Nicholas Healy, president emeritus of Ave Maria University and a former vice president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, facilitated the launch of Newman College Ireland, which completed its inaugural year in the spring of 2015. In August, he had a conversation with the Register about the beginnings of Newman College and the importance it will mean to higher education in Ireland. (See “College Guide” section for Newman’s listing, as well as those of other colleges mentioned in this article.)
Newman College Ireland’s first academic year was held in Rome. How did that work out?
We could not find a suitable campus in Ireland. I know President William Fahey of Thomas More College in New Hampshire, which has a fine study-abroad program in Rome. He proposed we have our students spend their first year in Rome, piggybacking on this Thomas More program. Our students were to be there for a year, not just a semester, so we added some faculty and courses to give it a special flavor for Newman College Ireland students. We had 14 Irish students, and they loved the experience. Special [experiences] for them were two visits by Cardinal George Pell. He was so impressed he is donating a scholarship to the college [and so is Alice von Hildebrand].
This coming year will you settle onto a campus in Ireland?
We’re going to have our second year in Northern Ireland. We’re still looking for a campus in Ireland. That’s a challenging problem, from a number of perspectives. We want a facility we can use right away, but that also has room for expansion. For a full, workable campus, we need sports fields and access to a nearby town for shopping and schools for faculty families. We have not found one yet. But there was a hotel owned by a devout Catholic family in Ballykelly, about 15 miles east of Derry. It is in Northern Ireland, but in an area that is about 60% Catholic. The bishop of Derry, Bishop Donal McKeown, has welcomed us. We’re also welcomed by the primate of all Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin. The Church does not look at two Irelands, and the primate of all Ireland is actually in the North, as the archbishop of Armagh. And we got an enthusiastic welcome from the local parish.
Will this location give way to another soon?
We’re still looking for a permanent campus, because it’s understood this hotel is not suitable for a larger number of students. We want a traditional campus, which, in time, will foster a lively academic community. We think we found one in a diocese with a bishop that is really keen on us being there, which is really important. We’re in discussion about this facility in this diocese and hope to be in this new facility in the fall of 2016.
You’ve certainly had strong experience and success in working in higher education and establishing such schools before. Please give a highlight or two.
I had a wonderful experience with Franciscan University. I was there for 11 years, as vice president in charge of development and Christian outreach. One of the things I wound up doing was helping start new Catholic colleges. I developed a prototype for establishing new Catholic colleges and helped three or four get going. I also worked with Cardinal [Christoph] Schönborn, helping to establish a new graduate school, the International Theological Institute [in Trumau, Austria]. Because I had this background in starting colleges, I was asked to be the president of Ave Maria College in Michigan. That was quite a challenge. I stepped down from Ave Maria after 12 years.
How and why did you decide to help found Newman College Ireland?
I was asked to come to Ireland and talk about starting a new Catholic college in Ireland. The invitation was from Kathy Sinnott, a very active Catholic laywoman, who was part of a group of clergy and laity anxious to found a Catholic institution of higher learning that was faithful to Church teaching. I was not sure I should attempt this. However, my wife, Jane, and I are both 100% Irish (her maiden name was Darcy), and we decided to do a pilgrimage to Ireland, in thanksgiving for our Irish ancestors for retaining their faith under very difficult circumstances and handing it on to us. I knew that there were problems of the Church there — scandals and a general weakening of catechesis — but I had no idea of the scope of it. This is a society where the faith has virtually collapsed in a generation, and a lot of the bishops weren’t prepared for this. There has been a dramatic decline in men studying for the priesthood, and both the media and the government are quite hostile to the Church.
As far as I have been able to determine, there is no institution of higher learning in Ireland that would qualify as fully Catholic, according to the apostolic constitution [on higher learning], Ex Corde Ecclesiae. There is terrible secularization of formerly Catholic institutions. [For one distressing example], over 90% of Irish 18- to 30-year-olds, most of whom attended Catholic schools, voted for same-sex “marriage.” This rejection of Catholic teaching is really shocking in a country that, for many years, was considered the most Catholic in the world. It was after making this pilgrimage that I became convinced that this is the work I should do: help start a new Catholic college in Ireland.
Do you see allies in the laity?
There still are quite a few devout Catholic families in the country and a deep Catholic culture in Ireland. This is the hope of the country, but the struggle will be long and hard — impossible without grace. Even with their political victories, the secularists are not satisfied. They want to wholly undermine the Church. The Church is the last holdout against the “brave new world” they envision.
Newman College Ireland will help form and educate a generation of Catholic intellectuals in love with the faith and willing to take on the secular media and government elites that are hostile to the Church and to help renew the faith in Irish society.
From the name of this new college, your inspiration was obviously Blessed John Henry Newman. Are you applying ideas from his book The Idea of a University?
Yes. At the request of Blessed Pius IX, a synod of Irish bishops established the Catholic University of Ireland, and Newman was invited to become the first rector. We’re applying most of the ideas in his book, which was based on a series of lectures he gave in Ireland to explain the nature and purpose of a Catholic university. A recent new biography of Newman contains a wealth of additional ideas about university education that he expounded while he was in Oxford. There’s no question that he believed firmly that education was more than passing on knowledge; it was the formation of the whole person — moral, intellectual and spiritual. That’s why it so important not to limit education to the classroom. And both in Ave Maria and Newman College Ireland we put a great emphasis on “accompaniment.” Faculty and staff are expected to help students outside the classroom and become their mentors and role models. That word is used to describe St. John Paul II as a priest in Krakow. He was always accompanying students on their hikes, skiing, being at their weddings, baptisms, etc. So we want to hire faculty and staff that understand this concept and are willing to spend time with the students outside of the formal academic pursuit.
Overall, what do you see as a major goal of Newman College Ireland?
We’re going to help lead the counterattack. In the end, many students will learn to live a Catholic way of life joyfully, and the faith lived joyfully is the surest way to attract new students and donors and to begin the re-evangelism of a nation that has given so much to the Catholic Church throughout the world.
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.
Photo of Cardinal George Pell with Newman College Ireland’s inaugural class in Rome courtesy of Regina
Donations for Newman College Ireland can be made to Friends of Catholic Education in Ireland Inc., 333 Washington St., Keene, NH 03431