What Newman Centers Owe Their Namesake (Part 1)

Interview With Oratorian Priest, Director of Newman Institute

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By Kathleen Naab

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, AUG. 30, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The dossier for Cardinal John Henry Newman’s beatification does not list Catholic university centers that bear his name among the miracles the soon-to-be-blessed gained through his intercession.

And yet, Newman Centers could be considered one of the cardinal’s first works from heaven.

This is the lighthearted suggestion made by Oratorian Father Drew Morgan, provost of the Pittsburgh Oratory of St. Philip Neri. As an Oratorian priest, Father Morgan is a member of Cardinal Newman’s own congregation. Leading up to the cardinal’s September beatification, ZENIT spoke with Father Morgan about the mark the English convert has left on the world of the Church in universities.

In addition to sharing Cardinal Newman’s spirituality, the Pennsylvania-native priest served for 15 years at one of the Newman Centers with the best reputations in the United States. Father Morgan was ordained for the Oratory in 1985 and has a 1997 doctorate from Duquesne University where he wrote his dissertation on Cardinal Newman’s understanding of conscience. He is presently the director of the National Institute for Newman Studies.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Tuesday.

ZENIT: Tell us about the history and basic role of the Newman Center.

Father Morgan: According to John Evans, author of a history of the Newman Clubs titled «The Newman Movement»: «Reaction to supposed anti-Catholicism certainly accounted for the origin of the first Catholic student organization in secular higher education.»

The very first meeting of such a “club” was on Thanksgiving Day, 1883, in Madison, Wisconsin, where Catholic students were enjoying the holiday at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John C. Melvin, who lived across the street from the University of Wisconsin. In the course of the evening, one of the students mentioned that a professor had slandered the Catholic Church in his treatment of “medieval institutions.” His fellow Catholic students began a discussion as to whether such discourse was, indeed, slanderous, or appropriate, given the state of the Church in that period of history.

The students continued to meet at this home for further discussion and fellowship, constituting the beginning of the “Melvin Club.” It was the first organized manifestation of Catholic students coming together on a secular college campus.

One of the students who participated in the meetings of the Melvin Club was Timothy Harrington. He eventually found his way to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). During a semester break, Harrington reread Newman’s autobiography, «Apologia pro Vita Sua.» Inspired by Newman’s ability to defend the faith and his ideas about university education for Catholic students, Harrington drew on his experience in Wisconsin and initiated the first “Newman Club.” It followed a similar format, incorporating social activities, discussions on the faith, and mutual support for Catholic students in a frequently hostile academic environment. The meetings often became occasions for dating and debating, essentially providing a Catholic culture in a secular environment.
Surprisingly, Newman Centers emerged in the United States only three years after Newman’s death in Birmingham, England. The group at Penn held their first meeting in 1893. It is often thought that this could well be one of Newman’s first great miracles! It certainly is an affirmation of the power of his charismatic influence upon the life of the Church in the English-speaking world and his ongoing efforts from above to assist Catholic students in their most formative academic years.

Today, Newman Clubs or “Centers” can be found on almost every secular college campus in the United States, although one of the earliest clubs was at the University of Toronto in Canada. Frequently, and unfortunately, the Newman name is no longer tied to this ministry and the work is identified as “campus ministry.” Nevertheless, the mission can be traced to the Newman Club movement.
Eventually, the Newman movement became essential for the pastoral care of a growing population of Catholics attending secular colleges and universities. The return of the servicemen after World War II and the emergence of the “baby boom” generation swelled the ranks of Catholics seeking higher education at these institutions. The response of the institutional Church was to provide not only encouragement for Catholic faculty and students to associate with one another, but also the assignment of a Newman chaplain for their spiritual and sacramental needs.

The Newman movement eventually became know as the “Newman Apostolate,” and after Vatican II was placed under the aegis of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

ZENIT: Can a Newman Center replace what a student stands to gain from attending a university that is itself Catholic?

Father Morgan: This is an interesting question that provides insight into an entirely different role that Newman played in the development of the modern American university. Throughout the 1850s, Newman served as rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, which he was asked to found by the Irish bishops. At the beginning of each academic year and as each college of the university was established, Newman would deliver an opening lecture or an address that powerfully illustrated insights into the role of the various disciplines of higher education. Newman took great strides in establishing the role that the Church should play in promoting the study of that particular field.

The collection of his lectures and these opening addresses constitute his great work, «The Idea of a University.» This work was used as the essential “blueprint” by the religious orders that were rapidly founding Catholic colleges and universities throughout the United States. Their work was seen as a necessary completion of the work that the Church had initiated for her students in the parochial school system. In one generation, American Catholics went from being uneducated new immigrants to educated citizens capable of engaging the broader culture. The contribution made by Newman to this great work is yet another manifestation of the power of his charismatic leadership in the area of university education.

To address your question about Catholic vs. secular education, originally, the Newman Clubs hoped to be the appropriate response to this issue. However, many pastors and even a few bishops felt that Catholic students attending non-Catholic institutions were placing themselves in near-occasions of sin and therefore should no longer receive Communion! The safeguarding of the faith today paradoxically may in fact be more secure in a vibrant Newman Center on a secular college campus, where students are regularly challenged to defend their faith and give an account of their beliefs.

Of course Catholic universities can provide quality education in all areas, introducing the Catholic perspective in each discipline, as well as the teaching of the faith through their faculties of theology. This was really Newman’s great contribution to the very meaning of a “university” education, where universal Truth would be pursued, including the Truth found in theology and the teachings of the Church.

[Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday]

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On the Net:

The National Institute for Newman Studies: www.newmanstudiesinstitute.org

Prayer for Cardinal Newman’s canonization: www.newmancause.co.uk/prayer.html

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