In a late April episode of his popular Word on Fire podcast, Bishop Robert Barron, a founding board member of the Lumen Christi Institute, discussed a then-recent New York Times op-ed article in which a philosophy professor argued for the non-existence of God. Toward the end of the episode, titled “A God Problem in The New York Times,” Barron is asked by his host whether he thinks Catholic college students would be equipped to challenge arguments against the faith made in the classroom by professors and peers.
Barron replied that his nephew, an undergraduate student at MIT, had recently shared with him that he felt completely prepared to take upper-level courses in mathematics on account of his high-school formation in the subject. That remark caused Barron to question whether Catholic high schools are preparing their students to deal with attacks against the faith in College. He concluded that the “vast majority” of such students would not be able to rebut the sort of argument aired in the Times. Many Catholic high schools “seem not to care,” Barron opined, about preparing students to understand at the highest level what is most important: the faith. “I think it’s a disaster, pastorally,” he lamented.
Austin Walker, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate and 8th grade religion teacher at St. Vincent Ferrer who works with the Lumen Christi Institute, was through his teaching and Confirmation preparation courses beginning to see the same need.
The problem, Walker believed, was that very little catechetical and intellectual instruction was available for Catholic students at Chicagoland public schools and even, to some degree, at Catholic schools, between their Confirmation and their college matriculation. Yet these are the years during which many students begin to critically search their faith, he noted, examining its cogency and questioning its compatibility with science and the worldview of many of their peers.
Archdiocese of Chicago COO Betsy Bohlen, whose daughter was entering high school, had arrived at the same conclusion. In late 2018 she spoke with Lumen Christi executive director Thomas Levergood about providing formation to Chicagoland Catholic high-school students. Levergood tapped Walker to take the planning lead. Walker began collaborating with Fr. Tim Monahan, Director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Vocations Office, and other Archdiocesan personnel. The fruit of their collaboration is the newly christened Lumen Christi Institute Newman Forum.
The goal of the Newman Forum is to introduce Catholic high-school students to the Catholic vision of intellectual life, culture, and liturgy, and to foster community among Catholic students. It aims to show them that the Catholic faith is a distinctive intellectual, humanistic, and liturgical way of living. Participants will attend Mass together, receive classic works of theology and philosophy when they attend events, and learn how to better discern their personal vocations.
“this is the sort of event I wish had existed when I was a high-schooler...this program exists because there is no reason for the Church to cede the intellectual formation of its high-schoolers to a secular culture."
Although in the early stages of its formation, Lumen Christi aspires to implement the Newman Forum in three phases. Initially Lumen Christi will sponsor three annual events for students: two daylong conferences and one multi-day summer seminar. The first daylong conference launched on February 23 of this year.
Titled “Science, Creation, and the Catholic Imagination,” it brought together 80 students from 24 schools and four states, along with two dozen parents, teachers, and chaperones, at the University of Chicago. It was cosponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago Vocations Office, the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, Saint Ignatius College Prep, Fenwick High School, Northridge Preparatory School, and Relevant Radio. Sister Mary Elizabeth of Saint Ignatius opened the day with a meditation and prayer. After a brief welcome by Walker, students were treated to a trio of presentations by leading scholars.
Meghan Sullivan, the Rev. John A. O’Brien Collegiate Chair at the University of Notre Dame, delivered an engaging interactive presentation on “Faith and Reason.” She invited students to consider the responsibility they have for shaping their beliefs, how to determine what makes life meaningful, and how to think about faith’s rational basis.
Father John Kartje, Rector of Mundelein Seminary and a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Chicago, presented on “Creation and Cosmology.” He explained scientific perspectives on the origin of the cosmos and invited students to cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of what science is and what its conclusions are, especially on matters that intersect Catholic doctrine on creation and the material order.
The final presentation was delivered by Michael Murphy, Director of Catholic Studies and Director of the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, both at Loyola University of Chicago, who spoke on “The Catholic Imagination.”
Following Fr. Kartje’s presentation, students broke up into small discussion groups on the first two presentations. These were led by University of Chicago graduate students whom Walker had selected. Students then embarked upon a scavenger hunt on campus, with a copy of works of the 20th century British journalist and writer G.K. Chesterton going to the winners. The day concluded with a second discussion group on C.S. Lewis’ classic work The Screwtape Letters, which the students had located on the hunt.
Walker visited various classrooms during the discussion groups and heard conversations on evolution, on liturgical beauty, on how God’s existence can be known, and on whether aliens would need baptism. A Mass celebrated by Fr. Monahan in Swift Hall’s Bond Chapel and a pizza dinner concluded the day. Additionally, parents and chaperones were invited to attend either a lunchtime presentation by the McGrath Institute for Church’s Life’s Christopher Baglow, Director of the Science & Religion Initiative, who spoke about Catholic higher education, or to a discussion session led by Sr. Mary Elizabeth that would tackle topics raised in the presentations.
Students who filled out a post-event survey administered by Lumen Christi stated that the conference helped them understand the compatibility of faith and reason, the harmony between faith and science, and helped them appreciate how Catholic thought can inform secular debates.
Walker said of “Science, Creation, and the Catholic Imagination: “this is the sort of event I wish had existed when I was a high-schooler." Of the Newman Forum he said: "this program exists because there is no reason for the Church to cede the intellectual formation of its high-schoolers to a secular culture."