To the casual observer, there is little connection between a 19th-century convert from London named John Newman and the Catholic culture of 21st-century United States.
Yet, across the American landscape, the life of Newman, now Blessed Cardinal Newman, as of September 2010, has touched off a cultural fire that shows no signs of dying out.
This “Newman Renaissance” lighting up American art and education burns especially bright in the efforts of four organizations: Corpus Christi Watershed, the Cardinal Newman Society, the National Institute for Newman Studies and the Newman Connection.
Already a leader in the promotion and re-establishment of sacred liturgical music, the Texas-based Corpus Christi Watershed has produced a series of high-quality videos about Cardinal Newman’s life and the Birmingham Oratory he founded in 1848. These videos are crafted with a sense of the exquisite, immersing the viewer in short two-minute experiences of not merely biographical data, but of those things which seem to go naturally with any discussion of Blessed Cardinal Newman: the love of writing and of education, fine music (including original work by American Catholic composer Kevin Allen), breathtaking art and architecture, and, above all, the sanctity of a man wholeheartedly dedicated to Jesus Christ.
“In our times, assertions are frequently made that the love of traditional Catholic liturgy, the promotion of beauty and the avoidance of ugliness, and even the belief in an all-powerful God are not really things in which ‘enlightened’ (read as ‘smart’) people should engage,” says Jeffrey Ostrowski, president of Corpus Christi Watershed. “In the face of these assertions, the Church has beatified John Henry Cardinal Newman, who is in many ways the answer to these false claims, and Corpus Christi Watershed has been honored to assist in fostering devotion to this brilliant and holy servant of Jesus Christ.”
The Virginia-based Cardinal Newman Society collaborated on the project because it is in line with its mission statement: “to help renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.”
This, after all, was a subject that was dear to Cardinal Newman’s heart, as expressed in The Idea of a University, which he penned in the 1850s.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, says “his insights offer much clarity and healing to a Church that suffers from the wounds of radical secularism, relativism and dissent.”
Reilly praises the videos for the “love and devotion to Newman that shines through.”
Equally dedicated to the principles of Catholic education is the National Institute for Newman Studies in Pittsburgh. Since 2003 the institute has been busy awarding multiple scholarships, offering the ongoing Newman Lecture Series, publishing the Newman Studies Journal and maintaining a sizable research library.
The nonprofit Newman Connection is the youngest of the four collaborating organizations, having been founded in 2009 in response to the needs of Catholic campus ministries throughout the nation. Sometimes housed in so-called Newman Centers, these campus ministries, whether on Catholic or secular campuses, often grapple with a sense of isolation in sometimes openly anti-Catholic college or university settings.
The Newman Connection has responded by providing “a national support structure,” according to co-founder and Matthew Zerrusen. “It was through St. John’s Catholic Newman Center [at the University of Illinois] in Champaign, Ill., that we got our first taste of campus ministry. It was through this experience that we felt called to help not only St. John’s, but all Catholic campus ministries on a national level.”
Their website (see below) is a social network for Catholic students everywhere to pray together and share experiences and ideas.
The question still remaining to be answered is: Why is Cardinal Newman, as opposed to some other holy man or woman of the Church, surfacing as the new model for Catholics in America? Certainly he was known by his contemporaries as a lover and collector of books, as a brilliant writer, and as a man with a passion for higher education, and all of the Americans involved with the organizations that have been founded in his honor readily acknowledge their attraction to these facets of Newman’s life.
What may be the more correct answer, however, is touched upon by Gannon University student Monica Scarsella in the short film Heart Speaks to Heart: The Newman Miracle by the National Institute for Newman Studies: “I’ve been brought up [in] Catholic schools, but a lot of it was … ‘Rules of the Catholic faith, and this is that, and this is what you should be learning; and this is what you should study, and these are the prayers,’ but [Cardinal Newman] really brings in a whole different light of … philosophy and where it all comes from.”
Father Peter Cebulka, provost of the New Brunswick Oratory in New Jersey, echoes Scarsella’s sentiment later in the same film: “People are not going to be attracted to externals, to just ritual for the sake of ritual. It’s not enough to know the truths of the faith; it’s not enough to know about the faith. One has to know Christ, and Newman certainly knew Christ.”
Dan Lord writes from Mobile, Alabama.