TOWSON – The Cardinal Newman Center at Towson University is one of hundreds at colleges and universities in the United States and overseas. The centers serve as campus ministries and gathering places for Catholic students and staff at secular educational institutions.
Father Matthew Buening, chaplain for Towson’s Newman Center, is now confronted with the challenge all of these centers are facing – changing the institution’s name on all its signage and literature.
On Oct. 13, Father Buening and the Catholic community of Towson U. celebrated as Cardinal John Henry Newman was canonized a saint in Rome. With the canonization came the rededication of the archdiocese’s first St. John Henry Newman Chapel, and a daylong celebration of students, alums and others from the wider community.
St. John Henry Newman was an Anglican priest before he was received into the Catholic Church. He was a British theologian, poet and academician. It is in that last role that the influential cardinal retains his relevance in campus life today.
Because St. Newman believed in the pursuit of truth, he was at odds with a Christian world that was shrinking away from the thinkers of the enlightenment. Ultimately his quest for truth led him to abandon his native Anglicanism for the Catholic Church.
Back when he was studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Father Buening’s thesis had been on St. Newman, so his work at the Newman Center has been more than just another assignment.
“He lived his whole life in academic work,” Father Buening said. “He was an Oxford man through and through, until his conversion to Catholicism when he was ostracized by many of his dear friends, which was very painful to him, of course, but he was pursuing the truth, and that’s what, really, anyone who is studying is meant to be doing.
“He had this sense of loving to learn for its own sake.”
Towson wasn’t alone in its celebration of the new saint. Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore, a former Anglican parish that was received into the Catholic Church in 2012, dedicated an icon to St. John Newman on the day of his canonization. St. Newman had been familiar with Mount Calvary since the church was the first U.S. Anglican parish to embrace his Oxford movement that sought a renewal of the Anglican Church through a return to its Catholic roots.
The love of learning, of course, doesn’t preclude the love of fellowship and fun that fills Newman centers, and so the Towson celebration included bands, games and face-painting, along with prayerful reflection and a Mass to culminate the day.
Caitie Willet, a junior from Southern Maryland studying family human services and psychology, discovered the Newman Center in her freshman year, before she had committed to her ambitious major. Asked what gets her up in the morning and continue to shine the light of her faith, she says, “Knowing the truth, knowing about Jesus and having a relationship with him.”
Asked where she sees faith flourishing in a time of secularization and crisis for the church, she didn’t have to look far.
“I think here on campus,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of outreach and getting so many people to all of our events. I think Newman is somebody to look up to. He reminds you to be hardworking in your studies, in pursuit of truth.”
Jeremy Smith is a second-generation visitor to the center, following his mother, Cathy, who also attended the celebration. A recent grad with a computer science degree, he has also supported the activities of FOCUS – the Fellowship of Catholic University Students – which sends missionaries to spread the faith and bring life to the faith on university campuses.
The troubles with the church, rather than leading him to shrink from his faith, have led him to redouble his commitment.
“When my family’s on fire, it’s not time to run away,” he said. “It’s time to run into the thick of it.”
As the festival concluded with Mass, Father Buening celebrated four women who also were recognized as saints on the same day, including St. Marquerite Bays, whose vocation was not one of consecration or marriage, but who lived her faith in the vocation of single life, something deeply relatable to the students in his center. Her holiness was so great that she received the gift of the stigmata, bearing the wounds of Christ on her own person.
But the day for these students was largely focused on St. Cardinal Newman.
“He always said to be led by the ‘kindly light of truth,’ ” Father Buening said, “and that was his whole thing, and eventually it led to Catholicism. But that’s what these students are doing, hopefully pursuing truth and discovering ways to find it themselves.”
This article was updated Oct. 15 at 1:54 p.m. to correct the spelling of Caitie Willet’s name
George Matysek contributed to this story.