A stone’s throw from the salmon-filled waters of the River Moy and in the Close of St. Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina, Co Mayo there stands a brand new building. A recently erected sign names it The Newman Institute and it is to this spot, on the 5th of October, 2010 that the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, helicoptered in to publicly declare the building officially opened.
Almost a year previously a Sister of Mercy timidly climbed the steps to this same building to join the team of The Newman Institute. On the evening of her arrival, two workmen, planting roses, were most eager to tell ‘the nun’ that the roses were from the garden of the recently closed and much beloved Convent of Mercy in the town where she had spent most of her life. These seemingly insignificant details I know because I was that woman.
And so it was that The Newman Institute became my home, my workplace and my community. The building is charming: a bright, open and airy space that naturally invites people in and encourages them to stay. There are places to be together and places to be alone – mirroring, I think, something of the different spaces within each of us. To call what I do here ‘work’ would be an exaggeration, to attribute the word’ ministry’ to my being here brings with it a sense of humility as I feel more ministered to than ministering. Still, if you have the time to look around this spacious, well designed and inspiring place you may come across a niche where I can be found.
The main focus of The Newman, in Ballina is the provision of adult Faith Formation to the people of Killala Diocese and beyond. It does this by providing courses in Theology and Community Involvement. In association with St. Angela’s College, Sligo and The National University of Ireland, Galway, these courses are accredited at Certificate, Diploma and Degree levels. A Foundation Course in Counselling is also provided. Strange as it may seem, some of the students when they have completed the Counselling Course then discover an appetite for what is on offer in the Theology programme.
Cross at Newman Institute
Students of all ages are welcome – from eighteen to eighty-eight. All of us have built up a good rapport and have come to know each other. Sometimes the students will ask me to do something for them. This is most likely to happen when the deadline for assignments looms. It may be something as simple as changing a paragraph but they know that I’m here to help them and advise them on how they can do it for themselves. I like the idea of people writing, getting started and enjoying it and then wondering about it and coming back. In order to be in tune with the students work I sit in on as many of the lectures as possible. This in turn has been an enriching and rewarding experience for me as I observe and become part of the struggles, frustrations and indeed some eureka moments when something clicks into place.
Weekends are busiest for me. Lecturers and students begin filing through the doors for the 7pm lecture on Friday evenings. Gone are the quiet nights sitting by an open fire watching the Late Show as well as the ‘me’ time of the Saturday mornings. Instead I am drawn into the chatter and excitement around the Coffee Dock at break times as the place hums with something captivating and exploratory, where enthusiasm can get the better of accuracy and questions surface to which there is no ready-made answer. I think it was Sigmund Freud who said: “Love and work are at the corner of our humanness”. I can be found lurking round that corner of humanness from time to time as love and work fuse together for me here.
While the church may have fallen out of favour with many and even though we are surrounded by financial gloom and guilt, it is interesting to note that here in a relatively small provincial town in the west of Ireland, there are in excess of 70 lay people studying theology. It is as if Irish Catholics are tapping into the current mood and rediscovering their hunger and taste for something that will help them to transform the stuff of life. The students I meet here are not satisfied with acting like inert storage containers just sitting there saying nothing but they are actively engaged with the many theories and doctrines put before them. From time to time, minor skirmishes break out which make no small demands on lecturers as they are constantly challenged to defend and uphold the Magisterium of the church!
Sr. Attracta at the Newman Institute
Looking ahead to when the winter snows melt and the songbirds will be once again heard around our many hedgerows, you may find me out and about engaging with prospective students for the new academic year. For now, I recall the words of the newly beatified Cardinal for whom this building was named: Blessed Cardinal Newman. In 1851, writing on the role of the laity in the church he had this to say:
“I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity.” Then he went on to describe in detail what he meant by that; a laity who “know their religion and can enter into it and who know what they hold and what they do not”.
I like to think that the team of The Newman Institute play some small part in trying to make the Blessed Cardinal’s wish a reality.
Attracta Tighe rsm