Cardinal Newman – Special Supplement
Newman’s legacy is alive and well at Dublin’s University Church, writes Fr Bill Dailey
I can recall vividly the time that I visited Assisi: I knew from my first steps in the city that I was walking in a place where undeniably holy people – towering saints, Francis and Clare – had walked. Many pilgrims have had a similar sense of awe and otherness overtake them there.
When I first visited the tomb of St Andre Bessette, CSC, at the Oratory of St Joseph in Montreal, I was similarly struck by the holy silence and the palpable reality that a true saint had built that magnificent church, had healed and counseled there, and was there with us still.
Today each day I am privileged to pray – in silence and with others, in a beautiful church in the heart of Dublin that was built by a great saint for today – a great saint for Dublin – John Henry Newman. It’s an incredible and undeserved gift to be able to minister and preach in his Church, a place where so many in Ireland have been baptised and wed, and where so many will now come to encounter what was undoubtedly the home of a great saint.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has long been fond of Newman and of Newman’s Church in Dublin, and with great foresight he took a bold step to honour the great priest and theologian’s legacy here in Dublin when he sought to establish a Centre for Faith & Reason in Newman’s University Church, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, on St Stephen’s Green. I’m most fortunate that his vision included the University of Notre Dame, based in South Bend, Indiana, who saw fit to send me to accept his invitation and take up this exciting work.
It’s worth recalling Dr Martin’s words at the time: “I see the establishment of the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason as an opportunity for University Church to return to its original vocation as a focal point for reflection on Faith and reason. Dublin can take a new lead in today’s changed social context in something which is part of the rich heritage of Newman’s presence in Dublin. I appreciate especially that the centre will not be just an intellectual debating centre, but will also work in the formation of an active and committed Faith community of young professionals.”
I write on the eve of the third anniversary of our arrival in Dublin. I came to Dublin with my colleague Steve Warner – a brilliant musician – and his wife Michele, and we travelled with enthusiasm but some trepidation about what we could encounter.
Regular readers of The Irish Catholic will be well familiar with the state of the Catholic Faith in Ireland today, especially with the challenging cultural headwinds and the need to rebuild credibility in an institution that has too often worked in ways that broke Faith with the faithful.
We had some knowledge of that situation, of course, and intimate knowledge of our limitations, hopeful about joining in the mission here but cautious not to claim to have answers to every question and solutions to every problem. What we brought was gratitude as Americans for the great gifts Ireland has given to the American Church, and gratitude that we had been invited back to join in this new evangelisation.
We were determined to start slowly, simply celebrating the sacraments as best we could, getting to know the people and letting them get to know us, and learning what we could about Blessed John Henry Newman from his writings, his architecture, and the many friends of John Henry Newman who regularly visit our Church.
We knew and we know that our work in his Church must be an outgrowth of his efforts, building on his vision of a Faith rooted in prayer, in friendship with Christ, and in reasoned reflection on the Catholic tradition.
From time to time when we tell people we work in a centre for “Faith and reason” they ask “isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” They are half joking, in my experience – but only half. (I used to teach legal ethics, so I am familiar with the dynamic!).To understand what Newman meant by faith and reason is quickly to see that the half-joking question reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of faith, which properly understood is something all reasonable people possess and act upon every day.
The joke depends upon seeing faith as precisely something beyond reason – before it begins or after it ends – like finding God in the gaps of science or a lucky rabbit’s foot we bring to a test when we’ve run out of time to prepare. It’s Faith as superstition or fantasy, the very opposite of science and reason – the opposite of what is modern, sensible, or trustworthy.
But that last word, trustworthiness, offers a key to understanding why a Centre for Faith & Reason is eminently reasonable, and is most fittingly based in this church built by John Henry Newman. As he preached in his sermon ‘Religious Faith Rational’:
“To hear some men speak (I mean men who scoff at religion), it might be thought we never acted on Faith or Trust, except in religious matters; whereas we are acting on trust every hour of our lives. When faith is said to be a religious principle, it is (I repeat) the things believed, not the act of believing them, which is peculiar to religion. Let us take some examples.
As Newman further notes, we trust our memory and our doctors and our airlines, in reason itself, ‘though they often deceive us’”
“It is obvious that we trust to our memory. We do not now witness what we saw yesterday; yet we have no doubt it took place in the way we remember. We recollect clearly the circumstances of morning and afternoon. Our confidence in our memory is so strong that a man might reason with us all day long, without persuading us that we slept through the day, or that we returned from a long journey, when our memory deposes otherwise. Thus we have faith in our memory; yet what is irrational here?”
Here we see that Faith is something we all have and all act upon – besides Newman’s excellent example of faith in memory, there are many others. We put faith in science: we trust that our doctor is giving us good advice, that the diplomas on her wall give us reliable assurance of the care we will receive. We put trust in the people who prepare our food, the people who build and maintain airplanes and cars. We don’t have time or capacity to check their work, but we trust, using our reason, that we may follow their lead without sure knowledge.
And as Newman further notes, we trust our memory and our doctors and our airlines, in reason itself, “though they often deceive us”. So putting Faith in religion isn’t unreasonable because it is putting trust in something that is less than certain – for this is something reasonable people do every day in so many ways, including trusting the reason itself.
Newman says that the trust of faith is a “reliance on the words of another, as opposed to trust in oneself.” Who are the others upon whom we rely in our religious Faith?
The answer goes back of course to the apostles and martyrs who first spent their lives in service of others to introduce them to Jesus the Christ – being willing to die to spread the Faith, not to kill for it. That’s a pretty good indicator of a person’s trustworthiness – selfless sacrifice to share what they have seen and known of love and mercy so that others may see and know it as well.
But there have been many others since, and their testimony is varied and often glorious: great saints who loved the poor; great architects and artists who captured beauty and compassion in sight and song; very often our own parents and grandparents whose tenderness we can never account for as merely transactional. These latter cases make clear our own experience of living the Faith flows from and reinforces that initial reliance.
When we reflect on Faith in this way, we begin to see that when the Church has failed us, it has done so not by being what it asks us to trust but by betraying it.
As one wag put it on Twitter recently, “we don’t stop believing in Jesus because we encounter Judas”.
Newman, by clearly demonstrating that reasonable people reasonably live by faith and not by sight or certainty in their ordinary everyday lives quite apart from religion gives us a sensible understanding of faith as an equally reasonable activity – trusting in the parents who handed it on to us, going back in a chain through time to the apostles who met the One who would change their lives, the one of whom the Roman Centurion said, seeing the truth of his love on the Cross “surely this one is the son of God”.
If we free ourselves from the false fear that reasonable people are those who only act on certainty, we can confidently relax that our parents and grandparents were not fools who just needed to pay more attention to the STEM disciplines in school rather than bother about this Jesus.
Newman is an ideal and much-needed saint, therefore, for a sceptical age, for he penetrates in plain and persuasive preaching the pretensions of our time.
It’s in this spirit then that we’ve set about to make Newman’s University Church a place for people open to trust in the Lord, and into the testimony we have received about him, as they are willing to trust AIB or Bank of Ireland with their hard earned income, trust the air traffic controllers at the airport, or trust their own memory or powers of reason.
It’s possible for us to be mistaken about those forms of trust on any given day, but it’s reasonable to think that for what’s right in front of me at the moment, I will act on trust and trust in the testimony of the saints is trust that a life lived for others will in fact deepen and enrich my life. So we try to build liturgies and preaching (for we are first of all a house of worship) that will help us to reflect upon that gospel of life and mercy with beauty and sophistication.
To this end we’ve added an evening mass and started a remarkably talented choir of young people, the Vocare Ensemble, directed by Steve Warner. They have recorded an album already and will be touring the US next summer. They enrich that evening Mass which is small but growing steadily and includes a large number of regular attendees just out of college or already in the professions. We have doctors and lawyers and philosophers who knew their way around the Leaving Cert but also know that what is written on our hearts will not in fact show up on an ECG.
We’ve also had evenings of poetry and music featuring poets such as Heaney and Kavanagh, reflections on ethical entrepreneurship, discussions on women in the Church and on the plight of migrants, panel discussions on the future of Catholic Schools and the future of the pro-life movement in Ireland.
Newman’s plan for a university recognised the independent integrity of various disciplines as part of a unified whole where integrity is found in the pursuit of truth”
In all of these we’ve welcomed respectful disagreement in an atmosphere proper to a University in Newman’s vision: a place that believes in the vindication of reason and the fearless pursuit of truth where theology has a place but where other disciplines have their own history and practices and standards that are not simply to be determined by “father knows best”.
Rather, Newman’s plan for a university recognised the independent integrity of various disciplines as part of a unified whole where integrity is found in the pursuit of truth. In this way the University is intended to prepare us for the next life, not the next job.
We welcome people to Newman Church to “come and see”, in worship, in discussion of discrete topics that are timely but touch upon timeless themes, because little there is in the depths of human affairs that does not test or move our conscience, that surest evidence of God in our experience, what Newman calls “God’s voice in our hearts”, a gift “to balance the influence of sight and reason”.
We’ve been moved to hear from people that they had been away from the Church for a while and have found in our various ministries aided by so many Irish friends and collaborators a reason to return to the Faith of their baptism. One young college student came to me recently saying: “I heard you invited a group of us to your Church two years ago, and laughed to myself that nobody would come. But here I am.”
We’re truly just getting started, and doing our best each day to think of creative ways to engage that voice within that calls something further from us than the economy does, the voice that calls us to be good friends, good husbands and wives, good parents and good children, that reminds us to be kind to the stranger and to forgive as we would be forgiven.
This voice, as we have seen, is placed in us alongside reason, alongside sight and hearing and memory, and may just as reasonably be attended to as all of them. Indeed, most of us have enough experience to know that failure to heed that voice, that capacity, can lead us (and those around us) into injury and even despair. It is not reasonable to court despair, and here we see that even hope itself (which is not merely blind optimism any more than Faith is like a rabbit’s foot) is reasonable.
We hope you’ll join us soon.
Fr Bill Dailey CSC is director of the Newman Centre for Faith and Reason.