Comment Opinion & Features

Diary: Newman’s failures make him an ideal patron for students

Cardinal John Henry Newman

At last, Newman House university chaplaincy has gone contactless. We still pass the money bags around at Mass, as if following a half-remembered rubric, but the real business takes place in the lobby by the front door. “Dona” stands there to welcome people. She’s a digital tablet mounted on a graceful chrome stand. You choose how much you want to give; tap your card; and make way for the next person. (If you want the details, visit mydona.com).

We thought it might be controversial, but no one has batted an eyelid. Cash, for post-millennial students, is like the VHS cassette: it’s something your grandparents talk about. If you pass a bag round at the collection, they don’t feel guilty, they just look bemused. Even the contactless card is behind them now, as they switch to smartphone payments. I suspect that some of the neuroscience students are earning money in semi-legal experiments, with “near field communication chips” implanted in their hands, so they can pay by waving at the console.

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I’m just back from Lisbon, where two of our students got married. They met when they arrived at Newman House three years ago, and it’s a lovely reminder that a secondary function of every university chaplaincy is to act as a Catholic dating agency. We’ve had about a dozen marriages or engagement announcements this year, as well as vocations to the Sisters of Nazareth, the Dominican friars, and the Carthusian monastery of La Valsainte in Switzerland.

There are some rites of passage you simply have to go through in Lisbon, even if you are trying not to be a tourist. There is no alternative, for example, to using the yellow trams if you want to traverse the 17 impossibly steep hills that lie between you and the restaurant featured on TripAdvisor. And there is almost a moral obligation to eat a pastel de nata in the Belém district. Now I like a good custard tart as much as the next person, but this is clearly a triumph of branding over content. Would the Café de Nata in South Kensington still be in business if it were more honestly called the Custard Tart Café? It would be like tourists from Paris and Beijing queuing round the block for a sausage roll from Greggs the Bakers. Come to think of it, Greggs has been busy re-branding itself as the home of Great British Cuisine.

There’s a Greggs in Holborn, just round the corner from John Henry Newman’s childhood home. I imagine him sneaking there after school for a can of Coke and a Katsu Chicken Bake. There’s a memorial plaque on the wall of 17 Southampton Place where the family lived before his father’s bank went bust.

We are delighted that our patron saint is being canonised this October. You will be welcome to visit our exhibition on his life and faith (October 11 to 19; 10am to 4.30pm; closed Sunday; at 111 Gower Street, London). There are a few student centres dedicated to Cardinal Newman in this country, but in North America the generic term for a university chaplaincy is a “Newman Centre”, so they all bear his name.

Why is he such a fitting patron? For me, it’s not just that he worked so successfully in a university (Oxford), or founded one (in Dublin); it’s that he struggled so much as a student himself. He was crushed with anxiety as he prepared for his undergraduate exams, and scraped through with a result that was considered a humiliating failure. The temptation to despair must have been huge.

I present Newman to the young people here as a fellow student who understands the pressures they are going through.

And then, having done the compassionate stuff, I tell them to pull their socks up and go out and change the world, like he did; and remember to become a saint in the process.

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Every diarist has something to pitch. It’s the only way the editor can get people to write: he turns a blind eye as the diary segues into something resembling a sales catalogue. Some people try to disguise this with elliptical references to book launches and award ceremonies; others go for shameless product placement. I prefer the latter, so here goes …

I’ve been working with a fantastic team to develop a new programme of evangelisation and catechesis called Sycamore. We launched in July. Sycamore presents the Christian faith from a Catholic perspective. It gives people space to meet others, share ideas, explore their beliefs and think about questions that really matter. There are different pathways to follow, depending on the needs of your group. You can explore the website at sycamore.fm.

Sycamore gives leaders everything they need to run a successful course: high-quality online films, discussion questions, training materials, handouts and follow-up resources. It helps parishes, schools and chaplaincies become more welcoming and outward looking. It’s creating a network of users committed to evangelisation and a more engaged catechesis.

Sycamore is an amazing resource, and you would be mad to miss it. How’s that for some product placement!

Fr Stephen Wang is Senior University Chaplain in the Diocese of Westminster