Last year marked the 130th anniversary of the founding of the Oxford University Newman Society. As it did in 1878, the Society continues to promote Catholic faith, culture and learning within the university and is entirely student run. In recent years speakers have included Professor Geza Vermes, the Duke of Norfolk, Ann Widdecombe MP, Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, Lord David Alton and in early March the Society looks forward to welcoming Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, as a guest. The Society has always strived to provide talks and discussion that promote academic excellence and independent thinking; a principle rooted in the belief that Catholicism can, by its very nature, withstand questioning and inquiry.
The Society was founded at a time when Anglicanism pervaded every aspect of university life in Oxford (indeed in 1867 under Pope Pius IX the Holy See issued a ban on all Catholic students attending Oxford and Cambridge). It was originally called the Catholic Club, but took Newman’s name 10 years later to commemorate the great Oxford Scholar and theologian who had done a vast amount to advance the cause of Catholicism at Oxford. Notable past members include Gerald Manley Hopkins SJ, J R R Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox and Evelyn Waugh among many others. “The Newman” is even mentioned in Brideshead Revisited as a society which any young Catholic should attend if they are to be considered as serious in their faith.
The Society’s meetings on a Tuesday evening in the University Chaplaincy play an important part in the Catholic life of the university. It is customary for the committee to dine with the weekly speaker before the talk, in the Old Palace, a beautiful 16th century building which used to house the Bishop of Oxford. The Society’s great history and reputation allows it to attract many prominent speakers and experts; however, it is the opportunity to speak to these people over a meal or a drink that gives it a unique character.
Each term the Society organises a Mass in a local Catholic Church or College Chapel as a testament to the belief that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic life. In November 2007, following Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, the Society attracted attention by organising a High Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite to mark the centenary of co-founder Hartwell de la Garde Grissell’s death. In the words of the current Holy Father: “...young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist”. This is certainly true of many students in Oxford.
The Catholic intellectual tradition seeks to engage both faith and reason in pursuit of the truth. Drawing their inspiration from the life and example of John Henry Newman, the Newman Society Lectures were established last year to examine this tradition and the contribution it can make in transforming contemporary society. Each year the society will hold three major lectures centred on a theme relating to the Catholic faith. The lectures will draw on prominent thinkers from within the Catholic Church as well as outside.
The inaugural series will examine the role of religion in public life. On Friday March 6 Cardinal George Pell will present a perspective as a senior member of the Catholic hierarchy and a Vatican official. The title of the lecture will be “Varieties of Intolerance: Religious and Secular” and all are welcome to attend. In May Francis Campbell, the Ambassador to the Holy See and the former Private Secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair, will offer an analysis drawn from the world of politics and international diplomacy and again, the lecture is open to everyone.
The Church demands that we look forward and engage with the world in which we live, as well as that we look back and retain the many elements of sacred tradition that have been handed down the ages. The Society takes this to heart and continues to act as a thriving and supportive environment for the Catholic students of Oxford.
For more information go to www.newmansociety.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org