January 24, 2011
Newman College dean, Fr. Stefano Penna is proud of the college’s new Cardinal Newman Chapel.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Newman College dean, Fr. Stefano Penna is proud of the college’s new Cardinal Newman Chapel.

GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

EDMONTON — At the top of the list of traumatic events in a person's life, death and divorce are followed by moving.

"We've lived through that," says Father Stefano Penna, academic dean at Newman Theological College. "This has been a journey in the desert a lot of the time."

The college has stood on Mount Nebo looking into the Promised Land, fearing it would never get there. "Instead, the waters of the Jordan parted, the walls of Jericho, the walls of expectation, have fallen and here we are in this new place."

Never one to opt for a mundane expression when a dramatic image is near at hand, Penna says the college's move to its new location is "a chance to taste that, in God, all things are new."

LIFE CYCLES

Institutions have life cycles and can become conservative in how they do things, he says. But the move has brought "the excitement of being shaken out of the status quo into a new adventure.

"It is the fulfillment of that Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times.'"

Penna, obviously, is excited about the new moment in the life of Newman College. He sees the college moving from "the happily monastic quality" of its former location near St. Albert to being planted in the heart of the city and the heart of the Edmonton Archdiocese.

Newman College retains the same vision that came with its founding under Archbishop Anthony Jordan more than 40 years ago. But it is going through a "refounding" to meet the needs of a new generation.

"The new generation is unformed in many of the traditional Catholic intuitions, sensibilities, understanding of the world."

It sees Catholicism as primarily an internal choice and only secondarily as the participation in an ecclesial structure, says the dean. But if younger Catholics hear an explicit call to transform society and to share the faith, "they get it."

Newman's part of the bargain is to offer a clear proclamation of the Gospel and "an ecclesial invitation" to participate in community, he says.

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

One thing that will help is when the college regains its ability to offer a bachelor of theology degree. Accrediting institutions have changed their rules that will allow Newman to offer graduate and undergraduate courses in the same classroom at the same time, rather than separately.

Penna has great dreams for Newman College. He sees "deeper collaboration" with Catholic school districts and an even greater openness and accessibility to Catholic teachers. He also looks forward to closer ties with Covenant Health, the governing body for Alberta's health care institutions, and with St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta.

He foresees how the college's state-of-the-art technology can be used to train people for ministry across Canada's West and North. There will be diaconal programs, programs with First Nations people and general faith formation.

HALF-QUALIFIED MINISTERS

People who will proclaim the faith in a secularized world as chaplains, teachers and in other ministries, need a high degree of training, he says. Institutions "know what a disaster it is to bring in half-qualified ministers."

Local Catholics should be able to use the college's vast theology library and to pray in its "beautiful chapel," he says. "My hope for this place is that it will be used.

"I hope it becomes part of the woof and warp of people's imaginations."

The college, says Penna, will host an institute in the spring to familiarize business leaders with Catholic social teaching. It also hopes to foster the informal connections that develop in any community.

"A college isn't just a place to take classes."

Penna, a priest of the Saskatoon Diocese, pays tribute to the Catholics of the Edmonton Archdiocese who dug deeply to support the construction of the new buildings.

Positive sign

He sees it as a positive sign for the college that, just as it was erecting those buildings, its patron, Cardinal John Henry Newman, was beatified.

Newman Theological College has come through the desert. It is looking to a different future with the same mission.

"Now our job is to surrender to that adventure."