Scholar priest who found a calling in America awarded honorary doctorate

One of the most recognisable Australian priests at the University of Notre Dame in America has been given the highest honour by Australian Catholic University.

Renowned historian Fr Wilson Miscamble CSC, who has been a permanent member of the Department of History at Notre Dame in Indiana since 1988, has been awarded a Doctor of the University (honoris causa) for his service to the Catholic community and Catholic higher education.

Born in Roma, a rural town in Southwest Queensland, Fr Miscamble was educated by the Sisters of Mercy before doing a Bachelor’s degree and Masters in History at the University of Queensland. It was here his passion for American history began.

“I was always interested in history, and I was interested in the developments of the 20th century,” Fr Miscamble said. “I ended up taking a general US history survey course at UQ with a then-young professor, a young American. That was the start of a long engagement with the subject.

“I think initially I might have had some thought that I would try and understand better American foreign policy, and that I would be able to translate this into something that might be of benefit in Australia.”

It was when Fr Miscamble completed his doctorate at Notre Dame that he discovered a different but deeper vocation, that of a priest. He was particularly drawn to the Congregation of Holy Cross, the order to which the university’s founder, Fr Edward F. Sorin, belonged.

“In going to Notre Dame, I believe I was shown a way to serve as a priest, a priest teacher, a priest scholar, and I had that modelled for me there by some priests that I was influenced by and close to,” Fr Miscamble said.

“While it was a rather unusual decision to go back to the United States and enter into seminary there, I felt drawn by a way of serving in the Church as a priest and historian and teacher.”

Fr Miscamble said there was the “occasional surprise” that an Australian was a scholar of 20th century American history at Notre Dame. But his expertise in the area normally precedes him.

As well as teaching about American political and diplomatic history, he has recently taught on the role of Catholics in American public life. Back in Australia, he is also an international adviser for ACU’s PM Glynn Institute, the university’s think-tank on public policy in Australia.

Fr Miscamble said he saw himself as a supportive friend of ACU.

“I know that ACU is trying to contribute in an important way in the broader public debate and against the secularising thrust to maintain its distinct identity as a Catholic university,” Fr Miscamble said.

“In a very challenging environment, this secular society, it’s very important for ACU, as for every Catholic university wherever it be located, to maintain its distinct identity as a Catholic university.

“It’s so easy to want to just blend in and conform yourself to whatever is the reigning standard secular view.

“If it’s to have real meaning, there must be that distinctiveness there that is made apparent in the recognition of the significance of the Catholic intellectual tradition. We have some fundamental and basic principles about how to lean into life – Catholic social teaching with its emphasis of the dignity of every human person, every individual, and concern for the common good – these are elements of a Catholic university that make it distinctive, and hopefully the students who come, gain some knowledge and appreciation of that, and hence then, they can go out and serve better in the world and within the Church.”

Fr Miscamble arrived in Brisbane to receive his honorary doctorate the week the 2021 Census data was released, and in the middle of the historic Fifth Plenary Council of Australia.

He said the statistical data showing the decline of people identifying as religious was a “call to action to evangelise”.

“The Census figures can lead to folks of a more secular sort seemingly deriving pleasure from the decline of religious participation, and it can lead to some sort of lamentation on the part of religious folks, but I’m a believer that you take the situation that you find yourself in and engage in the work of evangelisation,” Fr Miscamble said.

“It’s a call to action, if you will, for Catholics and for other Christians to continue their efforts to spread God’s word. No one ever promised us that we would have some sort of easy situation. We’re to be committed disciples, whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in.”

ACU Vice-Chancellor Professor Zlatko Skrbis has congratulated Fr Miscamble on being awarded the university’s highest honour.

Professor Skrbis said Fr Miscamble was recognised throughout the world as a champion of faith and reason.

“Fr Wilson Miscamble is a gifted historian, teacher, and priest who has made an outstanding contribution to Catholic higher education, and he has done so guided by faith and reason,” Professor Skrbis said.

“ACU is proud to confer on Fr Miscamble an honorary doctorate in recognition of his model example of faithfulness to Catholic identity in education worldwide.”

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