National Catholic Register


Strong Faith, State School

After 80 Years Newman Center Innovates at Illinois

BY Justin Bell

November 30-December 6, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/24/08 at 1:37 PM


Celebrating 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 working well.

“It really has to be the whole of the person that’s formed,” said Father Greg Ketcham, the director of St. John’s since 2006.

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 walls.

“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 Catholicism.

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 Howell.

The 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

“One 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 skill-building.

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.

Howell hopes current and future students like Hudson will be able to share the faith in nonacademic settings.

Father 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.

As he said, “We’re constantly reinforcing for our students that they are collaborating with us in this ministry.”

Justin Bell is based in

South Boston, Massachusetts.

INFORMATION For more information on St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, visit