PLS profesor delivers annual John Henry Newman Lecture at Loyola University Chicago

Jennifer Newsome Martin, associate professor of the Program of Liberal Studies and the Theology Department, presented this year’s annual Saint John Henry Newman Lecture for the Joan and Bill Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University of Chicago on February 17. One week later, the same center hosted an event with Pope Francis, leading to a light-hearted quip that Professor Martin served as the “opening act” for the pope. Her lecture was entitled “The Sacrament of the Possible, or, Why I Became a Catholic.”

The lecture is named in honor of John Henry Newman, whose narration of his own conversion to the Catholic faith in his spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro vita sua (1864), “helped later generations of Catholics and Catholic converts map out ways to understand the datum of religious faith in light of the contemporary issues facing modern life,” according to the Hank Center’s website.

“Honoring this engagement with the Catholic tradition, [Hank Center] will invite scholars each spring to recount their own discovery (or rediscovery) of the Catholic intellectual heritage in light of their ongoing scholarship,” states the website.

The lecture mapped the various intellectual and spiritual threads that drew Martin to the Catholic faith. Before preparing for the lecture by re-reading her journal, Martin shared that she would have described her conversion as a “some species of the classic intellectual conversion.”

But after reflection and rediscovery, she realized it was not quite a standard intellectual conversion: “In retrospect, however, and with the sure testament of my own private record it turned out that I was not in fact fundamentally convinced by scholarly argument, persuasive apologetics, or anyone’s dazzling theological acumen, least of all my own. Without denying the inherent attraction of the Catholic intellectual heritage both literary and theological, it was all much more affective, aesthetic, intuitive, and embodied than I remembered.”

She continued, “It was, to reference Paul Claudel’s guardian angel from The Satin Slipper, the experience of the ‘fish-hook of beauty,’ that interior sensation in the ‘depth’ of the self, that space ‘between the heart and the liver, that dull thud, that sharp pull-up, that urgent touch.’ It was a love story.”

In her lecture, Martin explained why she entitled it “The Sacrament of the Possible.”  She said: “To be a Catholic … is to be increasingly intimate to the ever-expanding borders of the possible. The lived practice of the Catholic faith—’from hand to hand, from finger to finger / From fingertip to fingertip, the eternal generations, /  Who are eternally going to Mass’—bodies the tradition forward and gathers up with it those who glimpse themselves already in it.”

Martin continued: “I became a Catholic because I could no longer see my own future as something that was not placed within this community and this horizon of possibility from glory to glory, because I could no longer envision a future that was anything but inexhaustible, as an inexhaustible promise and vision. I am a Catholic because I want truly to be and to see.”

Professor Tom Stapleford, chair of the Program of Liberal Studies, stated: “We were delighted that Professor Martin was invited to deliver the 2022 Saint John Henry Newman Lecture. Not only is it an honor in its own right, but it seems particularly fitting for a PLS faculty member. PLS Emerita Professor Katherine Tillman is one of the leading Newman scholars in the world and recipient of the 2019 Galliott Award for lifetime achievement in Newman studies, and Newman’s Idea of a University has long been a guiding text for the Program.”

Senior Luke Stringfellow described his impression of the lecture: “In a manner so fitting for the wonderful Professor Martin, she at once was eloquent and articulate while also being humble and down to earth. Her conversion narrative was refreshing and unlike most anything I had ever heard, most especially with respect to her robust and scripturally-oriented form of Protestantism in her childhood experiences in the Carolinas.

“It also seems that, retrospectively, her conversion was animated by the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who emphasized that the natural world is God’s sacrament, that beauty ends in God’s glory, and of an open-ended God of many possibilities. Hence her title, ‘Sacrament of the Possible.’ I left the talk with a greater appreciation for God’s mysteriousness and the value of retrospection. It seems that only after an extended period of time can we look back and see more clearly the abundance of God’s grace in both our moments of triumph and failure. In sum, Professor Martin’s autobiographical lecture was a gift,” Stringfellow reflected.

Senior Austin Rose explained what he drew from the lecture: “One of the themes that struck me the most throughout her talk was the feeling of wonder and awe at the sacramental nature of creation and its embodiment in the liturgy, which felt like a beautiful homecoming for her. I feel as though many Catholics, including myself, who have grown up with the liturgy often lose a sense of wonderment at the reality that God’s creation is resplendent in front of our very eyes, and that the impossible occurs at each Mass. There is staggering beauty in our faith, and Professor Martin reminds us that Christ and the beauty of His church can enfold us and permeate every moment, if we choose to let it.”

Professor Martin’s lecture is available online on the Hank Center for Intellectual Heritage Youtub page.

Maria Keller is a senior Program of Liberal Studies and medieval studies major who loves smoked salmon, Brideshead Revisited, and po-ta-toes. If you ever want to talk about Augustine, Neoplatonism, or the unshakeable desire to leave your studies behind and become a Desert Father, she can be reached at

Photo credit: Program of Liberal Studies, University of Notre Dame