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An Interview with Patrick Reilly

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: Why did you found The Cardinal Newman Society, and what are your primary responsibilities as president?

Patrick: Faithful Catholic education is the Church’s most important and effective means of evangelization, because it forms young people to achieve the fullness of humanity—all that God created us to be and to do. It teaches young people to wonder and contemplate God in His creation, to think rationally, and to act morally. Young people learn to critically examine and improve culture. Most importantly, they are set on the narrow path to sainthood.

My own experience of Catholic education was disappointing—and after graduating from a wayward Jesuit university in 1991 and meeting many others who had similar experiences, I realized that Catholic education was broken in many ways and was rapidly declining. In 1993, I had only a few dollars in my bank account, but I established the Newman Society with a few young Catholics as a tiny “paper” organization; I didn’t go full-time with it until 2002. I am delighted by the impact that our work has had over the last 25 years, all by the Grace of God. This includes helping the bishops establish guidelines to implement Ex corde Ecclesiae (the apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education), opposition to scandals in Catholic colleges, celebration of faithful colleges by our Newman Guide and faithful schools by our Catholic Education Honor Roll, efforts to renew high standards in Catholic education by our Principles of Catholic Identity and Catholic Curriculum Standards, and our persistent advocacy for authentic Catholic education.

As president of the Newman Society, I mostly speak, write, and edit in support of faithful Catholic education. I have an incredible, top-quality staff who do the work of an organization twice the size of the Newman Society. To support them and sustain our work, I also spend a substantial portion of my time with the donors who bless us by their gifts and prayers.

Gordon: What is your favorite book by Blessed Cardinal Newman and why?

Patrick: The Newman Society’s work is inspired and informed by The Idea of a University and other writings and sermons on Catholic education by Blessed John Henry Newman—who, we pray, may be canonized this year!

Newman’s Idea of a University has sometimes been reduced to an argument for the liberal arts, secular education, and radicalized academic freedom. Newman actually maintains the superiority of authentic Catholic education that begins and ends with the fount of all truth, God the Creator. It embraces Christianity and informs the studies of all disciplines by this Truth. Catholic education is therefore more open to truth than a secular education, which excludes the knowledge of divine revelation.

While it is not so apparent in The Idea of a University, Blessed Newman’s other writings propose Catholic education that tends to the soul and forms the young person morally and spiritually. In a sermon at his university church in Dublin, Newman asserted that when man was first created, all the human faculties acted “in common towards one end.” But because of the Fall, the young person has “all these separate powers warring in his own breast—appetite, passion, secular ambition, intellect, and conscience, and trying severally to get possession of him.” Newman said the “object” of Catholic education “is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man.” At his Dublin university, Newman prescribed moral behavior and time for the Sacraments and prayer.

Blessed Newman prayed for his students: “May I engage in them, remembering that I am a minister of Christ… remembering the worth of souls and that I shall have to answer for the opportunities given me of benefitting those who are under my care.”

Gordon: What is your favorite quote by Blessed Cardinal Newman?

Patrick: There are so many! I have prayed with my children using a meditation by Blessed Newman that has helped me in the work of the Newman Society. It reminds me to trust in God to bring good fruit out of hard work, if I only stay faithful to Him. The meditation goes, in part:

God has created me to do Him some definite service;

He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.

I have my mission—

I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.

…Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away.

If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;

In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;

If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.

My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us.

He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about.

Gordon: What are the primary challenges facing Catholic education today, and how should we address them?

Patrick: A lot of great people are working on the practical challenges to Catholic education, such as rapidly declining enrollments in parochial and diocesan schools, high costs, and school closings.

The Newman Society’s focus is on the mission, principles, and standards of Catholic education. We find that even many Catholic educators are not very familiar with the Church’s expectations for Catholic schools and colleges, and lay people today are not well-formed in catechesis and theology. Many Catholic colleges have secularized and lack a clear commitment to the Catholic faith.

Particularly devastating to Catholic education is the fact that few parents today have had a personal experience of good, strong Catholic education (or any Catholic schooling at all). The Newman Society strives to restore an appreciation for the great benefits of true Catholic formation over secular and secularized-Catholic alternatives.

Finally, many Americans today are beholden to the parochial school and residential college model, which can be wonderful means of education but are often cost-prohibitive. We believe that the bishops and Catholic parents should embrace every effective means of forming young people in Christ, including homeschooling, hybrid schools, independent lay-run schools, and online college programs. Keeping the focus on mission and outcomes allows more flexibility and innovation to better help parents in their role as primary educators of their children.

Gordon: Archbishop Michael Miller, CSB, former secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, made this comment:

“Since research should serve the human person, it is altogether fitting that the Church’s institutions of higher education take up the pressing challenge of fostering serious studies that further the common good of Catholic schooling. This research should include longitudinal, cross- cultural and interdisciplinary studies that would enable educators to gain a more international and empirically based perspective on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges faced by Catholic schools across the globe.”

Do you concur?

Patrick: Absolutely. I do think that much work is being done by both Catholic and secular researchers who appreciate the community impact of Catholic schools. My view, however, is that all the hard work of “saving” Catholic schools will come to naught, if Catholic families, priests, and bishops are not convinced of the great importance of faithful Catholic education that forms young people in Christ. The primary motivation for Catholic schools is lost, if they are not serving the needs of Catholic families and intentionally evangelizing non-Catholics.

Gordon: Our teens are leaving the Church in significant numbers. How can Catholic education help reverse this?

Patrick: We have lost nearly two-thirds of U.S. Catholic school enrollment in just the past half-century. Most Catholic colleges have substantially secularized, and many have scandalized their students. I believe that this directly correlates to the loss of young Catholics, who are not being well-formed in the Faith.

It was Catholic schools that helped immigrants keep the Faith, and Catholic education in the U.S. was once the envy of all the world. America’s bishops once regarded Catholic education for every Catholic child as one of the highest priorities. We have great American saints who devoted much of their lives to Catholic education.

I believe that faithful Catholic education is not only a key solution to keeping young people Catholic, but it also is a solution to many other challenges facing the Church and American society. Studies show that Catholic education is a strong influence on religious vocations. It better prepares young people to handle the impact of technology and our hyper-sexual culture, which has obvious implications for marriages. Catholic education can help students better articulate an authentic Christian understanding of human dignity, gender, sexuality, and work. Renewing faithful Catholic education will help strengthen families, revitalize parishes, and restore fidelity to a laity that has been misled and confused about Catholic teachings and moral behavior.

Gordon: Please provide an overview of the Vatican’s decision to canonize Cardinal Newman.

Patrick: It’s very exciting! The Vatican has approved a second miracle—a pregnant woman from Chicago whose internal bleeding was miraculously cured—and the canonization should happen later this year, probably in October.

John Henry Newman can be a powerful saint for our times. He described his life’s work as combatting “liberalism” in the Church, by which he meant secularism, relativism, and dissent. He was devoted to Catholic education as a means of formation—not just a step up the social ladder, but development of the mind and cultivation of the soul. His insights on doctrine, conscience, and the role of the laity are highly relevant to the confusion and disputes in the Church today. And Newman even predicted this time, when the sins of our priests would be a “spectacle” to a society that increasingly opposes religion.

Gordon: Thank you for a great interview and your leadership.


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