The deepest of human longing: A crucible of reason strengthens faith

Notre Dame-Newman Centre project aims to honour legacy of inquiry

The interior of Newman University Church in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The interior of Newman University Church in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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When I tell them that I was invited to Dublin to direct the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason, the reply I get a fair bit from people is: “A centre for faith and reason? Isn’t that a contradiction?”

As someone who used to teach legal ethics, I’m used to the response, but in both contexts, while I get the joke, it also reminds me why the work I do is worthwhile. As a religious believer I have the personal experience of knowing that one’s faith is deepened the more fearlessly one is willing to interrogate it in reason.

As a person of reason in 2018 I also know that religious faith continues to motivate and inspire billions around the globe and that to ignore its meaning and impact is to neglect the outlook of the majority of one’s neighbours on this planet.

That occasion was a profoundly graced opportunity to reflect on the intersection of faith and culture, of beauty and language, of art and life and death

So when Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin invited the University of Notre Dame to come to Blessed John Henry Newman’s uniquely beautiful University Church on St Stephen’s Green, we were delighted to accept the opportunity.

At the Notre Dame-Newman Centre, our aim is to honour Newman’s legacy and vision for the little barn he built in the 19th century to serve as a centre of preaching and worship, but also inquiry and encounter by engaging 21st-century questions and culture.

Montague funeral

Shortly after arriving here, I was asked to preach and preside at the funeral of the distinguished poet John Montague, who liked to pray in our church on his visits to Dublin.

Cardinal Newman: his ideas ran counter to a modern emphasis on achieving high grades through competitive learning. Photograph: AP/Catholic Church
John Henry Newman (above): Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin invited the University of Notre Dame to come to Cardinal Newman’s University Church on St Stephen’s Green. File potograph: Catholic Church/AP

That occasion was a profoundly graced opportunity to reflect on the intersection of faith and culture, of beauty and language, of art and life and death.

Here was a world-renowned man of letters who wanted his final farewell to be in this beautiful space that has brought so many back again and again, if only to steal a few quiet moments in the afternoon in the place where they were baptised, or married, or that they discovered by wondering what was there when strolling past the green.

It was a powerful symbol to us of the potential of this “accoutred frowsty barn,” as Philip Larkin would have it, as a home to engage the deepest of human longing and seeking.

We’ve embarked upon our mission in a variety of ways: scheduling lectures to explore Newman’s legacy; inviting in experts to discuss and debate the future of Catholic schooling in Ireland; hosting the debut of Patrick Cassidy’s composition The Mass, a moving new setting of the Latin Mass; and starting a Sunday evening Mass for 20-somethings with a corps of young singers and faithful.

I will not help you in any effort to revive a Catholic past that does not deserve reviving

We held a successful series of post-Mass speakers in the Easter season, Theology Uncorked, in which we were engaged by a young woman about to enter the contemplative life, by young people working in the New Evangelisation, and by insights from prison ministry and experiences of the refugee crisis.

Field Day

We worked with the marvellous Field Day Company to give a platform to migrant poets and consider the rights of the most vulnerable with a stirring lecture from Séamus Deane on “The Right to Have Rights”.

We are hosting a homeless outreach and exploring a variety of other service opportunities, for a faith disconnected from those in need is a faith disconnected from God.

I was blessed to have coffee with a well-known Irish poet, a non-believer, whom I had met at the Montague funeral, and I asked his advice on my new project. He was sobering and stark at first. “I will not help you in any effort to revive a Catholic past that does not deserve reviving,” he said.

I assured him that restoring clerical authority was not among my aims, and he continued: “But if you aim to create a space where people who are not currently listening to each other might find that encounter, that I could support.”

Such encounter is indeed at the heart of our project, and as we explore in the months ahead topics in business ethics, the place of women in the church, or the relationship of science and theology, we hope to meet more and more people who wonder what’s going on in that curious little building by the green.

Fr Bill Dailey is director of the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and formerly lecturer in law at the Notre Dame Law School, Indiana

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