Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - Last year, Bishop Conley wrote that “the purpose of education is to teach us who we are, and how we’re made to live and flourish as human beings. We’re children of God, of course. We’re made to live virtuously, justly, and heroically. We’re made to live as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. To be educated is to understand that we’re made for eternity in heaven.”
His vision of education has been a hallmark of Bishop Conley’s ministry as Bishop of Lincoln. And over the past two years, he’s introduced the diocese to a vision for a college-level educational program as part of the New Evangelization.
Now that vision is coming to fruition in the new Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture (NICTC). Bishop Conley announced this new endeavor last week in his Register column.
“It really goes back to Blessed John Henry Newman, for whom the Institute is named,” Bishop Conley said.
He explained that the courses offered through the NICTC are based on Bl. Newman’s idea that a university should provide a truly liberal education “in the best sense of the word.”
The bishop continued, “A liberal education means someone who is liberated by the fullness of the truth… Newman wanted students to experience the great richness of Western Civilization.”
Working with a team of trusted advisors, Bishop Conley has developed a series of four fully accredited college courses to be offered through St. Gregory the Great Seminary to students at the Newman Center. The courses will be designed to meet the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Achievement-Centered Education (ACE) general education requirements and similar requirements at other institutes of higher learning.
The content of the four courses has some similarities to the Integrated Humanities Program offered by the bishop’s alma mater, the University of Kansas, when he was a student there in the 1970s. The course changed the bishop’s life: he converted to Catholicism after the program introduced him to the fullness of truth, goodness and beauty.
NICTC will be available to all university students, regardless of their major.
“Every student, no matter what academic discipline they are in, whether they are in engineering or nursing or agriculture, should be exposed to the greatest thinkers and greatest writers that have ever lived,” Bishop Conley reasoned.
The Newman Institute will launch with a pilot course in the spring semester of 2016. This fall, the Newman Institute will host a lecture series open to the public, enabling Catholics from all over the area to be inspired by the same general subject matter. The first set of four monthly lectures will start Sept. 16, at 7 p.m., at the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center in Lincoln.
Bishop Conley noted that several other universities in the nation have successfully launched similar programs with laudable results.
He is eager to give students opportunities to experience truth, goodness and beauty in classical humanities studies.
“It involves much more than academics and the intellectual life,” he stressed. “Part of the overall vision is to offer all kinds of extracurricular experiences that put you in contact with great ideas. It will include everything from stargazing to recitation of poetry, to dance, and music.”
He added, “We are engaging the whole person and delighting the whole person, because learning should be a pleasurable experience... We believe and hope and pray that students who sign up for the Newman Institute will thoroughly enjoy their experience and tell their friends and classmates.”
As pro-director of the Institute, Msgr. Daniel Seiker has focused on getting the Newman Institute off to a good start.
“We are working on a lecture series this fall… and a course in the spring semester,” he said.
The spring course will be a sort of “beta test” for the NICTC. Students will be invited to participate. In the meantime, Msgr. Seiker is overseeing website development and developing the lecture series while he seeks a director to take over the Institute and teach the initial course.
He described the Institute as, “touching the future with the wisdom of the past.”
In other words, Msgr. Seiker said, the goal is “present them the possibility of a classical education in the humanities, theology and philosophy that they could include in the course of studies they are taking.”
He continued, “It’s a liberal education in that it frees the person to think clearly and to apply the discussion of the great questions to their own life and their world today.”
Father Robert Matya, chaplain of the Newman Center and Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, said the NICTC was included in the design process for their new facility, which opened earlier this year.
“There are three classrooms, a conference room and three offices that we had in mind for this,” he said.
Though the program will eventually be financially self-sustaining, initial funding was given through the Joy of the Gospel campaign. Bishop Conley, Msgr. Seiker, and Father Matya expressed their gratitude to all of the campaign’s benefactors.
He is confident that the Institute will help further the Newman Center’s efforts to evangelize UNL students.
“College is a time when students are searching and looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and I think it will attract non-Catholic students as well,” Father Matya speculated. “The experience of reading the literature of Western culture opens people to the transcendentals, which will lead them to questions about God and faith.”
Dr. Matt Hecker of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln is on the board of trustees at St. Gregory the Great Seminary, as well as UNL’s dean of students, and a Newman Center supporter. As the father of one college student and two college graduates, he understands the importance of Catholic families finding a reliable partner to assist their university students in spiritual development.
“In contemporary culture, we’ve lost a shared understanding of the true, the beautiful and the good,” he said. “These represent deep yearnings of the heart. Yet, in many respects, we’ve ceased talking about them because they’re seen as controversial.”
He believes that the NICTC will fulfill the New Evangelization by engaging the culture in an effective way.
“An intellectual examination of what is true, beautiful and good followed by civil dialog is a marvelous antidote to the toxic dualism that pervades our time,” he said.
Hecker is also looking forward to the public lectures and their impact.
“I hope people will hear these lectures, come away ready to put down their smartphones and engage in the conversation about finding truth,” he said.
Msgr. Seiker asked for prayers to support the Institute as it launches the lecture series this fall.
“I think this will be an important endeavor for the renewal of the Church and of the world,” he said.
“This is not for the mind only,” said Bishop Conley. “It’s the mind and heart and emotions, the spirit and the soul.”
The first public lecture will be Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. Bishop Conley will present the lecture, in conjunction with Dr. Thomas Foster, a long-time professor and a friend of Bishop Conley.
October will bring Dr. R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, an ecumenical journal of faith and culture. Dr. John Freeh, professor at Wyoming Catholic College, is on the schedule for November, and Dr. John Pepino, professor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, will speak in December. Each lecture will be followed with prayer and fellowship.
University students who wish to participate in the pilot NICTC course during the spring 2016 semester should contact Father Matya to express their interest.