How to make faith move beyond head knowledge

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photo Courtesy Ikon Institute, The Newman Idea

Students attend college for intellectual pursuits in fields of study to achieve a job. The fact that young adult Catholics are leaving the faith bothered David Delio, Ph.D.

He thought, why not appeal to students’ intellect with courses on the Catholic-Christian perspective that could be integrated into their life?

Delio, president and board chair of The Newman Idea, a nonprofit named after Blessed John Henry Newman (he will be canonized Oct. 13) that integrates faith knowledge in students’ lives, said he will begin, this fall, offering accredited courses through the IKON Institute at Tulane Catholic Center.

The first course – “Going Global: Christian Culture in the World” – is accredited through a five-year partnership with the University of Holy Cross, and its hours will be accepted at Tulane.

Delio hopes to offer one or two classes per semester at Tulane and expand in the fall with an IKON seminar called “The Privateer Plunge” at the University of New Orleans, then to the University of Holy Cross and also the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Delio devised a total of 10 accredited courses available to public and Catholic colleges nationwide.

Delio said the inaugural course delves into the early church’s mission to convert souls to Christianity in Africa, Asia and all over the Middle East.

“We want to show that we live in an age of globalization, and we’re making parallels to the world we live in,” Delio said. “The church, in my mind, was the first global enterprise, outside of empires. The church … was trying to build the kingdom of God. I want the students to see they are going into a global marketplace … but we want to say the church has been doing this for more than 2,000 years. The church has always been a culture builder. That will be the theme.”

2018-19 an important time

Aligning faith courses with college courses began quickly in 2019 when Delio conducted several introductory IKON seminars at both The Newman Idea office on St. Charles Avenue and the Tulane Catholic Center. Local college students from Tulane, Loyola and the University of Holy Cross attended the initial, six-week seminar with weekly Scripture and other readings surrounding  a general question such as “What is faith” and “How do we connect to our spiritual brothers and sisters who are half a world away?”

“We did it on a Friday evening and had about 10 students come regularly,” he said. “I wanted them to get a sense that the church’s mission is local and international, all at once; that’s what it means to be Catholic. It differentiates us from many other churches, in terms of when we say ‘catholic,’ it means the world, and we are connected to our brothers and sisters in Christ everywhere – through our baptism, the sacraments and liturgy and all these things.”

Delio believes it is best to know your own faith and everything about it first before parallels can be drawn with others and their beliefs.

He encountered this dilemma – a lack of Catholic faith knowledge – in college through his late 20s. It didn’t matter that he had devout parents – his father became a deacon in Massachusetts – and an aunt who was a nun.

“I wanted to know what it was like to be a Christian,” he said, and he began reading books by authors such as Thomas Merton and St. Augustine. He earned a master’s degree in teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio and then taught in middle schools for 3 years, mostly in Texas.  In 2003, his father wanted to return to school to earn a master’s degree after he was ordained to the permanent diaconate.  Delio decided to study with him – working toward a Master’s in Theological Studies at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge Massachusetts. “We did it together,” he said. “It was a dream. We’d be at bars at night and debate theology until they closed the bar. … People would join in. It was a fantastic experience.”

Delio went onto The Catholic University of America to earn his Doctorate in Theology, and taught at Georgetown, Catholic University for several years and the University of Holy Cross for the last 8 years.

It’s this intellectual sharing of Christian faith ideas he hopes to replicate with the IKON courses.

“Undergraduates don’t need the discipline of academic theology,” he said. “They need to know how faith and a good working knowledge of the church fits within their careers and their lives. How do you make theology work for people who are going to work?”

Delio said The Newman Idea and the IKON courses would have helped him as a young adult questioning why continuing faith was necessary in his life. With the IKON Institute, he hopes to expand students’ head knowledge and move it to heart knowledge. “That is where wisdom resolves – the deeper truths of life,” he said.

“I wish someone would have been there early on to show me the intellectual foundations of our faith, and why it was important to – not just have faith – but to know your faith in relationship to everything you do,” Delio said. “If I would have had someone intervening at age 18, I wouldn’t have spent my 20s being confused.”

“We’re not here to catechize or proselytize,” he said. “What we’re here to do is take students’ faith and help them grow their faith in relation to their learning, for them to be life-long learners. … We see what we are trying to do here as an apostolate.”

Delio is hoping to offer accredited courses called Newman Prep to high schoolers and also lead a fall pilgrimage to Newman’s canonization.

Fall registration is open at the University of Holy Cross ( Three hours credit are given for each course completed. For details, call (508) 498-5841 or visit the The Newman Idea has a conference in New Orleans Aug. 1-3 at the University of Holy Cross.

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