Fr. Anthony Atansi says his mission at McGill’s Newman Centre is threefold — intellectual, spiritual and social — in serving students and faculty. Photo courtesy Fr. Atansi

Newman chaplain answers ‘call within a call’

  • October 21, 2023

It is a long way from his native Igboland in Nigeria to the Newman Centre at McGill University, but Fr. Anthony Atansi finds himself as “at home” in one as the other.

Atansi arrived in Montreal in the summer of 2021 to take up the position of scholar-in-residence at Newman by way of the University of Leuven, Belgium, where he did his doctoral work in theology and obtained a Doctor of Sacred Theology in 2020 from KU Leuven.

It wasn’t long before the priest took up further duties as the chaplain at the Newman Centre.

Atansi explains that the Newman Centre at McGill “serves a threefold mission, the intellectual, spiritual and social, and fulfills that role in the lives of the students and the faculty.”

It also represents one of the earliest North American examples of the “Newman Movement,” inspired by St. John Henry Newman’s encouragement of Catholics studying in secular universities to form associations.

The first Newman club was formed at Oxford University in 1878. In Montreal, the centre began its life as the Columbian Club in 1897. The Toronto Newman Centre was founded over a decade later in 1913, then run by the Paulist Fathers.

As both scholar-in-residence and chaplain, Atansi engages both the intellectual and spiritual needs of the students.

When he was first hired, Atansi says he formed a study group to “examine Fratelli Tutti, this new encyclical letter of the Holy Father, and I also organize symposia and other intellectual activities like mini-conferences and reading groups.”

Atansi calls his theological vocation a “calling within my calling as a priest.”

Following his appointment at Newman, Atansi was engaged as an Adjunct Professor at McGill’s School of Religious Studies to teach courses in African Christianity and Indigenous Religiosity and Spirituality.

Atansi compares the ubiquitous secularity of Montreal with that of Leuven. He says people who knew him as a devout seminarian were surprised his bishop would send him to Leuven for theological studies.

“‘Why would he send you to a secular context? He (should have) sent you to Rome where your faith would be protected,’ ” Atansi laughingly recounts of those questioning conversations.

But it was what he calls the “historical critical method” of his theological professors that provided just the right stimulus for a deepening of faith, an awakening of his “call within a call” and a preparation for his pastoral work as a chaplain for Catholic university students.

“I must confess that doing theology is one of the tremendous opportunities you can have in your life as a priest because it helps you to pay more attention to what the world is struggling with, and then to enter still more deeply into the resources of faith to find answers that really respond to the deepest longing of people,” he said.

Atansi has found that the questions and struggles of the students at McGill are an affirmation of the presence and work of God in the world.

“The student’s wholehearted presence and commitment to the life of our chaplaincy is palpable proof that Christianity is not dead in the West. Rather, it is present and growing in new and silent ways that we are yet to capture. I’ve been so enriched in my ministry as a chaplain to Catholic students,” he said. “The students, by their own faith and unique experiences in life, challenge and inspire me to keep learning and thinking about the faith not simply as a grand narrative, something that is all made up within a book or a text, but also something to keep exploring as a way of life.”

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