‘Newman and student living today’

Summary of a talk given to freshers at the Chaplaincy on the Thursday of Noughth Week by Dr Paul Shrimpton

Going to at university is one of most exciting and defining moments in life, and especially so for those privileged to come to Oxford, a university which is in so many ways a student paradise. Naturally, along with all the expectations, there are fears: will I be good enough, will I survive, will I make friends, will I be happy?

For a British Catholic these times are doubly exciting as the visit of the Holy Father has given a new impulse to Catholic Christians in this land and set us off in a new direction. Then there is Blessed John Henry Newman.

What has Newman to say to me, a school-leaver yesterday, an undergraduate today? Isn’t he a remote figure far removed from my world? A short answer as to why Newman is so important for Christians today is that he lived at the start of the modern age – our age – when, for the first time, Christian traditions were being openly challenged and alternatives proposed. He is interesting for us, because he confronts non-Christian approaches just when they were beginning to be propagated and responds to them with reasoned arguments. He acted fearlessly when there was loss of nerve, great confusion, and a tendency to retreat from engaging with the post-Enlightenment world. Newman was a man of great energy, resilience and with a capacity to inspire others; he was highly original, a genius; moreover, he was a man of great integrity, i.e. personal holiness.

So what would be Newman’s ten top tips for student living today? At the risk of attempting to ‘bullet-point’ this great Christian humanist, I would suggest the following:

• A student’s studies are all-important. University is all about learning how to learn: learning how to profit from reading, lectures, seminars, tutorials and learning from other students.
• On opening the Catholic University in Dublin in 1854 as founding rector, he told the students present that they had not come to be made doctors, engineers, lawyers or priests, but in order “to be made men”. University was about human flourishing at all levels. An undergraduate at Trinity College Oxford, Newman indulged a very broad range of interests.
• There is plenty of knowledge to be found at Oxford and endless amounts of expertise. But where should the student turn who is in search of wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, and guidance on the art of how to live well? Where can be found the dispassionate advice and encouragement for that personal project of striving for human flourishing? Catholic Oxford has plenty to offer students to enable them to fill out their formation and the Catholic Chaplaincy is the leading, though not sole, provider.
• Student days are dangerous times – but then, Newman insisted, so is living in the world. In 1854 he wrote: “These may be called the three vital principles of the Christian student, faith, chastity, love; because their contraries, viz., unbelief or heresy, impurity, and enmity, are just the three great sins against God, ourselves, and our neighbour, which are the death of the soul.”
• Daily practices of Christian piety allow spiritual growth to take place. As an undergraduate Newman devoted half an hour a day in the early evening to prayer, meditation, self-examination and the reading of Scripture. As a tutor at Oriel he encouraged his tutees to take their Christian faith seriously. As a preacher at the University Church of St Mary’s he inspired his congregation to lead deep spiritual lives. As rector of the Catholic University, he ensured that daily Mass was said in each of the collegiate houses and arranged that each student should have a confessor; he even thought about beginning the academic year with a retreat.
• Just as students should have a general knowledge of history, philosophy and literature, so – he argued – they should have a parallel know of sacred history, Christian philosophy (and theology), and biblical literature. As appetite and capacity grow with age, so this need should be met. Quoting Newman at Hyde Park, Pope Benedict said: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it”.
• Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks unto heart) was Newman’s motto as a cardinal. He reminds us that through our personal influence we affect others: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.” Whether we want it or not, we all influence others.
• Newman considered that the disjunction of the academic and moral was one of the evils of the age. “It will not satisfy me, what satisfies so many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labour, and only accidentally brought together. It will not satisfy me, if religion is here, and science there, and young men converse with science all day, and lodge with religion in the evening. It is not touching the evil […] if young men eat and drink and sleep in one place, and think in another: I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline. […] I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.” Being Catholics in Oxford is not limited to our presence in Catholic institutions.
• Absent from Newman (and from all his generation) is the idea of ‘outreach’. He did not have access to Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II) which asserts that “man […] does not fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. Consider involvement in a service or outreach project.
• Newman entrusted the Catholic University in Ireland to the patronage of Our Lady under her title as Sedes Sapientiae (Seat of Wisdom). Why not do so too and display the Chaplaincy image on the mantelpiece in your room? [Insert image]