9 Ways John Henry Newman Is a Model for Today’s Students

COMMENTARY: The soon-to-be saint relentlessly sought the Truth, and he had the courage to follow where it led.

Students who attend secular colleges and pray at campus Newman Centers have John Henry Newman to thank. Below, Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the beatification Mass of Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park on Sept. 19, 2010, in Birmingham, England, in front of more than 60,000 faithful. Cardinal Newman will be canonized a saint Oct. 13 in Rome.
Students who attend secular colleges and pray at campus Newman Centers have John Henry Newman to thank. Below, Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the beatification Mass of Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park on Sept. 19, 2010, in Birmingham, England, in front of more than 60,000 faithful. Cardinal Newman will be canonized a saint Oct. 13 in Rome. (photo: Main image, public domain/Wikipedia; beatification Mass, Peter Nicholls/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

John Henry Newman was a gifted scholar and theologian, professor, preacher, poet, musician, author, servant of the poor, controversialist, university founder, priest and, eventually, cardinal. Above all, he was an indefatigable seeker of truth and had indomitable courage to follow where it led. For those reasons, university chaplaincies throughout Canada and the United States have been named after him; indeed, in some places, inquirers simply ask where the “Newman Center” is when they are looking for the chaplaincy.

Those chaplaincies will now have a blessing exceedingly rare in Church history: witnessing their patron be canonized. The usual practice in Catholic life is to name apostolates after already-existing saints. So luminous was Newman’s example that he earned the patronages first and the official veneration afterward.

What does Newman have to offer students on campus today, aside from his heavenly intercession? I have spent my entire priesthood at Newman House at Queen’s University, and I would suggest nine ways in which Newman, who will be canonized with four others Oct. 13 at the Vatican, is a model for students today.

John Henry Newman was a model student.

No student will possess the natural brilliance of Newman; he was one of the most gifted intellects in the entire history of Christianity. But he complemented his intellect with diligent study, knowing that intellectual gifts are just that, and the proper manifestation of gratitude is to study hard. It has never been easy to study hard, but today’s students face more digital distractions, which are hard to avoid. They need models of diligent study.

Along with Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Newman is the great contemporary exemplar of the harmony of faith and reason.

On the 200th anniversary of Newman’s birth in 2001, St. John Paul II presented Newman as an image of the “two wings” with which he opened his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). Newman’s confidence in reason as an ally of faith was evident in two ways. First, the essential role of reason in faith — what we call theology. Newman was rigorous in laying out a reasonable faith and turned to other disciplines, notably history, in order to understand Revelation better.

Second, Newman insisted on proper knowledge of other disciplines with their own proper autonomy; his vision of a university was not of a theological academy.

“In his Irish University he set up not only a school of arts and sciences, but also schools of medicine and engineering,” wrote Cardinal Avery Dulles, another famous convert theologian. “He made provision for a chemical laboratory and an astronomical observatory. All these elements, in his view, had a rightful place in the university as a place of universal learning. But the very multiplicity of disciplines increased the necessity of a principle of order, governing the whole, so that the student would be able to perceive the significance of each particular branch of knowledge in relation to the rest.” Students who wonder what their secular studies (reason) have to do with their knowledge of God (faith) have in Newman their great model and teacher.

Newman had passion for truth, as one the best recent biographies was titled.

It is no accident that Benedict XVI, who did not like to travel and did not do beatifications himself, made only one trip for a beatification in his pontificate, going to England to beatify Newman in 2010. The theologian-pope who decried the “dictatorship of relativism” saw in Newman a great defender of the existence of truth and that we can come to know it with certainty, if not completely. The dictatorship of relativism is further advanced on university campuses than most other places. Students can find in Newman a fellow disciple who confirms that the truth can be known and that the truth can set one free.

Newman was, above all, a thoroughly converted disciple.

The young John Henry had a teenage conversion. He became convinced of the truth of the Christian faith with a rock-solid certainty that marked his whole life.

He is famous for his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845 — his feast day, Oct. 9, is the day of his reception into full communion with the Catholic Church — but that prior conversion, in the context of Anglican evangelicalism, was essential, for it was then that he put Jesus Christ at the center of his life.

All adolescents and young adults have to make a similar decision about where God fits in their lives; even those from Catholic families need a moment of interior decision, of conversion or at least deeper conversion. When students on campus today talk about “conversion,” they usually mean what happened at Newman’s first conversion, not his second.

Newman knew the necessity of the Church.

Making a decision about Christ means making a decision about the Church. It was this that caused Newman great anguish and to which he devoted his formidable energies. If Christ founded a Church, where could that Church be found? Newman eventually became convinced, after detailed study, that the Catholic Church was most fully in continuity with the apostolic Church founded by Jesus himself. The fashionable option of being “spiritual but not religious” is, for Christians, the desire to have Christ without his Church. It is attractive at first glance, for Christ is all-holy, and the Church, which shares in the holiness of Christ, often appears to be anything but holy. Christ without the Church also becomes a Christianity that makes few demands, for there is no community of disciples in which to live. Students who live amongst peers who profess to be spiritual but not religious need Newman to show that both are necessary, as a head has its body, a bridegroom has his bride, and a shepherd has his flock.

Newman made great sacrifices for becoming Catholic, for seeking Christ precisely in the Catholic Church.

In mid-19th-century England, that meant giving up his professorship at Oxford and being cast out of the English establishment. He lost many colleagues and even dear friends; perhaps his most moving sermon is entitled “The Parting of Friends”  about the cost of his conversion to Catholicism.

And the Church into which Newman entered both honored and tormented him. What place was there for a refined English scholar in a Church of the working-class Irish? We remember that, in making Newman a cardinal, Pope Leo XIII gave definitive approval to his life and work, but it came when he was 78 years old. For much of Newman’s Catholic life, he was asked to make great sacrifices for a Church that often appeared ungrateful.

Students who choose to be serious about their Catholic faith can expect to pay a price even while on campus, from professors who disdain religious belief to student unions that seek to limit the free speech and association of Christian clubs. Certain jobs, even professions, will be effectively closed to those who wish to live their Catholic faith in full. Newman knew well that reality more than 150 years ago.

Newman faced a particular kind of anti-Catholic hostility, given his prominence.

He was falsely convicted of calumny, which had a certain irony to it, given that Newman was subject to public vilification. His magisterial autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, was prompted by public accusations that he was a disreputable liar. The Catholic student who is called a bigot simply for being Catholic has a patron in Newman, whose sensitive soul was grieved by the slanders slung his way.

It is a widely noticed phenomenon of campus ministry that students are generally more conservative than their parents. The chaplaincy is often considered more conservative than surrounding parishes, a complete reversal of what would have been the case in the 1970s.

Newman is a reminder that the totality of the Catholic Tradition contains elements both liberal and conservative, just as the biblical steward brings out treasures both new and old from his storehouse.

Students, being inexperienced, can sometimes unthinkingly opt for what is old just because their elders rejected it. Those elders in turn often rejected what was old just because their elders held to it. Plus ça change …

Newman never did anything unthinkingly. Being fully Catholic, he recognized the essential need for tradition, but a tradition that developed, not corrupted, the deposit of faith. He is a great figure of balance, conserving a tradition for the purpose of making it liberally available.

Today in the Church we find plenty of mindless liberalism, even at the highest levels, and also mindless conservatism, which, though less influential at the moment, is often not less vocal for being so. Newman points the way forward.

Finally, at a time when students are often presented with a standard of undemanding mediocrity, Newman stands for excellence.

He was not just a preacher, but the best preacher of his time.

He was not just a priest, but a zealous priest who visited the sick and the poor, living out Matthew 25 to the letter. He was not just a writer, but a great writer of prose in the history of the English language — a judgment confirmed by no less than James Joyce, who flatly said:

“Nobody has ever written English prose that can be compared with that of a tiresome footling little Anglican parson who afterward became a prince of the only true church.”

Newman pursued excellence in all things. The Church now recognizes his excellence in discipleship, which is called sanctity.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

is the editor in chief  of

Convivium magazine.