Backpacks were pushed under seats and snacks where nibbled upon as students, faculty, community members and a handful of priests gathered to read excerpts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ponder the sacrament of marriage — and observe Marge and Homer’s banter, blunders and love in “The Simpsons.”
The Feb. 1 event was hosted by the Garaventa Center, known for “scrambling the categories,” said Lars Larson, an English professor at the University of Portland, the center’s home.
Offering lectures that range from “Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion” to “Is God’s Charity Broad Enough for Bears?” and “Why Theology Needs the Simpsons,” the Garaventa Center provides, in many ways, the treasures of a Catholic university distilled: It explores faith, reason and imagination, embraces humor, engages the modern world, links disparate disciplines and does so in order to enliven “the workings of grace,” said Holy Cross Father Charlie Gordon, center co-director.
“We have this incredibly beautiful thing in the Catholic intellectual tradition, and we try to break that open and share it with every audience imaginable.”
Established in 2004 as a gift of the Garaventa family, longtime supporters of U.P., the center has been reinvigorated in the past four years, in part due to the efforts of co-directors Karen Eifler and Father Gordon.
Eifler “thinks beyond every border,” said Gregory Pulver, director of the U.P. theater program and among the center’s many faculty fans. The two co-directors are “truly doing the work of God,” Pulver said.
Sometimes the thesis of an event is profound, other times it’s modest and practical; “we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously” was one conclusion of the recent Simpsons talk.
Based in Franz Hall with events held across campus, the center hosts Thirst Fridays, social gatherings with food and drink, and a Faith and Intellectual Life Discussion Group. It organizes panels to precede U.P. theater performances, exploring a production from multiple angles, and provides spiritual enrichment, such as a Lenten Visio Divina, contemplative prayer focusing on images from the St. John Bible.
Students often flock to events; the Simpsons talk, not surprisingly, was popular.
Junior Alex Cardenas left Franz Hall thinking about marriage in a slightly new light. “A marriage is always changing, because people are always changing — and they should be growing together,” she said.
While the center serves U.P. students and the Catholic and non-Catholic community beyond campus, an important part of programming is to connect U.P. faculty and show them their work matters in a larger context. “It’s important that everyone feel that they have a place in contributing to the Catholic mission of the university,” said Eifler.
Unexpected awakenings take place when professors — “usually in our separate silos,” observed Larson — spend time together at center events.
For example, “if someone in comp studies is talking with someone in history and they find out they’re studying similar things, a collaboration is born,” Eifler said.
The center deepens professors’ understanding of their disciplines, as well.
“We’ve had a biologist come by and say he was thinking about how graceful the body is and was thinking we could do a program … that fused the science of nutrition with the theological concepts of grace and beauty,” recalled Eifler.
Shannon Mayer, chairwoman of the U.P. physics department, recalled the center’s first conference in 2005, from which emerged a collection of essays from diverse perspectives — with her own voice among them.
“It was the first time I published something that was not technical and research-oriented,” said Mayer. “It led me to think about how my training and role as a physicist allow me to bring a unique voice into discussions on faith and the intellectual life.”
She was later inspired to write a piece called “A Professor of Wonder,” published in Portland Magazine, that explores how mathematics offers a particular lens through which to encounter wonder in the word.
Eifler believes it’s important for the center to be trans-ideological. “‘Catholic’ means universal and it also means whole,” she said. “So we are a big umbrella and we want to make sure that no matter what parish or part of the tradition you are most at home in, you feel comfortable contributing to the center.”
In addition to its lectures and standing programs, the center provides student leadership grants and administers the Beckman Humor Project. The Simpsons talk was part of the latter, whose intent is to “use humor as a weapon against the darkness, keeping hope alive in the world,” said Father Gordon.
The student grants help cultivate leadership, “sacramental imagination” and the much-valued skill of grant-writing, said Eifler. One grant recipient organized an exhibit on Sophia Scholl, a German student executed for her anti-Nazi political activism.
Father Gordon said there’s a powerful, organic outcome of the center’s work.
“The pope has written in the ‘Joy of the Gospel’ that the way of beauty leads to Christ,” he said. “The center is a way of evangelizing by sharing the beauty of Catholic art and culture. It’s evangelizing by attraction.”
Find out more
For a calendar of upcoming events and additional information, go to go.sentinel.org/2k39cl2. Many Garaventa Center talks are recorded and downloadable. To find out “Why Theology Needs the Simpsons” (or perhaps why it doesn’t), click here.