GREAT LEARNING. The Newman Center at the University of Nebraska draws many students for Mass and fellowship, including at the new initiative called the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture. Courtesy of the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center
Words matter to Bishop James Conley.
“I’ve often said that I read my way into the Catholic Church,” Bishop Conley of Lincoln, Neb., shared with the Register in a recent email exchange. “In some ways, that’s true. Literature is an ally of liturgy, and poetry points to Providence. When done well, they capture the heart, the mind, the imagination and reveal the majesty of God.”
Bishop Conley grew up in a Presbyterian family. But he converted to Catholicism in 1975, while attending the University of Kansas. That was due, in part, he said, to his studies in the now-defunct Integrated Humanities Program.
The bishop expressed his love of literature in the Register’s special section “Sursum Corda: 10 Suggestions for Rekindling the Literary Imagination” (May 31 issue).
Bishop Conley stresses his journey to Catholicism wasn’t just a matter of the mind. Heart and soul were converted, too.
Still, words led to wonder … and then to Rome.
Forty years after his journey, the bishop is hoping for similar conversions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where this year he helped establish the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture. Formed through a partnership between the university’s St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center and St. Gregory the Great Seminary of Seward, Neb., the Newman Institute will offer students “the best that has been thought and said” through courses focused on literary masterpieces of Western culture, according to the bishop.
“History and literature and philosophy — and poetry, music and art — can open the heart to God and the mind to justice and truth,” Bishop Conley said.
The institute’s goal, he said, is to “form students whose hearts and minds are transformed by encountering the great minds and souls of Western history — especially Christian history.”
The program launched in September, with a series of four lectures at the university’s recently expanded Newman Center. Lecturers included First Things editor R.R. Reno and John Freeh, an associate professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.
Tessa Contreras, a junior from Lincoln, Neb., who has been involved with the Newman Center since 2011, attended all four of the lectures. Prior to them, the psychology major had seen literature and the arts as “soft” and too subjective. Hearing the institute speakers changed her mind: “What I found most impressive about the inaugural lectures this fall is how much the great works of the Western world and works of art, literature and poetry can teach us and draw us into him who is goodness, truth and beauty himself. I was surprised by everything that the humanities have to offer through these lectures.”
This month, the first class will begin, a three-credit course titled “Continuity and Transformation of the Classical Tradition in the Christian West.” Taught by John Pepino, professor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb., it promises to “show how Christianity, far from destroying or even abandoning the philosophical, literary and artistic achievements of the ancients, embraced and transmitted them,” according to Bishop Conley.
Contreras was among the first students to enroll in the institute’s course.
“The lectures and the upcoming classes are different from going to other classes because I am able to go knowing that what is presented will be rooted in and directed toward truth,” Contreras said. “In a lot of classes at the university, I see that all of us are searching for truth. However, in the campus classes, as we search in the classroom, there is a disregard for truth himself [God] and the foundational truths, such as how we were created with a body and soul, are not accounted for, and so the search is wanting from the start.”
Institute courses are open to any college student in the Lincoln area, Catholic or not, and no matter their major. The course is fully accredited by St. Gregory the Great Seminary, and students can transfer the credits earned toward degree programs at the University of Nebraska or other institutions. The University of Nebraska, in fact, helped design the program.
“The University of Nebraska has been very kind to us and very supportive,” Bishop Conley said.
The program is being funded through tuition ($200 per credit hour), support from the Diocese of Lincoln and donors. Father Robert Matya, St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center chaplain, said he hopes to have a director for the institute hired soon, who will work toward an expanded program. He also mentioned the possibility of studies abroad as part of the program.
The desire to launch such a program has long existed at the university, Father Matya said.
“The vast majority of Catholic college students are not going to Catholic colleges — they’re going to land-grant institutions and public universities,” Father Matya said. “That’s where our flock is. We’re going where the people are.”
The expanded Newman Center that opened this past fall gave the staff the space needed to offer courses and related programs. Bishop Conley’s arrival as Lincoln’s bishop in 2012 provided the push to make it happen.
“Because of his experience he had in college at the University of Kansas, he had this kind of vision for what the program would look like,” Father Matya said.
There are similar programs around the country. Father Matya cited those at the University of Tulsa, University of Mary in Arizona, St. Thomas in Minnesota and the University of Illinois.
Exposing students to the great works of Western culture, Father Matya says, helps students “not only grow in their faith, but gives a broader knowledge of how Christianity has actually impacted the culture in many ways.”
Such programs are part of what Bishop Conley called “a flourishing of Catholic apostolates oriented towards the education and formation of college students.” He mentioned the Fellowship of Catholic University Students apostolate, 10-year-old Wyoming Catholic College and efforts such as the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, the Humanitas Program at the University of Kansas and the Aquinas Institute at the University of Colorado.
“Most Catholic students in America attend public universities,” Bishop Conley said, “and they need pastoral and spiritual formation and friendship — and holy worship and Catholic community. They also need intellectual formation. The opportunity to provide real intellectual formation on the campus of a public university is a great grace — and it only happens when universities understand what faith can do for the culture of a campus. I hope more of these kinds of programs will be available for students across the country.”
Eventually, Bishop Conley said, the institute could serve non-students.
“Many people are interested in this kind of formation,” he said. “I think we’ll look for ways to expand the work of the Newman Institute to our priests and seminarians, to our schoolteachers and to adults who are looking for beauty and truth.”
Anyone who, as Bishop Conley says, wants to follow St. Paul’s advice to “Be transformed by the renewal of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Good words to live by.
Anthony Flott writes from