It’s a good bet many of our readers who attended public high schools or colleges were members of the Newman Clubs, the campus groups for Catholic students that flourished for a long time in the years following World War II.
It’s also a good bet that many Newman Club members had little or no idea who “Newman” was and why a Catholic students’ group would have that name.
Come Sunday, Oct. 13, though, Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th century British theologian and intellectual who’s the namesake of the Newman clubs, will be celebrated by the Catholic world when Pope Francis canonizes him in a ceremony at the Vatican.
And we’re glad to see that many of the college- and-university Newman clubs still operating under that name, along with others that have become more multi-purpose Catholic student centers, will be celebrating Cardinal Newman’s influence on Catholic ministry in non-sectarian colleges and high schools.
A convert to Catholicism from the Church of England, Cardinal Newman, who died in 1890, made it a mainstay of his ministry to see that Catholic students in public and other non-Catholic universities have a gathering place to support and encourage one another in their faith.
It is in these schools, of course, that most of our Catholic students are educated and formed as adults, and in a time of increasing secularization of society a thriving campus ministry can go a long way toward keeping young people grounded in the mission and teachings of the Church.
During his 19th-century ministry, Cardinal Newman certainly understood the pressures on Catholics who were outside the religious mainstream of their broader culture. It was some three centuries after the tumultuous reign of King Henry VIII, who separated the Church of England from papal authority, but suspicions and tensions remained between Britain’s majority Protestant population and its Catholics.
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 said.
We agree with her hope that campus ministry can “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.
During Cardinal Newman’s beatification ceremony in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said he “sought to achieve an educational environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together.”
He noted Cardinal Newman’s appeal for “an intelligent, well-instructed laity,” asking, “What better goal could teachers of religion set themselves?”
We can’t think of a better one. And we pray that the Catholic spiritual and intellectual traditions are strengthened in our institutes of higher education and in society in general with the elevation of Blessed John Henry Newman to the communion of saints.