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The newly renovated St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois is a complex of residence hall and center for Catholic thought — all to strengthen students’ faith and encourage evangelization.
BY Justin Bell
its 80th anniversary with a major renovation, St. John’s Catholic Newman Center
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is perhaps the most vibrantly
robust in the nation. With a 584-bed residence hall, cafeteria, on-campus
Gothic-style chapel, course offerings, and 88 young people who have entered the
seminary or convent in the last 11 years, the center’s integrated approach is
“It really has to be the whole of
the person that’s formed,” said Father Greg Ketcham, the director of St. John’s
Along with the everyday fellowship
that goes with living and eating in the same space, students have
faith-enriching opportunities such as Koinonia retreats, Fellowship of Catholic
University Students Bible studies and the sacraments readily available. With
its seven priests, the center puts an emphasis on liturgies and homilies
designed to impact students. There are some 40,000 students at the University
of Illinois, and about a quarter of them are Catholic.
“I think one of the best things
about having it all together is just seeing other people living their faith so
frequently,” said Jenny Meyer, a senior economics major. She recalls holding
project meetings at the Newman Center, and her classmates would ask questions
after seeing priests walking around and quotes from Catholic thinkers on the
“You take one step in, and all of a
sudden, you see the multitudes being involved,” Meyer shared. “For me, I get
really spurred on by seeing so many people so heavily invested in their faith
and serving the Church.”
Father Ketcham sees the progression
of students’ involvement as a spark within being fanned into flame.
“I think at some point we always
knew that there must be reason brought to a student’s faith in order for that
spark to become a fire,” he said.
An arm of the Newman Center, the
Institute of Catholic Thought, fills this need for reason. The institute offers
undergraduate credit and noncredit catechesis-type courses, and this fall, it
opened its School of Theology, a master’s degree program that has been granted
approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. The Master of Arts is
designed for those going into the working world, while the Master of Theological
Studies is geared for students who wish to pursue doctoral work.
A History of Catholic Education
Kenneth Howell, president of the
Institute of Catholic Thought, spoke of its “pre-history” beginning in the
1940s. At that time, the University of Illinois and various religious
foundations made an arrangement: The foundations would teach courses, and the
credits would transfer toward a student’s degree. Being a land grant
university, there was no department of religion at the time.
However, in the 1960s, state
universities, under the so-called idea of the “scientific study of religion,”
developed nonpartisan religious study groups — later, departments of religion.
In turn, most of the religious foundations discontinued teaching courses about
their faith. Eventually, only courses taught by Catholics remained; this was
the situation when Howell arrived at St. John’s in 1998.
“But there were definitely voices
within the university that would have liked to have seen those things go away,”
said Howell in reference to Catholics being allowed to teach courses about
In 2002, Howell and former chaplain
Msgr. Stuart Swetland arranged to become adjunct professors of the university.
The title of adjunct professor is an
austere one for Howell, who holds two doctorates, one in linguistics and the
philosophy of science, the other in the history of Christianity and its
relationship to science. The former Presbyterian pastor converted to
Catholicism for three main reasons: the Church’s respect for human reason, the
wisdom of the magisterium and the Eucharist.
“If I was going to follow Christ
fully as the way, the truth and the life, I had to follow him where he wanted
me to go, and that was: You couldn’t separate Christ and the Church,” said
professor, who currently teaches “Introduction to Catholicism” at the
university, has seen his classes become the instrument of a number of students’
conversions. One particularly memorable story took place after Howell staged
his traditional “mock confession” during class to instruct on the sacrament.
(Howell plays the part of the priest, and a student is a penitent.)
He recalled one year when a young
man came to visit him about two weeks after the exercise. The student said that
the experience got him thinking, and he had returned to confession. Howell
paraphrased the student’s explanation: “I got some things cleared up in my
moral life, and I realized that I’m called to be a priest.” Currently, the
former student is in the seminary.
A Fundamental Choice
of the concerns of the institute is to broaden people’s vision as to what a
liberal education is,” said Howell. He likens many universities to
“sophisticated vocational-technical schools” that emphasize job training instead
of “engaging the classic questions in Western intellectual thought.”
He said freshman Catholics are
bright, but often have poor formation in the faith. He explained that sometime between the ages
of 18 and 20, students begin to ask deeper questions, and at that point, the
students have a choice: explore those questions or repress them and focus on
When students are immersed in an
environment where secularism has academic influence, Howell said, students may
begin to take on the perspective of people in the discipline in which they are
studying, and “oftentimes, this has an ideological ring about it. … And this
sometimes actually acts as a deterrent to them pursuing those larger questions
to which the Catholic faith gives a great answer.”
The institute looks to develop what
Howell calls a “public theology” that interfaces with other disciplines, such
as English, science and the visual arts, as well as dialogue between the
institute and Catholic faculty members. The institute hosts a distinguished
lecture series to develop public theology as well as to add to the intellectual
life of the state university.
An Evangelical Outlook
Greg Hudson is one of six students
in the inaugural year of the School of Theology at the institute.
Hudson, who works as an
electromagnetic research scientist, attends evening courses taught by David
Delaney, the academic dean of the institute. Hudson said he wanted to take the
classes to help others “understand what we actually do believe,” especially
people who “say these things about us that aren’t true.”
He said his work environment has
many devout people who are not Catholic but who are interested that he is
pursuing this degree.
“They didn’t really ask any specific
questions about my faith, but they were very interested that I was taking these
classes, and maybe one day they’ll open up to me and start asking me a few
questions,” he said.
Hudson lived at Newman Hall for four
years as an undergraduate before receiving his master’s at the University of
Denver. He acknowledges that the Newman Center is “different” than the days
where everyone seemed to know everyone, but it’s “fantastic” that so many
programs are offered.
hopes current and future students like Hudson will be able to share the faith
in nonacademic settings.
Ketcham, noting a recent talk by a Fellowship of Catholic University Students
missionary on “spiritual multiplication,” the process of equipping others to
teach others to teach the faith, emphasized the importance of evangelical
outreach to students.
he said, “We’re constantly reinforcing for our students that they are
collaborating with us in this ministry.”
Bell is based in
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on St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, visit