Thomas Smith, Ph.D. '83, director of the Honors Program at Villanova University and founder of the school's Humanities Department, has received an honor conferred by Pope Francis – the highest a layman can receive from the Holy Father. Dr. Smith was awarded the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, bestowed for distinguished service to the Church, in recognition of his contribution Catholic to higher education.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput presented Dr. Smith with the award Sunday before his family, students and colleagues, including Villanova President Rev. Peter Donohue, O.S.A., at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.
"I'm honored and gratified to be recognized in this way, and to see my colleagues, students, and Villanova share in that recognition," Dr. Smith said. "They have given me many unique opportunities to do a job I think is important. Being a Catholic intellectual is important to me. It is at the heart of my vocation."
In 2004, Dr. Smith began to build a new, interdisciplinary curriculum on the intersection of faith and life. It would become Villanova's Humanities Department, the University's distinctive version of Catholic Studies.
"Christians and all people of good will have reason to be confused about what it means to be human, and so how to serve our communities, engage in meaningful work, and how to think about God," Dr. Smith explained. "When we thought about putting this department together, we believed those questions should be the focus of a student's inquiry. We wanted to create a course of studies that would be open to God and every other human experience: politics, beauty, meaning, purpose, family life and work."
Each student's study begins with four courses on the human person (what it means to be human), society (how each person relates to others), God (the difference created by His presence), and the world (each person's knowledge of it and place in it). The mission is to form the whole person.
A formative experience for Dr. Smith, he believes, was his time as a Chaminade student.
"Chaminade showed us how all our different subjects related to each other, so we would graduate as Christian gentlemen who could think – an approach to education that was open, honest, and generous," he recalled. "It was my first exposure to an intellectual life."
One of Dr. Smith's most rewarding experiences came when a student told him she "got her faith back" because of the humanities classes she took.
"The program isn't simply a great books program or a Catholic studies program," Dr. Smith said. "It's informed by rich sense of Catholic philosophy and theology open to the fullness of human experience."
The Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice is a gold cross bearing the images of Sts. Peter and Paul and Pope Francis' coat of arms. Local bishops may nominate potential recipients to the Holy See.