College-Based Newman Centers Mark Namesake’s Canonization

Cardinal John Henry Newman was a college man.Today there are an estimated 2,000 Newman Centers on campuses around the country.

College students, including those like Aida Pabello and Israel Lopez at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have long found spiritual homes at campus Newman Centers.
College students, including those like Aida Pabello and Israel Lopez at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have long found spiritual homes at campus Newman Centers. (photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Siar)

Cardinal John Henry Newman was a college man.

Newman’s career was close to the life of a university: He held a teaching post at Oxford University before his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and he also held a series of lectures later published as The Idea of a University. His autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, directly inspired medical student Timothy Harrington to adopt the cardinal’s name for the first Newman Center in the United States, founded in 1893 at the University of Pennsylvania.

Today there are an estimated 2,000 Newman Centers on campuses around the country.

One man who encountered Newman in a college course later entered the priesthood, rising through the ranks of Church leadership. Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, said Newman’s conversion made an impression on him because it cost Newman his career. “He gave up everything to become a Catholic,” Bishop Conley told the Register. “That heroic sacrifice really had an impact on my life.”

All of his works speak to the issues facing contemporary college students, including relativism and the relationship between faith and reason, according to Bishop Conley. “Newman was dealing with some of the same issues of our own day,” Bishop Conley said.

This enduring legacy is being highlighted in a special way this month to coincide with his Oct. 13 canonization. Institutes and other groups across the country who bear his name are celebrating Cardinal Newman’s canonization with conferences and symposia dedicated to understanding his thought and its relevance for today.

In Philadelphia, the Penn Newman Center hosted a three-day celebration, including a conference, gala and Mass Oct. 4 to 6, marking its 125th anniversary.

“We’re very joyful about his canonization, and the coincidence of timing between our anniversary as well as the canonization is obviously … God’s gift to us,” said Patrick Travers, the director of the Penn and Drexel Newman Center.

The Penn Newman Center merged with the Newman Center at Drexel University in 2010, operates out of St. Agatha-St. James parish, and is run by the Sodalitium of Christian Life, a society of apostolic life. The Newman Center is growing: The three-day Newman-themed celebration was to end with the blessing of a new four-story center at the parish.


Name Recognition

Newman Centers aim to be a beacon of Catholic faith and thought on non-Catholic campuses, reaching students at a critical age when many are drawn away from the faith but also when many are just discovering it, according to Travers.

Although the typical Catholic university student may not be as deep into Newman’s thought as Harrington, many of those at the Penn and Drexel Newman Center feel connected to him through his episcopal motto, Cor ad cor loquitur — “Heart speaks to heart” — which is also the motto for the center. Travers said it inspires the center’s small-group ministry and shapes the spirituality of the whole center, which ministers to a student body defined by stiff academic competition.

“What inspires me most about Cardinal Newman is his conviction, his unwavering belief that there should be a space for Catholic dialogue and theological teachings at secular universities,” said John Ortega, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. Ortega says that the Penn and Drexel Newman Center has “become a place where I feel at home and where I am challenged to take action with my faith.”

While many of Newman’s writings and intellectual concerns are particular to the 19th century, his fundamental insights remain relevant for today. “They are completely important for today’s ministry and for the future of the Church,” Travers said.

The anniversary celebration offers students a chance to go deeper into Newman’s thought. The Pennsylvania conference featured as its keynote speaker Jonathan Reyes, an expert on Catholic social teaching who currently serves as the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Reyes’ topic was “Why Newman Still Matters.” The main speaker for the gala was John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America.

Several other institutes and centers are hosting similar events.

At the University of Nebraska, the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture held a lecture on Sept. 4 by Father Nicholas Rouch, the vicar for education for the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, on Cardinal Newman’s “Model for Defending the Church Today.”

Newman’s witness and writings contain a timely message for Catholics today as they seek to respond to critics from within and without in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals and other failures, according to Father Rouch. Newman’s prescription: brutal honesty about her weaknesses. “In general, Newman readily admitted failures and corruption in the Church, provided the faithful with ways to understand such failures,” Father Rouch said, according to the notes for his talk. For Newman, the renewal of the Church came through a strengthening of her three main offices or roles — the priestly, prophetic and kingly, according to Father Rouch.


Newman Leads the Way

The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes authentic Catholic universities, is leading a pilgrimage to Rome for the canonization. The society is also organizing a series of webinar lectures on Cardinal Newman’s thoughts and writings via the Institute of Catholic Culture, according to Patrick Reilly, the president of the society, who will be delivering two of the lectures. The webinars are being produced with the Institute of Catholic Culture (visit

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the staff of the National Institute for Newman Studies, which is affiliated with Duquesne University, will also be making the trip to Rome for the canonization. Upon their return, they will host their own celebration — a keynote lecture on Oct. 24 and an academic symposium the next day. The keynote speaker is Father Benjamin John King, a Newman scholar who has written three books on the cardinal. Father King will speak on Newman’s view of America. His online biography for the event notes that Newman was “fascinated” by America and wanted to send missionaries to the country, noting that it is perhaps fitting that the two miraculous healings that led to the canonization occurred in the United States.

The director of the Pittsburgh institute, Bud Marr, is scheduled to speak at a panel at the Newman Center in Philadelphia as well as at one workshop as part of a two-day commemoration of Cardinal Newman hosted at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York Nov. 1-2.

“Newman was arguably the greatest English-speaking [Churchman] of the 19th century. He was a poet, philosopher and prominent convert, and his theology touched on a whole range of theological topics, some of which have become even more important since his death,” Marr told the Register

Those topics include the development of doctrine, consulting the faithful and ecclesiology. Marr said Newman’s thought addresses the concerns of college students. In addition to the reasonableness of faith, Newman also emphasized sensus fidei — the “sense of the faithful” as a witness to Catholic beliefs, anticipating Vatican II’s emphasis on the theme.

“He thought it was particularly important that the lay faithful — not just clergy — have a strong understanding of the reasons why the Church taught what it did. Newman promoted various educational efforts, and this legacy has been preserved through his being named the patron saint of Catholic campus ministries at public universities,” Marr wrote in a memo summarizing the importance of Newman.

“Thus, thousands (maybe millions) of American Catholics have experienced the formative years of their intellectual and spiritual development at Newman Centers on college campuses,” Marr added. “When adult Catholics think about the time period when they made a personal commitment to their faith (as something beyond simply making their parents happy), their mind very likely turns to Newman.”


Inspired Students

One center that can attest to the lifelong impact of Newman-centered foundation is St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign, Illinois, which will be sending some students on a pilgrimage to Rome. Back in Illinois, the center will be celebrating in numerous other ways — from displaying napkins in its cafeteria with Newman quotations to a vigil with Eucharistic adoration in the six hours before the canonization. The center, which is on the flagship campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also planning to a show a talk or a documentary on Newman, according to Father Robert Lampitt, the head chaplain.

And the Newman Institute on Thought and Culture at the University of Nebraska is also leading students on a pilgrimage to Rome for the canonization, according to John Freeh, the director. (The institute works in conjunction with the Newman Center on campus.)

Meanwhile, St. John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago is bringing the second miracle recipient, Melissa Villalobos, to speak Nov. 18, according to Rebecca Siar, the director of campus ministry. Villalobos, a Catholic wife and mother from Chicago, and her unborn daughter Gemma were saved by Newman’s intercession. Likewise, Deacon Jack Sullivan, another American, was cured of a spinal condition through Newman’s intercession.

Meghan Grill, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois in Chicago, said Newman has helped her to appreciate the importance of change in her life. “One of my favorite quotes of Cardinal Newman is ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ I’m a firm believer in the power of experience and the ever-changing effect and insights these experiences bring forth. In regards to my own faith journey, it’s a constantly evolving growth and an invitation to change and go deeper,” Grill said. “I think an awareness and acceptance of this constant call and openness to change is vital in growing into the men and women of Christ we’re all called to be.”

Many students are eyeing the canonization as an opportunity to learn more about Newman and growing in their appreciation of his holy example. Penn’s Ortega viewed the center’s conference as a chance to get to know the center’s namesake better. “I hope to learn more about Newman’s idea of the university, his belief of what education should look like, and how that is entwined with our Catholic identity,” Ortega said before the event.

Bailey Tenopir, a senior at the University of Lincoln at Nebraska, is going on the Newman Institute’s pilgrimage to Rome. “I’m very excited,” Tenopir said. In preparation for the trip, she will be praying a novena for Newman’s intercession. “Everything happens for a rhyme and reason, so, for whatever reason, God wants me to get more acquainted with John Henry Newman,” Tenopir said.


Doctor Newman?

Since Newman’s death in 1890, he has grown in importance, especially as more Catholic theologians write in English.

His canonization paves the way for Newman to exert an even greater influence — not only by virtue of being a saint, but also because it could lead to him being declared a doctor of the Church, according to Marr. There are currently 36 saints who bear this title, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and, more recently, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Bishop Conley also sees Newman being named a doctor of the Church as a possibility in the future, although the fact that he’s being canonized this October is cause enough to celebrate one of the most brilliant and heroic figures in Church history.

“With Newman’s canonization, it’s going to be a great moment for the Church today, to recognize this intellectual giant who really had a great impact on the life of college students in the university setting.”

Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.