A vision for Catholic education in Ireland

The following was presented at the opening of the academic year for Newman College Ireland in Ballykelly, Northern Ireland, on Oct. 9, 2017.

Your Excellency, Reverend Fathers, Distinguished Member of the Board of Directors, Esteemed Faculty and Dear Students,

It is a great privilege to be here. You students and faculty have, in just a few weeks, made me and Mrs. Healy feel at home and very welcome.

As we noted to some of you informally, I gave the opening address at Ave Maria College in 2001. It was not the one I intended to give. Our opening that year was on Sept. 11—or 9/11 as it has become infamously known. As the students arrived at the classroom building, the first reports of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center came in. It was just an accident we thought—then the second tower was hit, then the Pentagon. By late morning, terrible destruction could be seen on television, and a large loss of life was understood as inevitable.

Suddenly, the years of peace from the fall of the Soviet Union had come to an end, and the world was radically changed. As I addressed the students that morning, I told them it was now more important than ever to receive a Catholic education, one that would give them not only an understanding of the nature of reality through history, science, and literature, but also of the supernatural realities and the destiny to which every man and woman is called.

Today, we do not have a single shattering event like 9/11 to take account of, but we have powerful forces, internal and external, that are shaking the Western world. Our cultural unravelling seems to be accelerating. In America 60 years ago the culture strongly supported marriage and family. It was the age of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Today, pornography and drug abuse are rampant. On our college campuses, free speech is being undermined, and conservative speakers are shouted down or even physically attacked. Instead of students being taught to engage in debate and face controversy and difficulties with courage and faith, they are encouraged to seek “safe spaces” in which any criticism or controversy is forbidden.

We are now at the point where our social and political leaders have determined that abortion on demand is a basic right, that gender is a matter of choice. In some places, it’s now a crime, punishable by jail time, to call someone by the wrong pronoun. This might be laughable if the ideologues pushing these doctrines were not so determined to carry on not only against tradition and religious teachings, but against nature itself. Who knows where it will lead? As forecast by Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world… the center cannot hold… the best lack of all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

We in the West, in the next half century, will also have to face the consequences of the demographic catastrophe that is overtaking Japan, Europe, and now even beginning in America. There is the challenge of a resurgent Islam, which historically has been in mortal conflict with Europe as recently as the 17th century. There are grave threats from rogue regimes having or determined to achieve nuclear weapons.

If we only catalog the threats, the losses, the pain, the damage which will be inflicted on succeeding generations, we could get discouraged and depressed. Yet this is not the right response for Catholics. As St. Augustine noted at the time barbarian hordes were sacking Rome and laying waste to Christian cities in North Africa, people complain about the times. Yet, he said, these are our times; God made us for precisely the times we are in. We have a God-given role to play no matter what the difficulty. A messianic Jewish rabbi recently put it this way: Does a candle complain about the darkness? Without darkness, a candle has no purpose. Jesus Himself told us: You are the light of the world. And so, we are commissioned, each one of us, to be a light in the gathering darkness of the present age.

You students will be well-equipped to be a light. You have the blessing of a superb faculty, who are eager to impart to you the truths of every subject, truths that give meaning to your life forever. Theology is no longer taught in most of the elite colleges and universities in the West, yet Blessed John Henry Newman said, “Religious truth is not only a portion but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short of unravelling the web of university teaching.”

You may hear criticism that we are not preparing you for a job. It is, of course, not true. What you are receiving is not training for a particular job, which may become obsolete in a matter of a few years. It is rather an education that will prepare you for any job, an education that teaches you to think critically, to speak cogently, to write clearly, to understand cultures throughout the world and, most importantly, to comprehend the true nature of the human person and the supernatural realities that underlie everything we observe and experience. Does God not know you need to earn a living? Ask Him where and how He wants you to serve. The resources needed will follow.

At Ave Maria University, we were fortunate to have as chairman of our Board of Trustees a man who was the chief executive of one of the largest construction firms in America and a devout Catholic. He told us bluntly that his company would not hire anyone for management who did not have a liberal arts degree. Why? He said men and women who had education in the liberal arts were much better able to adapt to the ever-evolving demands of commerce and finance. Your classical education and your moral formation in the Catholic faith will prepare you superbly for whatever the future may hold. In times of upheaval and strife, many will look to you for leadership.

We have another advantage here which is often lacking in residential colleges and universities: The faculty here, at least some, are able to accompany you as you mature in your studies. They witness and thus teach not just in the classroom, but at meals, recreation, and free time. When the Catholic faith is freely received and lived in joy, as it is in your professors, it is irresistible.

The College has the approbation of our local ordinary, Most Rev. Donal McKeown, for which we are deeply grateful; it has a rich sacramental life right here in the hotel. We ought not take this for granted; we at Newman College Ireland will cherish our priests and our Catholic hierarchy as never before. Years of attacks in the media and by government have taken a toll. Let us resolve to stand with our shepherds and show them our gratitude. It is only through them that Christ in His humanity is present in the world, and it is they who are bearing the brunt of the secular onslaught that has been unleashed in our age.

Yes, our numbers for the moment are small. Yet mere numbers count for little in the Divine economy. Think of the first group of 12 in the New Testament or of the 12 apostles of Ireland. God seems to prefer weak and humble beginnings; it helps to remind us what is the source of our strength. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Calcutta, our task is not to achieve success as the world measures it, but to be faithful. Leave the success up to God.

So, my dear students, be thankful for what Newman College Ireland is handing on to you: the keys to a life of the mind and the imperishable truths of the Catholic faith. These are precious gifts. I have no doubt you will be salt and light no matter what vocation God may call you to, and this “wee” fledgling of a college will be our small portion of the great work of renewal that God has begun.

May God bless you!

NICHOLAS HEALY is the president emeritus of Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla.

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