Seven habits of highly effective Catholic college graduates

About this article

This thought-provoking article by William J. Byron, SJ, former president of the Catholic University of America, presents an ideal of seven habits that drive graduates of Catholic colleges. These principles of action are reasoning, reading, writing, reflecting, praying, helping, and giving thanks. Though written from a collegiate perspective, there is much here for Catholic high schools to consider.

Evidence of a total Catholic education may be found in persons who have cultivated these principles of action.

The title of Stephen R. Covey's long-running bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster) kept circling in my mind as I thought about writing an article on a "total Catholic education" that reaches beyond higher education. What are the lifelong "proofs of the pudding" prepared in the Catholic kitchen?

I began wondering whether I could identify seven or more habits of highly effective Catholic college graduates. These alumni would be judged effective, I presumed, if they had acquired something during the collegiate experience that remained within to function as both compass and guide for principled, productive living in the postcollegiate years.

There has to be more to it than pasting the higher education equivalent of an "Intel Inside" label on the graduates. Whatever the appropriate trademark might be, it will not be immediately discernible. But, this theory goes, those who "trade" in careers for which they were prepared in a Catholic collegiate setting will, in fact, be noticeably different.

In shaping this paradigm, I realize that I am proposing an ideal rather than documenting verifiable experience. I have the imagination to propose the ideal, but I lack the data to attempt to verify patterns of observable, postgraduation experience of Catholic college alumni.

Habits are acquired by acting. One has to do now and repeatedly that which one wants eventually to be able to do easily and habitually. The noun habit is derived from the verb to have. A habit is something one possesses. Philosophically speaking, it is a quality, a principle of action, a modification of a substance.

The seven qualities I would expect to find driving the lives of Catholic college graduates are habits (understood in the sense of principles of action) of reasoning, reading, writing, reflecting, praying, helping and giving thanks.

1 Reasoning

All subsequent stages of education depend on the basic skills of reasoning, reading and writing. Reasoning, of course, is associated with the familiar third "r"--'rithmetic.

The quantity-based, number-coded reasoning that begins with arithmetic gets abstract when the developing student meets algebra in middle or secondary school. Along the way, a habit of reasoning is taking shape, which, for most Catholic collegians, is further shaped by philosophy and other disciplines included in the Catholic college curriculum to encourage a well-rounded general education.

If it works the way it should, this kind of education produces a thinker, a person who can reason well, analyze clearly and think logically.

2 Reading

At the level of principle, the reading habit is driven by a conviction that the mind is a wonderful gift intended by God for our lifelong use. The continual quest for knowledge and truth is virtually impossible without reading good books. So a total Catholic education will never be achieved if reading stops when postcollegiate life begins.

3 Writing

Similarly, the writing habit is evidence of a Catholic collegiate experience that went according to plan. Several principles underlie the writing habit: self-realization, participation and association.

For personal development and societal enrichment, individuals must communicate. Moreover, this world of ours moves on words and numbers, and communicates mainly by written and spoken words. Without mastery of both words and numbers, an individual will have little impact on the direction or pace of that movement and will thus make no significant contribution to human progress.

The Catholic educational enterprise from bottom to top, dedicated as it is to human progress, will always emphasize communication and will systematically promote the ability to communicate in more than one language. The absence of communications skills is a sign of shortfall in the face of Catholic educational ideals. The well-reasoned argument (product of the well-trained mind) will find expression, according to the Catholic educational expectation, in well-written and well-spoken form.

Habits of reading, writing and reasoning are the basis for principled behavior in four other areas of postcollegiate Catholic life: reflecting, praying, helping and giving thanks.

4 Reflecting

Reflective persons are not impulsive. They are measured and deliberate in their approach to decision making. Reflection is the environment, the atmosphere of ethical deliberation. Ethical reflection emerges from the character of the one who deliberates and must decide.

That character is shaped by the Catholic educational experience. Not surprisingly, those who provide that experience--Catholic educators--expect to find evidence of ethical decision making emerging over time from the characters of those in whose formation they have had a hand.

5 Praying

Praying is part of the life of any believer, the periodic flame that rises from the continuous bed of embers we call faith. Reflection on faith and its implications for daily life is the work of theology and, of course, theology is part of the Catholic higher education experience. After graduation, theological reflection should continue.

The relevance of religious faith to an earth-bound career is a question that can be answered only by living one's faith in the world of work, family, citizenship, success, failure, illness and death. The Catholic collegiate experience--in class and in the broader campus context that includes liturgy and retreats--is designed to foster faith-based reflection for a lifetime.

6 Helping

The habit of helping others--an ongoing, principled openness to serving others in the human community--is expected of all Christians. Service, prompted by our love for one another, is a Christian characteristic. Jesus said: "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Jn 13:35)

After washing the feet of his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus provided for all Christians a principle of action: "I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do." (Jn 13:15)

Learning to serve is important in Catholic educational environments. It is not just good pedagogy as, for instance, when a lecture in physical science is followed by laboratory opportunities for both application and assimilation of the principles.

Those classrooms without laboratories--the ones used for theology and all the humanities--also need community service "labs" in settings of human need. There a Catholic student's hand, impelled by faith-based love, extends the hand of Christ to reach a person in need.

Again, it is the theoretical expectation of Catholic educators that this faith-based, love-inspired readiness to serve will be evident in all the stages of a graduate's life.

7 Giving thanks

The final habit is expressing gratitude or giving thanks, a principle that must necessarily last a lifetime. We Catholics find our identity in Eucharist (the word means thanks). As we meet in eucharistic assembly to remember the Lord in the breaking of the bread, we are giving thanks. This deep, internalized sense of gratitude, this attitude of praise and thanks for the gift of redemption mat is ours in Christ, directs and sustains us.

Eucharist as sacramental food is our nourishment in the journey of faith. Eucharist as thanks is a habitual disposition that opens us in awe toward God and all the gifts of creation, and then turns us out of ourselves in a posture of generous service toward others in the human community.

And Eucharist as reconciliation gives us all the more reason to be thankful because it has the power to heal and forgive our failures to be of service, as we know we should, to persons in need.

Show me someone who has cultivated the habits of reasoning clearly, reading widely, communicating effectively, reflecting often, praying faithfully, helping generously and always giving thanks, and I will show you someone with a total Catholic education.

Any institution of Catholic higher education would welcome such graduates back to alumni reunions. And when they do appear, the system that produced them takes comfort in the realization that there is nothing so practical as a great educational ideal.

William J. Byron, SJ, former president of The Catholic University of America, teaches at Georgetown University, where he directs the Center for the Advanced Study of Ethics.


This article originally appeared in Momentum, the journal of the National Catholic Education Association. It is reprinted here by permission of the NCEA. For more information about the NCEA, go to their web site at

Published August 1, 1995.