ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Ron Snyder knows not many Catholics have heard of Blessed John Henry Newman, the famous 19th-century British theologian and spiritual writer who left the Anglican Church and became a Catholic at age 44.
He has been “very inspiring to me,” Snyder told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
He noted that Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles has referred to him as “the greatest Catholic mind since Thomas Aquinas.”
Snyder, 60, a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace in Edina, was introduced to Blessed Newman in 2007 when he began pursuing a master’s degree in Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. An orthodontist by day who desired to deepen his faith, Snyder took evening classes over six years to complete the degree.
“He’s compelling to read. His Catholic theology is so rich, and it’s all deeply grounded in Scripture,” said Snyder, who hopes to introduce more Catholics to the churchman’s, life, faith and legacy at an event he is planning on Newman’s feast day, Oct. 9.
It’s a session of Newman on Tap, something that he and some of his classmates at the time founded some years ago and that is still going strong. The upcoming session will feature Mass with Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a presentation on Blessed Newman by David Deavel, an assistant professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas.
Born in 1801, Newman was an Anglican priest when he decided to become a Catholic. A theologian of the highest caliber, he penned dozens of works that are still influential today, including his autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua and “The Idea of a University.”
Newman centers at secular universities were inspired by the cardinal. He encouraged societies for Catholic students attending such colleges and universities.
In his published writings and in his correspondence, the churchman, who eventually was made a cardinal, aimed to describe and stimulate the Christian mind. His vocation was to help modern people realize the demands of thinking and acting with the mind of Christ and his church.
By the time he graduated in 2013, Snyder had taken two more courses on Newman and written his master’s thesis on him.
But this wasn’t enough. Snyder knew he had only begun to plumb the depths of Newman’s thought. And he realized the engaging discussions he enjoyed with classmates and professors would soon come to an end.
So as graduation approached, he invited some classmates to join him for a discussion group on Blessed Newman’s writings. They met at Sweeney’s Saloon in St. Paul — a decision that led Snyder to dub the group “Newman on Tap.”
They then began meeting at Snyder’s house and five years later, they’re still meeting there. Between six and 12 people participate each month, Snyder said, although he’s amassed an email list of about 70 persons who have attended at some point.
Each gathering includes a discussion of a piece by Newman — typically one of the hundreds of sermons he wrote — and plenty of time for fellowship.
“It’s incredible,” Snyder said, reflecting on the group’s longevity. “It’s the energy of these kids. They love it.”
The “kids” are the other attendees — young adults in their 20s and 30s. Snyder knows he’s the oldest in the group by a couple decades.
But he doesn’t mind, and neither do the other participants.
Among them is 30-year-old Justin Shay, a middle school religion teacher at Transfiguration Catholic School in Oakdale. Also a 2013 alumnus of the Catholic studies master’s program, he was one of the original students Snyder invited to participate.
“He’s kind of like a fatherly figure to all of us,” Shay said about Snyder. “To see the way that his faith has shaped his whole life, and then how Newman has played a part in that, I think is very rich for our group.”
Like Snyder, Shay appreciates Newman’s intellectual rigor and effortless deployment of the English language. But what always strikes him is Newman’s relentless focus on holiness.
“There are months that I get finished reading the sermon and I think, ‘I need to go to confession,'” Shay said. “That’s what a good sermon should do.”
Emily Meuer, 22, couldn’t agree more. A software developer who attends the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, Meuer started attending Newman on Tap this summer.
“He really calls people on to sanctity,” Meuer said about Newman. “He’s not just calling people on to strictness and to a joyless existence, but he really understands virtue.”
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Patet writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.