Msgr. Michael K. Magee
The challenge of Jesus today

This week, after God’s own confirmation through a miraculous healing of an American deacon by the intercession of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Pope Benedict XVI declared Newman “Blessed.” Though public veneration of the new Blessed and other honors such as the naming of parishes after him will have to wait until his canonization except within a certain specified locale (for this is the difference between a beatification and a canonization), this papal act sets before us a hero whose intellectual honesty, willingness to sacrifice for the truth and outstanding charity provide an example very much needed today. {{more}}

John Henry Newman cared so deeply about what other people thought that he wrote many volumes to share his deepest convictions with as many as possible. Even so, he knew that it was not opinions – his own or those of others -that form the basis of faith, but the unalterable word of God who reveals himself. The Pope recalled that Newman, towards the end of his life, “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.” Personal opinions can be changed or discarded when they become inconvenient. Not so the truth ascertained by reason or revealed by God.

The Pope, speaking in Westminster Hall where Newman’s compatriot St. Thomas More had been condemned to death for upholding the truth, affirmed: “Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is a true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age.”

Newman’s devotion to the truth, which he ultimately found in the Catholic Church, cost him many of his earlier friends and the security of his livelihood as an Anglican clergyman, bringing public denunciations especially from those who were jealous of his influence on others. But Newman lived to the age of 89 as faithful to the truth, and as ready to make any sacrifice for it, as his 16th-century compatriot Catholic martyrs had been.

As the Pope noted, “In our own time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied.” Yet it is precisely in the willingness to uphold the truth despite such trials that the convincing power of the faith shines most brightly. We still need such examples today, especially in priests, bishops, and those in public life!

Rarer even than such unswerving devotion to the truth, however, is the combination of such heroism with the quality expressed in Newman’s own chosen motto: Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”). Newman knew that truth is not served effectively by hatred or violence, even if the violence is only verbal. After all, the truth that must not be polluted by error is precisely a Gospel about the One who is love itself.

Newman’s singular combination of a razor-sharp intellect with the charity and gentleness that made him so beloved by the thousands of simple people who flocked to his funeral distinguishes him as worthy of both admiration and imitation today.

Msgr. Michael K. Magee is a faculty member at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood.