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Defending a Catholic education
Cardinal Newman Society founder works to improve Catholic campuses
Katie Bahr | Catholic Herald
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Cardinal Newman Society founder Patrick Reilly presents Pope Benedict XVI with a copy of The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College at St. Peter’s Square in Rome last week.

For Patrick Reilly, a parishioner of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Clifton, protecting the Faith is a full-time job. As the founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, he has spent more than 15 years working to help Catholic colleges and universities comply with the laws of the Church.

Standing up as a student

It all started when Reilly was completing his undergraduate studies at Fordham University in New York. Coming from a faithful family and a Catholic high school in Pennsylvania, Reilly had certain expectations of what a Catholic college would be like. When he got to Fordham, on scholarship to study journalism and political science, he was surprised and offended by some of the school-sponsored events, speakers and organizations on campus.

In 1990, his junior year, Reilly worked as editor of the school paper. In that year alone, Fordham recognized a pro-choice student club sponsored by NARAL, a club for gay and lesbian students, and a university-funded peer counseling helpline that would refer pregnant students to Planned Parenthood. Reilly also found out about a freshman orientation class taught by one of the school’s deans, in which students were being trained to use various forms of contraception.

“I instinctively knew these things weren’t appropriate for a Catholic institution and certainly weren’t what I would have expected,” Reilly said.

Reilly used his position as a newspaper editor to express his opinions. To educate himself, Reilly started reading cyclicals and researching Church teachings on sexuality, abortion and higher learning institutions. Over time, he found himself becoming more informed and committed to Catholicism, so he kept writing editorials. It wasn’t long before he earned a reputation.

“By the time I got into this, especially when I got into the gay and lesbian issues, I was getting death threats at home,” Reilly said. “I was young and I just took it as these are just people being idiots. Probably now I would take it seriously, but I think I was probably right because that’s all it was.”

Looking for help, Reilly went to a few national organizations — pro-life groups and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights — but no one could give him the specific help he needed.

“They were very friendly and helpful to the extent that they could, but generally the response was, ‘dealing with Catholic universities is not really in our mission,’” Reilly said. “I really had a sense as a student that there was some need for organizational support for students in particular who are defying these issues — how do they deal with them accordingly.”

An expanding vision

A few years later, while attending graduate school at American University in Washington, Reilly met other graduates of Catholic universities and realized that Fordham was not the only school going against Church teaching in some areas. He kept thinking about the need for an organization that would keep Catholic universities in line.

“I essentially had the sense that no one else is doing it,” Reilly said. “I felt a strong call to do something.”

With a few other recent college graduates, Reilly launched the Cardinal Newman Society in 1993, with the intent that the group would be purely a paper organization.

“We weren’t looking to have a staff, we weren’t really looking to have a budget, but what we wanted to do as recent graduates of Catholic colleges was, we wanted the bishops and the public to be well aware that these problems weren’t just particulars at Georgetown that had to be dealt with or particulars at Fordham, that these were problems across the board in Catholic education that needed to be addressed in that way,” Reilly said.

In the beginning, the group issued press releases, sent letters to bishops and people who might be of influence, and established an advisory board of prominent Catholics. As time passed, the group kept growing.

“It took a while, but there was such a need, more and more, to engage students and working with alumni and working with faculty and as we went on, it became clear that they were all looking for some kind of national voice to express the concerns that very many faithful Catholics had about the state of Catholic education,” Reilly said.

By 2002, the group was so big that Reilly could no longer manage the organization while holding down a full-time job. He raised enough money to cover a small salary for himself for six months and dedicated himself completely to the society.

“I said, I’m just gonna make a go of it and after that six months, I’ll raise money for the next six months, which was not at all assured at the time,” Reilly said. “It was very much, either we make it or we shut down the organization.”

Luckily, the group not only succeeded, but flourished.

Making an impact

Today, the organization has seven employees and more than 20,000 members nationwide who write letters, make phone calls, donate money and pray for the universities year after year.

The society has three primary focuses — identifying and notifying churches and the public about university scandals; recognizing the Catholic colleges that live up to their ideals; and addressing the critical issues of Catholic higher education like freedom of expression and core curriculum. In addition, the group has started working to promote eucharistic adoration on campuses.

In 2007, the organization published The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, a book of 21 schools that do a good job of maintaining Catholic identities. The group has moved into the spotlight, with Reilly making appearances on Fox News and the O’Reilly Factor to discuss commencement speakers. Last week, Reilly was in Rome where he presented Pope Benedict XVI with a copy of The Newman Guide, asking the Holy Father to bless the recommended colleges and the organization.

Even with the group’s successes, the most personally rewarding part for Reilly is the way it brought him back to the Faith.

“I wasn’t the worst kid on campus, but was just a lackluster Catholic,” Reilly said. “Having attended a large Catholic university that frankly wasn’t too interested in teaching me the actual physical Catholic teachings on any of these things, if I hadn’t been called and dragged into this, kicking and screaming at the time, I don’t know if I ever would have focused and been attentive to my faith.”

Reilly also enjoys being able to make a difference for Catholic families.

“Those four years of college are, for most people, highly formative in terms of their social and spiritual identities,” Reilly said. “Young people who fall away from the Church in college very often don’t come back. Or they may come back later when they have children, but they’ve missed out on a great opportunity to develop themselves spiritually.

“Even if one young man or woman is able to get the kind of education that these colleges (in The Newman Guide) provide and that I would have loved to receive myself, it’s just to me extremely rewarding, and that’s why we have so much to do. That’s the most rewarding — the real, human impact this has had on Catholic families.”

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