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The Cardinal Newman Society’s soon-to-be canonized patron

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Patrick Reilly was excited to study at a Catholic university — to spend four years learning philosophy, theology and ethics, and to meet and grow in the faith with fellow Catholics. But the experience didn’t match his expectations. There were a lot of good things about the college, he said, but a lot of disappointments, too. He was taught by a theology professor who disagreed openly with the church. Many of the students were more into partying than attending Sunday Mass. There was a pro-choice club that was approved by the administration. 

“I’m by nature quiet and introverted and wasn’t inclined to speaking out, but I started asking why these things were being promoted at a Catholic university?” said Reilly, a parishioner of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Clifton. 

After college, he attended graduate school in Washington. There, he met alumni from other Catholic colleges who had the same experience as he did. So, in 1993, he started the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to promoting and defending faithful Catholic education. 

The society’s patron, Cardinal John Henry Newman, was a British scholar, philosopher, writer and Anglican priest before he became Catholic. He spent much of his life at Oxford University as both a student and a fellow. As an Anglican priest, he was the vicar at a university church. After he became Catholic, he founded the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, England, and a Catholic university in Dublin. Many of his ideas on higher education are in his book, "The Idea of a University," based on lectures he gave in the 1850s.

“Newman, perhaps more than anybody, studied the essence of Catholic education as focused on truth,” said Reilly. “(He) made the argument that because a university is focused on teaching truth in all the various disciplines, the only complete, authentic university would be one that teaches theology because once you exclude one branch of knowledge, you’re limiting the university.”

The work of the Cardinal Newman Society, based in Manassas, has evolved over time, according to Reilly. Throughout the years, the society has called to task Catholic universities that invited speakers or sponsored events at odds with Catholic teaching. 

Around the time the Cardinal Newman Society began, Pope John Paul II issued “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” an apostolic constitution on the role and mission of Catholic universities. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invited the society to consult on the guidelines for the national implementation of the document, said Reilly. 

In 2007, they released the first Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, highlighting several colleges with strong Catholic identities. They now also have a Catholic Education Honor Roll that recognizes elementary and high schools, including Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, St. Rita School in Alexandria and Seton School in Manassas. 

Currently, they’re working on the Catholic Identity Standards Project — a guide to what the church teaches about every aspect of Catholic education, including admissions, athletics, curriculum and personnel.  Reilly said as the culture continues to secularize, schools are facing public criticism and even legal action for certain policies, especially those related to human sexuality.

“It's a service to Catholic education to help navigate these very difficult issues, to be able to demonstrate to the courts and to the general public, which may not agree with Catholic teaching, that this is necessary in order for us to be Catholic,” said Reilly. “We have to do it compassionately and pastorally, in a way that is sensitive to everyone’s circumstances without giving up our Catholic beliefs.”

Reilly will go on a pilgrimage to Rome with other staffers and society supporters for the canonization of Cardinal Newman Oct. 13. While there, they plan to see some of the places that the future saint visited during his four trips to the Eternal City, including the chapel where he was ordained to the priesthood. Cardinal Newman’s work in education, within the church and the larger culture, makes him the perfect saint for our day, said Reilly.

“At his time in England in the 19th century was just when the whole technological revolution was getting underway. There was a great emphasis on science and moving away from religion; relativism was becoming very big,” he said. “What he was battling in those days was the beginning of what we have today, this very secular society. That's why he was so committed to education.

“He was decidedly against a blind faith — he wanted Catholics, as much as possible, to use our reason to understand what it is that we believe,” said Reilly. “I would think he would want the laity to really be asking God to open our minds and open our hearts to a full understanding of what God wants for us.”

Catholics News Service contributed to this article.

John Henry Newman

Cardinal John Henry Newman was born Feb. 21, 1801, in London, the eldest of six children. His parents John and Jemima Newman were members of the Church of England. At the age of 16, Newman became an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford. After his undergraduate studies, he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College, at the time the leading college of the university. He was ordained a priest in Christ Church Cathedral by the Bishop of Oxford May 29, 1825, and became curate of St. Clement’s Church, Oxford. Newman and associates embarked on what would be known as the Oxford Movement, a challenge to the status quo of the Christian establishment in England. 

When studying the history of the early Church Fathers, Newman was perturbed to discover that the doctrinal position of the Anglican Church in his own day bore a close resemblance to some of the heretical currents that had emerged in early centuries. Newman moved with a few companions to modest lodgings in the village of Littlemore, where he lived a quasi-monastic life, praying for guidance. He converted to Catholicism in 1845 and was later ordained to the priesthood. 

With the approval of Pope Pius IX, Father Newman established the first Oratory of St. Philip Neri in the English-speaking world at Maryvale near Birmingham, Feb. 1, 1848. In 1854, the bishops of Ireland appointed Father Newman as rector of the new Catholic University of Ireland, now University College Dublin, where he stayed for four years. Pope Leo XIII, admiring Father Newman’s fierce religious orthodoxy, created him a cardinal in 1879. He died at the age of 89 Aug. 11, 1890.

—    biography from the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019