Revisiting Newman’s Idea of a University for the 21st century
Chavagnes is a holy place. Here, before the Venerable Louis Marie Baudouin created the first junior seminary in France after the Revolution, Benedictine monks had built a foundation in the late middle ages, dedicated to St Anthony of Egypt. In about 1300 the future Pope Clement V stayed here; the future saint, Pope John XXIII also visited the seminarians here after the Second World War. The stones of Chavagnes, mined from a local quarry by pagan Romans, reused by medieval monks, then by royalist Catholic peasants, all tell a story of Faith and trust in Providence.
The community of scholars who live, work and pray together here perpetuates the tradition that has made Chavagnes, with St Laurent sur Sèvre (resting place of St Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort), one of the “two holy towns of the Vendée.” There is also a particular ethos of communal charity here which inspires the work of teaching and learning, in the spirit of the Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, who in his Idea of a University saw formal education primarily as an exercise in the building of community, in which “heart would speak to heart”. In such an environment it is friendship which “serves as a check on our judgements, tries out our new ideas, keeps up our ardor, and inflames our enthusiasm.” (Antonin Sertillanges OP, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.)
Love, then – Love of man and love of God, as ultimate expressions of the Good, the True and the Beautiful – is what education is all about. That love, in keeping with the Gospel, would not give “a child a stone when he asked for bread” , but rather proposes an experience of that which is beautiful, good and true, naturally wishing to give of the best. Such an education is formative in that it creates habits of virtue.
Many places of learning are still committed to what we might call the transmission of the canon, but have lost sight of this finality. Even the best colleges, in narrow academic terms, and even those where they still read “the best that had been thought and said”, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, often ‘suffer from a failure in finality, opting for what amounts to the position of the philosopher in Lessing’s myth who, when the gods offered him either truth or the search for truth, chose the search!” (John Senior, “The Spirit of the Rule”, in The Restoration of Christian Culture.)
At Chavagnes the finality of all that we study is the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. And as Blessed John Henry Newman and St John Paul II so tirelessly taught, there can be no conflict between Faith and Reason, because both are bound up in a love for truth. This service of the Truth who is Christ has an evangelical dimension: this is the “authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out.” (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 88; 1993.)
As St John Paul II taught, well educated young people will be able to serve the common good of society as well as spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, because the authentic university experience consists in “the ardent search for truth and its unselfish transmission to youth and to all those learning to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better.” (John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 2; 1990.)