Come 2018 the Newman Center at the University of Pennsylvania will celebrate its 125th anniversary. Founded in 1893 by a lay medical student, it is the first – of now many – Newman Centers in the United States. Any one discouraged by the expanding godlessness in our secular academies would be pleased to discover this center of vibrancy which in collaboration with the Newman Center at nearby Drexel University provides students and faculty the salubrious benefits of spiritual community.
Blessed with the permanent on-campus presence of five members of the religious order Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (the name alone would spark interest), the Center offers opportunities for retreats, sacramental life, community service, mission trips and soul-nourishing dialogue – all under the guidance of the dynamic pastor of the Church of St. James and St. Agatha (itself a hidden gem in West Philadelphia). Imagine over 650 students attending a candle-lit 9 p.m. Mass every Sunday!
How fortunate these two universities are to share this oasis of Catholic “learning.” Catholic education is more than catechesis, more than discipline in school hallways. It isn’t only prayers at the beginning of class, uniforms on youngsters, statues of the saints and crucifixes in the classroom. It is even more than the inculcation of values and manners. It is all of these, but most important it is an invitation to a fuller understanding of life, an understanding that goes beyond the ‘what’ in creation and even beyond the more challenging “how” in creation. It is an exploration of creation’s ‘why.’
Imagine those academic settings where such discussions on the ‘why’ are prohibited because they involve religion or at least openness to the supernatural. The prohibition is enforced because, according to a dangerously spreading tenet, religion is a strictly private matter. Consider the irony here. Some of our most prestigious secular universities began as seminaries. And, at one point in western civilization, theology was praised as ‘the queen of the sciences.’ Not now. One wonders today how the unity of knowledge can be attained or even approached if life’s ‘what’ and ‘how’ are not informed by life’s ‘why?’
Do the young unchurched attempt to find the answer on their own? Or, do they suppress the question and fill the absent answer’s void with fruitless distraction?
It is the pursuit of the ‘why’ that leads us to a vivifying understanding that everything is related and purposeful. In today’s atomized world where the individual has replaced the family as the foundation of society, an awareness of the ‘why’ is critical if civilization is to reverse its descent into boredom and barbarism. Contrary to the popular mindset, community, tradition and family do not thwart or limit our freedom rather they nurture and promote it. The recognition of this fundamental truth is core to Catholic education.
The Newman Center at Penn is indeed a center of vibrancy and a wellspring of hope. Scripture says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear here is not fright. Rather it is that reverential awe that irresistibly compels one more and more deeply into the never sated wonder of ‘why.’ How pleased Blessed John Cardinal Newman must be with this eponymous legacy.
Dana Robinson is chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.