As Newman Theological College celebrates 50 years of educating seminarians and lay people, only one man has remained with the Edmonton school for its entire history.
Looking back over five decades, Rev. Don MacDonald – an 83-year-old Franciscan who still teaches systematic theology – says the creation of the college came at a time of cultural upheaval across the western world.
Newman Theological College was founded on April 30, 1969, when the Catholic Church experienced a historic shift with the Second Vatican Council, which addressed the Church’s relations with the modern world. As well, society was being transformed by the counter-cultural forces of the 1960s sexual revolution and the anti-Vietnam War protests.
“It was a time when all sorts of things were happening in society,” MacDonald recalled. “I would be very surprised if there were all that many institutions starting up in that particular period that still stand today, because there was so much being thrown up and questioned.”
MacDonald is proud that Newman has not only survived, but thrived, by remaining true to its mission to have seminarians and lay people study together and learn from each other.
While the details are still being finalized, the college is planning an alumni reunion next summer and an open house this fall to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The college’s lecture series, including the annual Anthony Jordan Lectures, this year will focus on topics directly related to Cardinal John Henry Newman. The college’s namesake may soon be elevated to sainthood after a second miracle was attributed to his intercession.
“It’s likely he will be canonized during our year of celebration, so it’s going to be a good opportunity to highlight Newman’s contributions” on the role Catholic teaching plays in health care, law and education, said Jason West, president of Newman Theological College.
Since its inception, enrolment at Newman has grown steadily. Its Master of Religious Education degree program has brought Catholic teachers to the college for study. A total of 283 full-time/part time students were enrolled in the most recent 2018/2019 winter semester.
The college is also preparing a bachelor’s degree in Catholic Studies program for the fall of 2020. The proposed three-year degree would teach courses around Catholic philosophy, theology and culture.
The 50th anniversary is also a time for MacDonald, especially, to reflect on how far the college has grown since its roots in the tumultuous 1960s.
MacDonald returned to his home province of Alberta in 1968, having just completed his doctorate in Strasbourg, France, where he lived through the anti-capitalist revolt. When protesters occupied and shut down many universities in France, MacDonald had to defend his thesis in secret.
“I had to make sure none of the other students found out,” MacDonald said. “I survived that May revolution. It was quite the experience ̶ the whole country just shut down.”
After completing his doctorate, MacDonald took a position teaching theology at St. Joseph Seminary, which was located on the northern outskirts of Edmonton at the time. He quickly noticed that a similar revolutionary spirit had spread to North America as well.
“It’s hard to explain, but you could tell by the music, you could tell by the movies,” he recalled. “Whether you could call it ‘anti-establishment’ or whatever, there was a certain culture society was now throwing off.”
At around the same time, Edmonton Archbishop Anthony Jordan returned to Canada from Rome. He was deeply influenced by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and armed with a vision for a theological centre in Western Canada where seminarians, religious orders and the laity could study side by side and enrich each other’s understanding of the Church.
Archbishop Jordan, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Franciscan Fathers of Canada and the faculty of St. Joseph Seminary decided to combine their resources. The college was incorporated on April 30, 1969.
In those early decades, MacDonald says religious communities were the driving force in keeping the college running. Gradually lay people were appointed to the college’s faculty, and in 1993, Kevin Carr became the first lay president.
Decades later, Newman Theological College is facing another cultural challenge. College president Jason West said it’s important the college plays a key role in bringing the Church’s teachings and traditions to the forefront in an increasingly secular world where religion is losing its place in public life.
“As part of the Church’s call for new evangelization, we have to bring the Gospel to a culture that was formed in Christianity but is now challenged by secularization, consumerism and all of these familiar problems,” West said. “There’s a need especially now for the intellectual apostolate to be able to approach these problems and to have a public forum to speak to the various issues of today.
“We can invite our culture back to its roots to find the solutions.”
Throughout its history, Father MacDonald says Newman Theological College has maintained its high theological standards and kept true to its mission to deepen people’s spiritual lives.
“We have been pretty good at that ̶ I’ve seen lives transformed, really transformed, by their experiences at the college.”
Newman faced financial challenges during the recession of 2008, but West said the expansions they’ve made by offering new non-degree courses played a key role in increasing enrolment. This included online and five-week courses, as well as free afternoon seminars.
“Now that we’ve had more financial stability, we’ve been able to explore and expand our efforts to more and more people, to bring theological education to the Church as a whole rather than just those preparing for professional ministry,” said West. “We’re trying to develop more deliberately as a centre for theological voices in Western Canada, and to make people aware of the treasures they have here at their disposal.”
For MacDonald, the challenges are similar to the ones the college has faced since Day 1. Fulfilling the Second Vatican Council’s vision of an increased role of the laity in the life of the Church is a continuing battle.
“That’s the challenge that still remains,” said MacDonald. “We’ve got a whole group of lay people today that are insufficiently evangelized and catechised. If I have a class that doesn’t have that many lay people and is almost all seminarians and religious, I have to convince them to see the lay person as a full-fledged member of the body of Christ who has a mission just as much as they have.”
Despite being in his 80s, the friar has no immediate plans to stop teaching, as long as students never stop learning. Five decades on, what keeps MacDonald in the classroom is summarized in two words – “my faith.”
“Our tradition is alive, most people don’t realize that. In Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, there are always new treasures that are being found. The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know. There’s a whole world in terms of the Tradition that we haven’t even begun to scratch yet.
“Cardinal Newman was one who really got that across. That’s why you can never say, ‘I’ve learned enough.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s the greatest heresy.”
Correction: The alumni reunion will be held next summer and the Master of Religious Education degree program has brought Catholic teachers to the college for study. Incorrect information was published in the original.