By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
The recent Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman provides us with our topic this week.
Who is Cardinal Newman?
During his recent Apostolic Journey to England and Scotland, Pope Benedict XVI presided at the Ceremony of Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890). This, in itself, draws attention to the importance of the event because Pope Benedict rarely presides at beatification ceremonies, normally delegating a cardinal to do so. His action, and the fact that it was done within the United Kingdom, where Cardinal Newman exercised his ministry, highlights its importance for the universal Church. Who was John Henry Newman?
John Henry Newman was born in London on Feb. 21, 1801. His father was an Anglican (those of the Anglican faith are often known as Episcopalians in the United States) and his mother was of French Calvinist background. From an early age, he took the things of God seriously and experienced what he called his “first conversion” at the age of 15. This experience involved his conviction of the truth of Christian revelation. He continued his studies in both the secular and religious fields and was eventually ordained an Anglican minister in 1825, having completed his studies at the famous Oxford University.
In 1833 he organized what became known as the Oxford Movement, seeking to recall the Anglican Church to its foundations, based upon the Fathers of the Church. In his study, he eventually became convinced that the fullness of revelation was to be found in the Catholic Church. As this realization matured, Newman set himself apart from Oxford life and spent three years in intense prayer and study. Finally, realizing that it was the logical conclusion of his study and prayer, he was received into the Catholic Church on Oct. 9, 1845. Incidentally, this date of his reception has been assigned as his feast day, now that he has been declared Blessed.
It would probably be difficult for us to imagine the many sacrifices John Henry Newman had to make in being received into the Catholic Church. He was obliged to leave his teaching position, and so had no regular source of income, and many colleagues, friends and family members distanced themselves from him. The intellectual struggle he had endured had ended but the emotional and human toll had now begun. He said that his greatest consolation during this period was our Lord’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
Here is what he wrote in those circumstances, which can be so consoling to those in similar circumstances: “Therefore, I will trust Him. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
After becoming a Catholic, Newman wanted to study for the priesthood and so went to Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1847 and shortly thereafter founded a small community of priests in Birmingham, England, becoming a part of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. These are small groups of priests living in common, without formal vows, but bound by the same desire for holiness. While Newman’s Birmingham Oratory may have become one of the most famous, there are many other Oratories throughout the world. I am so pleased that here in our own Archdiocese we have an Oratory of St. Philip Neri, located at St. Francis Xavier Parish in the Art Museum section of the City.
In 1851, when the Bishops of Ireland wanted to found a Catholic university, they asked Newman to be its founding rector. He entered completely into the life of the new university and deeply affected many of its students by his wide learning, excellent preaching skills and human graciousness. Whenever you hear of “Newman Clubs,” or Newman Club Chaplains, remember that they are named for Cardinal Newman, who was so zealous in his work with young people at this formative stage in their lives.
The pursuit of truth
Jesus revealed Himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). One of the themes that Pope Benedict has tirelessly taken up in his preaching and teaching has been the reality of revealed truth. His frequent references to the “dictatorship of relativism” challenges us to recognize the reality of an objective truth, which exists in and of itself. Rightfully we pursue our Christian lives with great tolerance and charity towards those who do not share our faith, but this does not mean denying the reality of objective truth in Jesus Christ.
At the prayer vigil held the evening before the Mass of beatification of John Henry Newman, Pope Benedict summed up Cardinal Newman’s contribution to the pursuit of truth. He said: “At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion. Here is the first lesson we can learn from his life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfillment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ, who is himself ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn. 14:6)” (Address, Prayer Vigil, Hyde Park, London, 18 September 2010).
We all know that commitment to truth sometimes brings persecution. It has been so throughout the history of the Church and it continues to be true for those who fearlessly preach the truth in our own day. Today, it may not involve a martyrdom of blood but one of being marginalized and dismissed from public discourse. Cardinal Newman is a great model of charity and courage in this struggle.
“Heart speaks unto heart”
One of the great treasures to be found in the study of Blessed Cardinal Newman, is his understanding of prayer. He took as his motto upon becoming a cardinal, “Heart speaks unto Heart.”
In this, we find the essence of prayer. The heart of God has spoken to us through His revelation, which culminated in the sending of His Son. That Son, who took upon Himself a human body, with a heart, was pierced for our offenses but continues to love us with a personal love. He wishes us to give our hearts to Him as inspaniduals, so that we may be united to Him. This is what we do in prayer and, as we know from our own experience, when we speak to that Heart, He also responds by speaking quietly within our own hearts.
Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, wrote a fine article on the life and works of Cardinal Newman, which was published in the weekly English edition of “L’Osservatore Romano” of Aug. 11, 2010. In that article, Father Rosica pointed out that Cardinal Newman had a wonderful facility for human friendships. He was not of an outgoing or gregarious nature, but of a warmly human and sympathetic one. This capacity for true and lasting relationships, Father Rosica points out, is especially timely today. An understanding of true friendship, with the commitment, sacrifice and joy that it brings is a great need of our time and Blessed John Henry Newman can show us the way. His communication with the heart of Christ filled his own heart and enabled him to bring that love to others, thereby touching their hearts.
In our world, in which there can be so much harshness, and in which so many, especially the young, are yearning for the truth but sometimes do not know where to turn, we would do well to conclude with this brief poem of Cardinal Newman. He wrote many volumes on many subjects, but these brief lines are a wonderful summary of his life and work and an appropriate prayer for all of us:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene – one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
September 30, 2010