By John Garvey, President
The Catholic University of America Magazine, Summer 2013

This issue of The Catholic University of America Magazine features an article on page 26 about the Mount Olivet Cemetery, where several prominent figures from our University’s past are buried. It is a small treasure of Catholic University’s history. I’m delighted it’s been rediscovered. The article got me thinking about one of our oldest academic departments. 

Among those laid to rest at Mount Olivet is Monsignor Henri Hyvernat, who founded our Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures and the Institute of Christian Oriental Research. Hyvernat was an icon in Catholic University’s early days. He was the very first member appointed to our faculty, and throughout his years here taught courses in Oriental languages, biblical archaeology, and Semitic languages and liter-ature. Monsignor Hyvernat served at the University for an impressive 52 years, during which he cultivated a reputation as a well-respected scholar. His private library became the foundation for our Semitics/Institute for Christian Oriental Research Library.

In addition to his accomplishments as a scholar and teacher, Monsignor Hyvernat helped establish our splendid and distin-guished tradition in the area of Semitic and Egyptian languages and literatures. Today Semitic and Egyptian languages continue to be a cornerstone of academic excellence at Catholic University.  Together with the related areas of Greek and Latin, and early Christian studies, Semitic and Egyptian languages are especially beloved to the University because of their special relationship to our Catholic identity. The study of ancient language, cultures, and texts deepens our appreciation of the historical and cultural circumstances that lie at the origins and early development of our Catholic tradition. They are an entree to many of the great texts of Judaism and early Christianity. They also enable us to study the literature and cultures that inspired much of Western civilization and culture.

They make an enormously impressive contribution to scholarship in their fields. Our Department of Semitics, for example, is a center in the U.S. for the study of Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus. We offer more classes in Aramaic than any other university in the United States. In the area of biblical scholarship, our scholars have been recog-nized for their important contributions to crucial studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls, man-uscripts copied between the second century B.C. and 60 A.D. that help us to understand how Jesus’s contemporaries understood the Gospels. Our experts in Christian-Muslim studies have performed vital work in the area of interfaith dialogue. 

It is easy at times to forget that these programs are a glory of our University. Academic culture tends to leave these ancient and medieval fields of study behind for more current interests. But although the subjects represented on campus today have multiplied exponentially since Monsignor Hyvernat’s day, the central role played by Semitic and Egyptian languages and literatures, Greek and Latin, and early Christian studies at Catholic University has not altered. They anchor our pursuit of knowledge, and remind us that knowing where our tradition and civilization come from is every bit as important as knowing where they are going.