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Newman’s Second Spring Returns to Ireland


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Daniel Blackman - published on 09/30/14

Nick Healy, president of Newman College Ireland, on making Newman's idea of a university a reality
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The last few decades have witnessed a new springtime for Catholic higher education, particularly in the United States. New liberal arts colleges have sprung up, offering a new generation of Catholic students a formation which had been left by the wayside. Perhaps you’ve heard of Christendom, Ave Maria, More, Aquinas, and Campion? In the UK, there is Maryvale, and we’ve witnessed the first beginnings of Benedictus College and the School of the Annunciation.

Now, there is a new and exciting addition to the family: Newman College Ireland (NCI), begun by Nick Healy, CEO and President of Newman College Ireland. Healy is also President Emeritus of Ave Maria University, and a former Vice President of Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is strongly supported by former Irish MEP Kathy Sinnott. Healy spoke to Aleteia about the college, and the hopes for a restoration of Catholic faith and culture in the emerald isle.

What’s Newman College Ireland (NCI) all about?

Newman College Ireland (NCI) is a new third level Catholic liberal arts college. It was founded by lay people and clergy in Ireland. Kathy Sinnott has been the main Irish promoter. She has been motivated largely by the experience of several of her children, and also that of several nieces and nephews, who have faithfully attended Catholic colleges and universities in America.

But how do you even measure what “faithfully Catholic” is?

These can best be described as "Newman Guide" schools; i.e. schools that meet the standards of the Cardinal Newman Society in complying with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic education promulgated by St. Pope John Paul II. These institutions are noted for leading students to a joyful practice of the faith, orthodoxy in the theology taught, and a cherishing of the classic art, music, and literature of Western Civilization.

Can you give some examples?

Some of the better known institutions are Thomas Aquinas College, Franciscan University, Christendom College, University of Dallas, and Ave Maria University. Kathy Sinnott yearned for such a school in Ireland, but believed that the nominally Catholic third level schools in Ireland fell short.  

Where do you fit in with all this?

I became involved as a consultant because of my experience in helping start several new Catholic institutions of higher learning. In reviewing the nature of higher education in Ireland, I became convinced that to establish a really first rate institution, without State aid (which would not be prudent to rely on, even in the very unlikely event it were offered), private donations were needed, especially for scholarships, and that the huge Irish diaspora in America could be a source of support. Hence, I established and am now managing Friends of Catholic Education in Ireland Inc., a qualified nonprofit U.S. corporation, gifts to which are tax-deductible for American taxpayers.

You’ve explained the Catholic part, but what is your definition of​a liberal arts college?

A liberal arts college is one that stresses classical learning rather than career preparation. Thus, NCI will have a “core” curriculum that includes theology, philosophy, history, literature, mathematics, natural science, Latin, and exposure to fine art and music.

Okay, but why an approach that would be seen as old-fashioned to some?

It is our conviction that such an education actually better prepares students for any vocation or line of work, and is indispensable for preparing students to meet the powerful challenges to their faith that everyone in Western countries will have to endure in the coming decades.

Why has there been a rise in liberal arts colleges and universities in recent decades?

Academic institutions, not unlike religious orders, seem to go through cycles of growth and spiritual (and intellectual) dynamism, followed by spiritual dryness and institutional decay.  The history of religious orders exemplifies this, and when decay or entropy sets in, new orders arise or older ones are reformed.  Something similar has happened to Catholic colleges and universities.  A number of them have lost their Catholic identity—in reality if not in name.  As new students and their parents became aware of the spiritual decline, the opportunities are there for new institutions to be successful.  A few of the older schools have been able to restore their Catholic identity and revitalize their mission. Yet, by their nature institutions of higher learning are hard to reform, and it may actually be less daunting to initiate a new one then achieve a meaningful reform of an older one.

Ireland’s been Catholic for centuries, and brought the Faith to other continents. Does Ireland need NCI?

It is by now generally acknowledged that Irish society has experienced one of the steepest declines in the practice and knowledge of the Catholic faith in the modern era. The reasons for this are complex, and will probably not be fully understood for many decades, if ever. It suffices to say that a nation that until relatively recently was thought of as the most Catholic in the world is now rapidly becoming secularized, with the Church on the defensive in such critical social issues as abortion and marriage. In the U.S., a similar degree of secularization overtook many Catholic institutions, but the strong American tradition of grassroots activism produced a counter-movement. Thus, we have the Newman Guide colleges and universities (some new, and others which restored their Catholic identity), EWTN, Ignatius Press, Catholic radio, and a number of very vigorous pro-life organisations. What Ireland needs is a Catholic intellectual center, one that can take on the challenges to the Faith at the deepest levels, one that will produce a cadre of well-educated young people on fire for the faith, and willing to take on the reigning cultural nihilism. NCI can, God willing, become that.

Why Newman, an Englishman through and through?

We took the name of Newman for the simple reason that Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman was the first Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, Ireland’s first Catholic university. In preparation for the task assigned to him, he gave a series of lectures, which were the basis for his classic "The Idea of a University." This is our inspiration and foundational guide.

Will NCI cater toAmericans studying abroad, or to the Irish?

It is fundamentally for Irish students. The managing board are majority Irish, and we are appealing to Irish-Americans on the basis of helping the Church in Ireland by giving Irish students a first rate and authentically Catholic education. In future years, we may well expand the student body to include students from other countries. For example, some American students might do a “study abroad” program for a semester or a year in Ireland. We are not a seminary, nor for the foreseeable future, would we be offering graduate programs in theology or philosophy. Hence, we would not expect clergy to enroll. However, we would expect vocations to the priesthood and religious life, sorely lacking in Ireland at present.  When the faith is taught by those who believe it and live it, it is extraordinarily attractive.

Ambitious plans are going to require a base. Where will your campus be?

We have been searching for some two years for a property that could serve as our campus in Ireland. There are a number of factors that must be considered. First, it must be in a diocese in which the local bishop welcomes the new institution. Under Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the bishop has only limited responsibility for institutions that are initiated by lay Catholics, but he [must] permit the institution to designate itself as Catholic.

Just that?

Beyond that, he is expected to receive an oath of fidelity from the senior administrator, the campus minister, and the theology faculty, and to give a “mandatum” to those teaching theology, certifying that they have the qualification to teach in fidelity to the Magisterium.

What else counts when finding a campus?

Other factors are a location near enough to town or city such that the faculty and students can have easy access to schools, shopping, public transportation, and entertainment, but outside a city center with its many distractions. The facilities need to be ready for occupancy, with no need for major, time-consuming, and costly renovations.  It should also have space for classrooms, a chapel, library, offices, and sports [facilities].  They must not only be adequate for an initial group of students, but also have the potential for future expansion as the student body grows.

So when does NCI start? Or are you waiting?

We thought it important to get started, and since we had not yet settled on a campus site in Ireland, we began looking at other opportunities. An ideal one turned out to be the Rome program of Thomas More College of Merrimack, New Hampshire.  It is a small, but very fine liberal arts college, fully accredited, and has for years run a “semester abroad” program in Rome. I learned of it when I was president of Ave Maria University, and we sent some students to it. The TMC leadership was very willing to accommodate NCI students, and helped us develop a curriculum for a full year of core liberal arts courses that they also accredit. Of course, beginning in Rome, the center of the Church for nearly two thousand years, is fitting for a Catholic institution.

What’s a day in the life of an NCI student going to be like?

Our students will hear lectures by eminent Catholic scholars that will inspire them and lead them to cherish the life of the mind; they will take part in class discussions of the great issues that are facing us. Students will explore the great art and architecture of Rome and take weekend, guided excursions to places such as Assisi, Venice, Florence, and Naples. Daily Mass is easy to attend in Rome, and we expect most, if not all, of our faculty, staff, and students will want to participate in it, and in the many spiritual opportunities which will naturally be present in and near Rome. We expect them to dine often with faculty and staff, and to make friendships that will last a lifetime.

Coming back to what you hinted at earlier, can you tell me what challenges you’re preparing your students to face in the modern world?

For NCI students, the most critical challenge is to devote themselves to higher-level studies so as to better understand, appreciate, and be able defend the truth of Catholicism—both in the intellectual and practical realms. The Church has been under severe attack in recent decades, and the attack shows no sign of abating. What the benefactors of NCI wish to support is serious students who will rise to the challenge of developing themselves in knowledge and critical thinking to respond to these challenges. We are confident that we have found such young people for our inaugural class. The students, in turn, will need witnesses to the beauty of the Faith as it is lived out by the faculty and staff. We want to teach the students that the Catholic moral life, now widely disdained and ridiculed, can be lived, and lived joyfully.  

Would you say the focus is purely on the Catholic Faith, its doctrines and dogmas?

Beyond recovering the moral teaching of the Church, Western societies need to preserve, and again learn, to treasure the art, music, literature, and architecture bequeathed to us by Christendom. What is at stake is not only the treasures of Western Civilization, but the political rights and freedoms that derive from that tradition.

And how important is the role of prayer in the life of NCI?

NCI was conceived and founded in prayer, and has been sustained by prayer. This is one reason why we have named Bishop Dermot Molloy McDermott as our honorary Patron. As a young priest in Alabama, Bishop Molloy helped Mother Angelica start EWTN shortly after he became a missionary, and spent 50 years in active service as a priest and bishop. With the motto “Love is repaid by love,” he accomplished extraordinary things, especially in the field of education, under difficult conditions, through a total reliance on prayer and Providence. Forced to retire by ill health, he spent the last 8 years of his life offering all of his suffering for the church, and in particular, in his final years, for the establishment of Newman College Ireland.

What isyour final message to our readers?

We rely heavily on the many prayers that have been promised by those who enthusiastically encourage and support the founding of this new fledgling institution. (I pray daily for it.) In the end, this is a spiritual battle, and we invoke the saints— especially the Irish saints—for our protection and guidance.  

Special to Aleteia. If you would like to find out more about NCI and ways to support this exciting and important project for Ireland and the Church, please visit:

Daniel Blackmanis a writer living in London, England.

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