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Never give up seeking God: Timely lessons for today from Saint John Henry Newman

Never give up seeking God: Timely lessons for today from Saint John Henry Newman

This weekend, Blessed John Henry Newman will become Saint John Henry Newman, and few people will be happier than Sr. Mary Emmanuel Alves, FSP. She takes delight in reading—daily—from his work, and is ecstatic that his canonization will bring him into the hearts and minds of so many more people. “He is so precise and articulate,” she says. “His mind is brilliant—but the true brilliance is in it being understandable to the rest of us. That’s real brilliance. Theologians will probably get a lot more out of his writing, but at the same time his heart is speaking to our hearts.”

She stops for a moment, thinking about it. “When you read Newman, you’re not just listening to a sermon, not just  listening to something brilliant—you’re listening to a man who has lived. It’s his own personal life that makes him credible. He lived through rejection, false accusation, pain… It’s a life lived, a heart that is searching for God, for the truth, for light in a dark culture. And when he found it, as the truth was opened, no cost was too great, even leaving his beloved Anglican Communion. He opens up new avenues of loving God, vistas of omnipotent love of God.”

His conversion is the stuff of which stories are made. He was at the forefront of the Oxford Movement in the early nineteenth century, which sought to restore some older traditions of Christianity to Anglican liturgy and theology. Newman and others in the Oxford Movement disseminated their views through pamphlets called “Tracts for the Times.” In these Tracts, they challenged the status quo of the Church of England, accusing it of being more interested in maintaining a good relationship with the government than in being true to its mission. Teaching and studying Church history, and looking especially at apostolic succession, he lost a good deal of his previous hostility toward Catholicism. In 1841 he published Tract 90, in which he asserted that Anglicanism’s defining doctrines were more Catholic than they were Protestant—and raised the ire of many influential university colleagues. The Bishop of Oxford called for the tracts to cease, and Newman was widely attacked and called a Papist.

“He stopped writing,” says Sister Mary Emmanuel, her gentle voice sad. Disconcerted by his shift of attitude, Newman left Oxford and settled in the nearby village of Littlemore, where he lived a monastic type of life with a few friends. “He kept asking God, what shall I do? He knew he must follow the truth.

At Littlemore, Newman continued to study, fast, and pray. He became increasingly convinced that the Catholic Church was the church nearest to the spirit of early Christianity, though he continued to have problems with what the Church had added to the faith in the centuries that followed: purgatory, papal supremacy, beliefs that could not be found in Scripture. Anglicans considered these beliefs to be a corruption of the tradition. This difficulty led Newman to undertake an extensive historical study, the fruit of which would break new theological ground.

In 1845, he published one of his greatest contributions to Christian thought, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. “Here, Newman explores the paradoxical idea that for an idea to remain truly itself, it must be able to change, to develop,” says Sister Mary Emmanuel. “Fundamentally, Newman came to realize that ideas and doctrines are 'living'; they should not be considered purely intellectual beliefs or moral rules, but should vitalize the hearts of Christians and the body of the Church, just as Christ himself does.”

And then she tells the story of the night all his learning and prayer and struggle came together: “Newman told a formerly Anglican friend, who had converted to Catholicism, that he’d heard ‘Barberi is roaming around England looking for converts.’” Dominic Barberi was an Italian theologian and a member of the Passionist Congregation prominent in spreading Catholicism in England. “Barberi wanted to evangelize England,” Sister Mary Emmanuel says. “Newman asked his friend to send Barberi to him to hear his confession and to receive him into communion with the Catholic Church. ‘I’m ready,’ he told his friend. On October 8, 1845, in the pouring rain, Barberi went to this famous preacher that even the Catholics were afraid of. Newman helped him change out of his sodden clothes and they sat all night by the fire, and in the morning Barberi received him into the Catholic Church.”

Becoming a Catholic was for Newman the perfect intersection of heart and mind. His study of history is one of the reasons Newman converted from Anglicanism: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” he said.

Leaving the Anglican Communion was no small thing. He was a public personage and firm upholder of Anglicanism; he in fact first started studying Catholicism with a view to refuting it. When he was received into the Catholic Church, he lost significant friendships and relationships, including family members, as well as his career at Oxford, for which he had gained renown. Of this decision and its fallout he wrote, “I am going to those whom I do not know and of whom I expect very little—I am making myself an outcast, and that at my age.” 

That fallout, says Sister Mary Emmanuel, was significant. “He was being attacked weekly in newspapers and magazines all over England,” she says. “Yet he responded every week by putting it all down in a clear way for everyone to understand.” None of this came to him easily, and one imagines the heartache involved in both his transformation and the reactions to it.

“He suffered so much,” agrees Sister Mary Emmanuel. “The things he lived through give his words such credibility. He was sued for libel and lost the case. He was reported to the pope by some of his own.” Even his foundation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Birmingham, the first Oratory in the English-speaking world, had conflicts from the start.

Yet Newman later indicated that it was precisely in this difficult period of his life that he learned to more completely surrender himself to God. In Meditations and Devotions, he wrote: “He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me in among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me–still He knows what He is about.” Newman was sent to Rome to further his study and was ordained a Catholic priest on May 30, 1847 and set about trying to convince others in the Oxford Movement that they, too, belonged in the Catholic Church. His conversion prompted many to follow him.

Things got a little better when Leo XIII became pope. In 1879, citing Newman’s services to the cause of the Catholic Church in England, the pope made him a cardinal. “Pope Leo wanted to show the world where he was taking his pontificate: to the laity,” says Sister Mary Emmanuel. “Paradoxically, in order to stay the same, the Church must change.” Almost a century before the Second Vatican Council, Newman was articulating how critical the laity are for evangelization, making him a man far ahead of his time. He believed that many ideas don’t come to fruition because their promotors are impatient. Sister Mary Emmanuel agrees. “These wonderful ideas are lost because they’re impatient and ahead of their times and their ideas are thrown out,” she says. “Many of these things will only find their audience hundreds of years later. In fact, Newman’s words, his sermon on the Second Spring, were used to open Vatican II!”

For his episcopal motto, Newman chose “Cor ad Cor Loquitor.” He borrowed this phrase, often translated as “Heart Speaks unto Heart” from St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God. But why would a man known for his academic career at Oxford University, someone whose theological contributions are some of the Church’s finest, emphasize the heart and not the mind?

Sister Mary Emmanuel is clear about the answer. “Right up until the end of his life he was very involved with people,” she says. “There are so many examples of his love for the people. There were some women workers in a chocolate factory being exploited; he helped them. He was very involved. His complete and utter genius was that he was always there for the people. He has something for everyone.” In The Grammar of Assent, Newman asserts that “next to the power and force of supernatural grace, the greatest influence over the human heart is the example of goodness and virtue in another person.”

There are so many lessons Sister has retained from Newman, far too many to include in one article. So I asked her what we could take away today? “Newman said, ‘There’s no room for trifling, lest we trifle with eternity.’ St. John Newman would say to us today: never give up seeking, because we will never exhaust what God wants to tell us. We can never put the ocean in a seashell, but that’s what some people want to do. Instead of bemoaning the world, we should think of the souls perishing in it.”

She smiles. “Newman talks about seeking God, about aiming at having no secret apart from him. He is at the intersection of thought and affection. We need the help of his promise.” 

While John Henry Newman’s canonization will be meaningful to many people, including Sr. Mary Emmanuel, it also offers the universal Church timely lessons we need as we all continue to seek God. “Never give up seeking, because we will never exhaust what God has to tell us.”

Specifically…

  1. Follow the truth. John Henry Newman’s studies and prayers set him on a path that he hadn’t desired and that was uncomfortable, one that even turned others against him, but he knew the only route to God was in following what was right and true and real.
  2. Share the truth. After his ordination, John Henry Newman could have simply carried on with his fresh life, but instead he reached out to his Anglican friends to share what he had found in the Catholic Church.
  3. Trust that God works through everything. Life gets messy. There will always be conflicts, confusion, misunderstandings. But if you are truly seeking God, then God will work through all the messiness.
  4. Build bridges. John Henry Newman continued to write essays, to give talks, to find areas of commonality with others who didn’t think as he did. He respected others’ opinions even when they differed from his, and even when the people holding them turned against him.
  5. Your mind is a great gift: use it. John Henry Newman never stopped thinking and using reason to reach others. The mind can help accomplish great things when it is aligned with the heart and with God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Living the Faith Today, Saints, Inspiration

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