Interview with Professor Timothy Fuerst
He is the father of four—Megan, Nathan, Kate, and Ben—and the husband of his beloved wife, Toni. He loves Tolkien and is an avid whistler. He is one of the most cited economists in the world.
But, above all, he is a man whose Catholic faith guides and illuminates everything he does, from his interactions with students to the attitude with which he and his family have confronted tremendous hardship.
Timothy Fuerst is the William and Dorothy O’Neill Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. Many may recall seeing Fuerst, arm-in-arm with Toni, invited onto the field during the first home football game of the year to be recognized as an outstanding faculty member.
On April 1, 2016, Fuerst was diagnosed with a rare form of Stage 4 stomach cancer. At the time, he received the prognosis that he had six months to live. Now, however, nearly eight months have passed. Despite the undeniable suffering that the illness has brought upon Fuerst and his family, he provides an example of strength, hope, and faith for the Notre Dame community.
The Rover recently had the privilege of discussing Fuerst’s journey, including many of the challenges of coping with a difficult prognosis, with him via email.
Irish Rover: Please tell us about a bit about how you came to Notre Dame.
Fuerst: I was contacted by ND econ faculty who are interested in finding high quality economists who are also Catholic. I am fairly well-known in my field. My daughter started at ND in 2011. This made them reach out to me because of the likelihood of being Catholic. So without looking for a job, God found me one. My wife and I prayed a lot about the move. With the help of our pastor, we discerned that we should move to ND in 2012.
You are one of the most-cited economists in the world. What, in layman’s terms if possible, are your primary interests within your field?
I am interested in monetary policy, business cycles, and financial crises.
As a professor of economics, how do you integrate faith and teaching?
I put Saint Thomas Aquinas’ prayer for study at the beginning of my syllabus. We pray it at the beginning of the term and I encourage my students to pray it before each study session.
What is the most important message you hope to communicate to your students?
Students will hopefully see that there is no conflict between religion and science, including both physical and social science. Science seeks truth, and God is truth.
What role has prayer played in confronting and accepting the diagnosis?
TREMENDOUS. My family prays together regularly. We have so many friends, and even folks we do not know, praying for us. This all lifts us up. When you are in pain, it is difficult to pray. I turn to the simple prayer of the lepers: “Lord Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”
A memory that has been in my mind recently was my tenth year when I was seriously ill with respiratory problems, a long hospitalization and recovery that led some to fear for my life. Pediatric wards were sparsely decorated back then, and all I remember in my hospital room was a crucifix at the end of my bed. I would fall asleep at night with the sure confidence that the Lord Jesus was watching over me, that I was not alone, and that all would yet be well. Now some four decades later, this same Lord Jesus walks with me and my family. He helps us to bear this very heavy cross. He reminds us that we are not alone, and that all will yet be well. It is our blessed hope that beyond the darkness of Calvary there is a swift sunrise and a rapid dawn, for “we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” Yes this is our blessed hope. And hope does not disappoint.
How have you and your family supported each other during this time of trial?
Constant prayer support; spending more time together; sharing the day’s joys and sorrows.
How has your experience with the cancer influenced your understanding of the relationship between suffering and faith?
…Suffering is an evil. But God permits it because He can draw forth a great good from suffering, a good that we may not completely see in this life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the great European cathedrals. My favorite is Chartres and the amazing stained glass windows. Before the Craftsman formed them together he simply had piles of broken colored glass, all of which seemed useless and with no purpose. But then the master took these pieces and formed them into something no one could have anticipated: the great rose window of Chartres. So it is with our experiences in this life. Many of these are times of happiness and contentment, but others are filled with great sadness and suffering. But the Master takes all of these pieces, both good and bad, and makes something truly beautiful for God. Only when the window is done and filled with glorious light do we understand why each piece was needed, why each piece was essential for the glorious whole. It is with this confidence that we offer up all our sufferings to Him who brings light to our darkness.
What advice would you give to students who are seeking to do God’s will in their lives?
Prayer is essential. Turn down the noise of electronics. Follow your heart … This is often God’s small voice. Stay close to Christ and His Church. Surround yourself with friends who share this search.
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In one of the updates posted regularly on Facebook for family and friends, Fuerst quotes J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, in which Gandalf, upon hearing Frodo’s lament over the evils he had witnessed, responds, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Such a posture of hope, grounded in an unshakeable confidence in the love of Christ, resounds in the perspective with which Fuerst has confronted suffering. He and his family continue to ask for the intercession of the Congregation of Holy Cross’ founder Blessed Basil Moreau, whose cause for canonization, like Fuerst’s illness, could arrive at a favorable conclusion with a single miracle. “Blessed Basil Moreau and I have something in common,” Fuerst explains to his readers. “We both need a miracle. The motto of Holy Cross has now become my motto: Ave Crux, Spes Unica. ‘Hail the Cross, our only hope!’”
Nicole O’Leary is a junior theology and history major living in McGlinn Hall. She will be lifting the “Fighting Fuersts” up in prayer, and she humbly asks her readers to do the same. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.