October 03, 2019
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The upcoming canonization of Blessed John Henry Newman begs the question: Do Catholic college students today even know who Cardinal Newman is?
Yes and no, seems to be the answer, depending on where they go to school, but this could change after the Oct. 13 canonization of the British theologian and intellectual so tied in with university life.
Newman centers, located on the campuses of many public universities, get their name and their role from the cardinal who died in 1890 and emphasized that Catholic students who attend public universities must be given a place to gather to support and encourage one another in their faith.
Many university-based Catholic student groups no longer call themselves Newman Centers but instead go by terms like Catholic associations, Catholic student organizations or campus Catholic communities, possibly because students lack knowledge about Cardinal Newman, who has taken a bit of a back seat.
Barbara McCrabb, assistant director for higher education at the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Cardinal Newman’s canonization is an “opportunity for campus ministry to reclaim some of its roots” by reintroducing the saint she described as a Renaissance man, with concern for prayer, immigrants and the poor, to today’s college students.
“All of what Cardinal Newman was talking about and hoping for has resonance today,” she added, urging again that campus ministry “reclaim and rekindle its intellectual past” in telling the story of the new saint, who embraced the link between faith and reason and wanted laypeople to have a clear understanding of their faith that they could explain to others.
When Cardinal Newman was beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI, a director of campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison said the cardinal’s influence was more on campus ministry leaders today than the students themselves. In part, it’s because “it’s a rare student who would pick up ‘Grammar of Assent’ (one of the cardinal’s books) and get excited about Cardinal Newman,” said Father Eric Nielsen, who was, and still is, director of St. Paul’s University Catholic Center on campus.
At the time, he said he hoped sainthood was not far off for the cardinal as that would raise his profile even more and likely promote his writings to college students. But in the meantime, he said, campus ministry leaders should continue to take up the cardinal’s challenge to help students integrate faith and intellectual study and ultimately “bring Christ to the world.”
That’s the challenge that motivates Father Gary Braun, who has been director of the Catholic Student Center at Washington University in St. Louis for nearly 30 years. He said the campus ministry program is not just about keeping the participating students “over here” but “catapulting them back across the street healthier, happier, holier so they can impact the culture for the better there.”
The priest said the center’s sign outside the building includes the words “Newman Community” and he said students are often curious about it because most of them have never heard of Cardinal Newman in their parishes or even Catholic high schools.
Their curiosity brings about “a great opportunity to talk about him as a brilliant man and priest, his conversion story, his struggle to put his faith together with what they are learning in the university,” he told Catholic News Service by email.
This discussion leads to inevitable dialogue about Cardinal Newman’s impact on the whole idea of a university and his understanding of a church that both can change and cannot change.
One student who went through this Catholic student center was Melissa Villalobos of Chicago. Her 2013 healing, which saved her life and the life of her unborn child, was accepted by the Vatican this year as the miracle needed for Cardinal Newman’s canonization.