Habits of Mind and Spirit: What campus ministers can learn from Blessed John Henry Newman
Since 1893, when Catholic students at the University of Pennsylvania established the first Newman Club in the United States, Cardinal John Henry Newman has been associated with Catholic campus ministry. His beatification this September offers an opportunity to reflect anew on how his life and thought can guide and enrich campus ministry today.
My own reading of Newman is colored by many years of serving at state universities, but the following five guidelines can be applied to a variety of ministerial settings.
1. Leave the ghetto. Campus ministry is more faithful to its mission when it moves off the periphery and close to the center of campus life. Newman’s academic career at Oxford University offers guidance. After attending Trinity College at Oxford, Newman was elected a fellow at Oriel College, a position that provided comfortable lodgings, good food, social position and sufficient income for life. Newman totally immersed himself in the life of the university and once said he wanted nothing more than “to live and die a fellow at Oriel.” In 1825, he was ordained an Anglican priest and a few years later was appointed vicar of St. Mary the Virgin Church, which served as the university church, a position that brought him even closer to the heart of Oxford life.
Campus ministry does well to follow Newman’s lead. He challenges the still common temptation for campus ministry to confine itself to the restricted arena of church concerns, and he encourages a ministry that embraces the academic world and its vital interests. Leaders of the faith community who heed Newman’s example are inclined to collaborate with administrators and faculty members in helping the university live up to its own highest ideals. They are also in a better position to encourage Catholic students to be involved in campus life and to take advantage of its many opportunities for personal growth and service to others.
2. Cultivate relationships. Campus ministry thrives when rooted in healthy personal relationships. When Newman was a teenage student at Oxford, he received very little direction or guidance from anyone in the Oxford system. Consequently, as an Oriel fellow he took very seriously his responsibility as a tutor. Rejecting the traditional detached approach to tutoring, he met personally with students and helped them develop as whole persons. From 1833 to 1845, Newman also worked collaboratively with colleagues, especially John Keble and Edward Pusey, in the Oxford Movement, which endeavored to reform the Church of England. They wrote tracts on theological topics in order to promote dialogue on matters important to the reform movement.
Leaders who have cultivated good relationships with administrators and faculty increase their opportunities to minister at the center of university life, for example, by serving on a university ethics committee or giving a presentation on Catholicism to a class on world religions. Many campus ministers do some of their best work interacting with individual students as spiritual directors, counselors or mentors. Catholic students can do their part to spread the kingdom on campus by cultivating healthy relationships with students of other religious traditions. In all the interpersonal relationships that constitute campus ministry, Newman exemplifies generous, enlightened commitment to the other.
3. Focus on conversion. Reflecting on conversion in a broad sense can help ministers facilitate personal development. Newman’s own conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism was largely intellectual. Through a close study of the Church Fathers, he became convinced that the Catholic Church had best preserved the traditions of the patristic period. In 1841 Newman published the famous “Tract 90” that claimed Catholicism provided the key to understanding the Anglican tradition. Widely attacked for his views, he withdrew into a long period of intense reflection. Four years later, Newman resigned as a fellow of Oriel and was received into the Catholic Church.
Newman’s intellectual conversion forced upon him great emotional challenges. Separating from his beloved Oxford was intensely painful. He suffered from the continuing attacks of Anglican colleagues and from the distrust of some within the Catholic community. He needed an affective conversion to maintain psychic equilibrium and carry out his new duties as a Catholic. Newman had an especially keen sense of the role of conversion in personal development. He knew from experience that transformative change is essential to full growth as a person and a Christian. As he famously put it: “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
In “Empowered by the Spirit,” the 1985 pastoral letter on campus ministry that still serves as a guide today, the U.S. bishops list among the six fundamental ministerial functions the personal development of all the members of the faith community, including faculty, staff, students and campus ministers. Influenced by Newman, the great 20th-century Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan stressed the need for conversion in all the dimensions of human life. Expanding on this central insight, one can think of campus ministry as facilitating the healthy development of the physical, emotional, imaginative, intellectual, moral and religious dimensions of life. This suggests a wide variety of approaches and programming: encouraging students to exercise and eat properly; offering a workshop on managing stress; counseling individuals with low self-esteem; providing opportunities for campus ministers to continue their theological education; offering seminars on sexuality and other key ethical issues of the day; and providing prayerful liturgies with homilies that link the Christian tradition to the joys and crosses of everyday life.
Wise ministers help students discern which dimension of their lives needs attention if they are to progress in Christian discipleship. For some, it may be setting aside time for daily prayer, while for others it may be avoiding binge-drinking. Indivi-duals who give personal witness to the ways the Holy Spirit has guided their personal development serve as an inspiration: for example, a student on retreat recounts his struggles with the capital sin of lust; a biology teacher gives a presentation to colleagues on the importance of her Catholic faith.
4. Form a community. Campus ministry has the vitally important mission of forming communities that foster Christian virtues. A few years after Newman’s ordination as a Catholic priest in 1846, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Paul Cullen of Dublin asked him to help establish a Catholic University there. Newman was excited by the opportunity to introduce elements of his Oxford experience into Ireland and gave a series of lectures in 1852 that formed the basis for his classic study The Idea of a University.
For Newman the purpose of a liberal education is less to inculcate virtue than to form a “habit of mind which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom.” Education at its best is not a matter of reading much or accumulating a great deal of information; it is, rather, learning “how to think, reason, compare, discriminate, and discover and contemplate the truth.” Liberally educated individuals have acquired the habit of “viewing many things at once as a whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective value, and determining their mutual dependence.” The goal of liberal education is to help form “the gentleman” with a “cultivated intelligence, a delicate taste and a noble and courageous bearing.”
By recognizing the inherent limits of even the best liberal education, Newman opens up space for the church on campus to function as a community of virtue. All the members are responsible for creating a communal setting where Christian virtue is practiced and learned. Campus ministers are called to be authentic models of the servant leadership taught by Jesus. Committed and caring faculty members demonstrate the Gospel teaching of love of neighbor. Students who make newcomers feel welcome in their liturgy, meetings and social events exercise the virtue of hospitality. The common celebration of the Eucharist is the definitive school of virtue for collegians today. It is the event that draws people into community, instructs in the word and nourishes for the task of living the Gospel. With the contemporary weakening of the Catholic subculture, liturgy becomes even more crucial in socializing young people into the Catholic tradition.
Christian service projects are another important school of virtue, especially when combined with theological reflection. Students who spend a summer working with the poor in Latin America or a day volunteering at a local food distribution center learn firsthand something about the Gospel challenge to help those in need as well as the social situation of the less fortunate. Guided reflection on the experience is an effective way to learn more about Catholic social teaching. Retreats are still another good way of forming community and fostering Christian living. Because students are not learning in the classroom to be virtuous persons, it is all the more important that campus ministry form a Christian community where the future leaders of society and church can learn and practice virtuous living.
5. Teach the faith. Campus ministry has a responsibility to creatively appropriate the faith through theological education. Newman saw theology as an important element in liberal education and offered the following arguments for including it in the curriculum: theology is a legitimate discipline and universities should not arbitrarily exclude it; religious doctrine involves a claim to genuine knowledge that deserves to be examined in an academic setting; Christianity claims that God is implicated in history and thus history should be examined from a Christian perspective; and theology helps us see things whole and gain an integrated view of the world so that we are not narrowly one dimensional. For Newman, “theology occupies our language, it meets us at every turn in our literature, it is the secret assumption, too axiomatic to be distinctly professed, of all of our writers; nor can we help assuming it ourselves, except by the most unnatural vigilance.” Religious truth is “not only a portion but a condition of general knowledge.”
Newman challenges campus ministry to find ways to overcome religious illiteracy and help students gain a mature understanding of their Catholic faith. Newman’s rationale for the study of theology can be supplemented by the argument of John Courtney Murray, S.J., who contended that students have a right to examine their own religious tradition and to learn more about the world religions that inform various cultures.
Campus ministers can also promote religious studies on campus: by identifying existing courses that deal with religious matters; working with administrators and faculty to establish a department of religious studies or a major; and encouraging faculty members to teach courses on values or ethics in their field. Within the faith community, ministers can sponsor lectures on theological topics, seminars on ethical issues and Bible study that includes modern critical methods as well as faith-sharing.
An important recent development is the establishment of chairs of Catholic studies at universities. Typically, campus ministers have initiated the idea, gained support from the university and the local diocese, consulted with Catholic faculty members and raised money for an endowed position that is administered by the university. There are now 10 or more of these, including one on my own campus home at the University of Toledo.
This whole effort draws campus ministry into the center of university life and provides a place for the Catholic tradition in the public arena—an endeavor very much in the spirit of Cardinal John Henry Newman.