile people with the truth and with each other.

What long-term effects will this past year — the pandemic, the deaths, the quarantines, the lockdowns, the social distancing — have on the life of the faithful?

The Catholic Church throughout the country has done a great job of keeping in touch with the faithful during very unsettling and uncertain times. But my fear now is that what helped us tremendously when the churches were closed — the ability to livestream Masses, creative ways to celebrate the Sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the sick — may now undermine our faith. If this goes on too long, people can become terribly comfortable in thinking that attending Mass online is the same as coming together and worshiping in community or receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. So I think we bishops are very concerned about the slow return of Catholics to Mass.

The Catholic moral tradition has always taught that to intentionally miss Mass on Sunday through one’s own fault is a mortal sin. However, the Church also says that if you’re ill, or if there’s a legitimate reason for missing Mass on Sunday, that is not a sin. So it is permissible for people to stay home and watch the Mass on television should they have underlying medical conditions that may put them at risk, or if they are of an older age. But people who go out to dinner, go shopping, go to movies, or participate in any recreation — they are in a position to attend Mass in person on Sunday. We need to start getting people back into church in person.

What can the Church do to make that happen?

It’s a question of reminding people of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic life. The Church is born of the Eucharist. You cannot be a Catholic in any authentic sense without regular attendance at the Eucharist, in person, with the community worshiping as the Body of Christ. We need to do the work of reminding people of what the Eucharist is, what a great privilege it is for us Catholics to be able to receive, to go to Mass every day, particularly on Sundays. It makes a huge difference in our spiritual lives. If we refrain from reception of the Eucharist, we are consigning ourselves to spiritual malnourishment.

The College has been blessed with a large number of vocations over the years, with about 10 percent of alumni going into the priesthood or the religious life. Do you have any advice for our students who are discerning vocations?

I always tell young people discerning vocations that, if it is your call, you can expect to enter into a life that is full of joy and serenity of spirit, that the faithful will invite a priest to enter into their lives at a depth that sometimes they won’t even permit their own spouses. That’s not because we have any particular talent; it’s because Catholics look at priests as bringing into their lives the love of Christ and the Church, which will lead them home to a place in heaven.

I also always say to young people: The seminary or the novitiate is the place you go to discern whether, in fact, God is calling you. You’re not going to find that out by standing on the outside looking in. So, with the grace of God, you take the leap.

Finally, young people thinking about the priesthood or the religious life should put themselves in a context where they are likely to meet and live with other people who are discerning vocations. That makes it a lot easier. That is part of why places such as Thomas Aquinas College, which pass on the Faith with integrity, do a great service for the Church and for our young people — and that’s why I think so many young people from these colleges are embracing the priesthood and the religious life.

Bishop McManus with Fr. Markey

The Most Rev. Robert Joseph McManus, S.T.D., Bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, and Chaplain Rev. Greg Markey stand outside Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at New England Convocation 2020. 

Thomas Cavanaugh (’18) -- quote 2

“My time here has really refined the way I think, read, and understand. It has allowed me to think about things more critically and logically.”

– Thomas Cavanaugh (’18)

Larkspur, California

“What you do here at this college is important not only for the individual salvation of your soul, but really as a witness to all of society.”

– Most Rev. Robert Francis Vasa

Bishop of Santa Rosa