by Antonella Palermo
Welcome to Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s in the Southwest, USA. About 150 thousand people live there. It’s located along famous Route 66 and is a convenient stop for the thousands of tourists attracted by famous sites in the area, such as Grand Canyon National Park.
It’s the off-season, so many shops are closed. Scattered groups of Amish people are gathered at the junctions near the gas stations. It’s Sunday and a surreal landscape lies before us.
My husband and I are trying to find a place nearby to attend Mass. Google Maps to the rescue! It points us in the direction of Northern Arizona University. After a bit, we head into the semi-deserted alleys of the Campus. “Is this the right way?” we wonder. Meanwhile, vague memories of the chapel at the largest university in Europe (La Sapienza) where I used to go float in my head.
We arrive. Boys and girls welcome us warmly. Strains of musical instruments being tuned fill the air and give us an idea of the Eucharistic hymns we can look forward to. The space is small. Families and some senior citizens arrive. You can sense that each person has a specific role to carry out in this liturgical setting. The New Age atmosphere, which fills the surrounding region, has not penetrated this space. We have arrived at Northern Arizona University’s Newman Center.
A large community
Gabriel Matthews, an Exercise Science major, tells us about his involvement at the Newman Center. He explains that it’s “like a home away from home”, a place where he can meet friends. One of the things he loves the most about the Newman Center are the “Newman Nights”. If Gilbert loves the Newman Nights, it means he’s a serious Truth Seeker. That’s exactly what a Newman Night is – an opportunity to “seek truth in the university”. The NAU Newman Center has one Newman Night a week and about 100 students attend it regularly.
We also meet Jazzy Zaleski, who studies Business Marketing and Spanish. She’s enthusiastic about the fruitful and mature friendships she’s made at the Newman Center which has helped her strengthen her faith. The need for a solid, healthy, joyful social network is evident. According to Maria Yanez, everyone shares the desire to create a strong sense of community.
Cardinal Newman’s legacy on University campuses in the United States
Cardinal John Henry Newman pursued truth with such tenacity that he opened himself up to rejection and put his reputation on the line when he entered into communion with the Catholic Church in 1843. It was in Ireland in 1852 that he expounded his thoughts on the fundamentals of and advantages of a university education. Later, these lectures were integrated into a work that is synonymous with Newman: The Idea of a University. Two years later, he became rector of the newly founded Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin (now University College Dublin).
Cardinal Newman’s presence on the university campus endured even after his death in 1890. Only three years later, the first Newman Club was founded on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Just after the turn of the century, many American Catholic university clubs formed a formal association. This later led to the formation of the National Newman Club Federation.
Currently, the Newman Connection website lists 1,486 Newman Centers in the United States alone. These Centers have provided and continue to provide pastoral care to Catholic university students and to the communities in their area. As the website of the Newman Center at Northern Arizona University (NAU) makes clear, these centers are places were “Catholic Jacks” are welcome.
Place to call home
Due to this network that takes its name from the recently canonized English cardinal, Cardinal Newman is perhaps more well-known in the United States than in his native country. These centers are present in contexts that are not specifically Catholic. They are a catalyst in a reality where students run a high risk of isolation and risky behavior as they take their first steps away from their families. “Sometimes they can feel really alone and isolated on the college campus”, Fr Matt Lowry, the Newman Center Chaplain, tells us. “And so, to have a place that they can call their home, where they can be safe and learn and grow.” Fr Lowry’s style is open, dynamic, creative and conversational.
Synod on Young People encourages young adult ministry
Fr Lowry praises Pope Francis’ style in that he encourages the Church to listen to young people. He recalls the experience of the Synod and says it is a great encouragement for the Church. It’s this style that can be found in the Newman Centers: “We love questions as we seek the truth”, he tells us. “We see [Newman] as a great intercessor for us. We want to have a presence here on this campus, and on every campus, so that the students will know that Jesus is walking with them”. He even tells us a short story of a non-Catholic student who attended an event sponsored by the Newman Center. He enjoyed it so much that he went back to the Center and participated at Mass. That led him to undertake a journey of faith, much like Newman’s. He was received into the community of faith and confirmed as well.
Being a FOCUS missionary
During our visit, we also discover FOCUS: Fellowship of Catholic University Students. FOCUS missionaries want to help students “choose Christ” on campus, as FOCUS missionary Ashley Kilzer explains. She explains that they invite the students to “grow deeper, invest in them[selves] and their spiritual life and in the relationship with the Lord…. The Newman Center builds on the relationship that they already have…. The college campus provides so many different decisions for college students to choose”. The Newman Center, Ashley says, helps the students “choose Christ” by being “so accessible and having Mass, Adoration and all these different events available”. It boils down to relationship, so important in young adults’ lives: “The Newman Center offers them a relationship that is different, that satisfies and that brings them ultimate joy in life”, Ashley explains.
Faith Stenle is from San Diego, California. She tells us that there is a “family-oriented” atmosphere at the Newman Center. She goes to the Bible Study offered there and enjoys going to the events they organize. Faith is looking forward to going on a retreat. That would be the Lumberjack Awakening! The last one took place the last weekend of February. Check it out!
Cultivating the “culture of life”
Micah Meehan comes from Phoenix and interns at the Newman Center. “It can get very difficult at times with studies and going to the library and staying on top of course work”, Micah confesses. “But,” he continues, “I make time for Christ”. He speaks of the Newman Center as a true “ ‘hub’ of Catholicism here in Flagstaff”, capable of “reaching out” to people who “may only really know the culture of death”. “And so I think our mission here is to really cultivate the culture of life that Christ preaches in the Gospel.”
That’s the best definition of a Newman Center that we heard.