One year ago today, Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman. What a year it has been since then.
Bishop Robert Barron was present for the canonization Mass last October in St. Peter’s Square, where in Pope Francis’ own homily, the pontiff quoted one of Newman’s: “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not.” Newman spent twenty years as an Anglican priest before being received into the Catholic Church, a journey he describes as “like coming into port after a rough sea.” As a former Anglican priest myself, Newman’s witness is powerful to me; but at this moment in the life of the Church and the world, St. John Henry Newman has much to say to all of us. We all seek peace, and we all need a vision of home amid the rough seas of 2020. Here are five ideas from Newman that may help us cope:
1: Truth and unity matter: In the age of “my truth” and “your truth,” of “truthiness,” “fake news,” and “I feel like,” we note that Newman struggled for years about what value to place on private judgment. As a Catholic, Newman discovered that when he was finally fully tethered to Truth itself, his individual opinions—indeed, his deep-seated emotions and feelings—could achieve their most authentic expression. But long before he was Catholic, he knew that Truth, when it was prayerfully sought, had the power to create Unity, which is in short supply right now. In an 1830 sermon titled “Truth Hidden When Not Sought After,” Newman preached:
Doubtless if men sought the Truth with one tenth part of the zeal with which they seek to acquire wealth or secular knowledge, their differences would diminish year by year. Doubtless if they gave a half or a quarter of the time to prayer for Divine guidance which they give to amusement or recreation, or which they give to dispute and contention, they would ever be approximating to each other.
2: The pope matters. The problem of authority in Anglicanism haunted Newman for years, and he ultimately came to believe that his reverence for authority—indeed, perhaps the innate need for authority that we all have—had to be attached to a living person appointed by Christ himself. Protestantism faces a multitude of possible authorities in the guise not only of different denominations but also of different interpreters of the same biblical passages and traditions. The secular world is governed by a toxic political binary and a constant onslaught of competing voices in the media and the marketplace. Even many Catholics, and lately and ironically the “rad trads” above all, are suspicious of the words and actions of the Vicar of Christ. Newman calls us all to lay aside our opinions and imitations and come to communion under one duly ordained shepherd instead: “How was an individual inquirer to find, or a private Christian to keep the Truth, amid so many rival teachers?” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine).
3: The public square matters. Newman was a famous figure in English cultural life as a leader of the Oxford Movement, and an esteemed preacher and churchman. His life changed drastically after he became Catholic, but he did not retreat. As an Oratorian in Birmingham, he worked harder in pastoral ministry than he ever had as an Anglican, serving some of the poorest and most downtrodden people in Victorian England. He also was not afraid to speak up in public when a pressing matter demanded it. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he stood up for the proper place not only of Catholicism, but of all genuine religious expression within a free society. With Newman’s help, none of us should ever feel that our religious convictions can be either exploited or diminished by the designs of politicians, statesmen, activists, or influencers. Newman asks, “Is there then such a duty at all as obedience to ecclesiastical authority now? Or is it one of those obsolete ideas, which are swept away, as unsightly cobwebs, by the New Civilization?” Our faith always comes first, and it therefore animates every aspect of our participation in society.
4: Courage matters. We are living through a tough season. Newman had many hard periods in his own life, including his father’s financial ruin when he was a child, a nervous breakdown that caused him to fail the most important exams of his life, being rejected by many friends and family members when he became Catholic, and being sued and humiliated by a charlatan, child-abusing ex-priest. At times, Newman was known to be melancholic. But his motto was “Cor ad Cor Loquitur” (“Heart speaks to heart”). “Cor” is the root word of “courage,” and Newman had lots of it because he trusted not in his own strength, but in God who knew him better than he knew himself. In the summer of 1833, Newman found himself alone and ill in Sicily. Instead of despairing, he wrote these words of what would become a famous hymn:
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’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.
We’ll get through our own encircling gloom with God’s help.
5: Friends matter. The evangelical awakening of Newman’s youth instilled in him throughout his life that he had a personal connection to God. He wrote towards the beginning of his spiritual autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua that as a young man he came to “rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.” Soon, however, he saw the lonely sinfulness of a mind that “did not dwell upon others.” Newman became a great friend and lover of others’ souls, because he was a friend of God and knew his Redeemer’s love for his soul. In Newman’s final public sermon as an Anglican, he offered a brilliant biblical survey of friendship, ending with this tear-jerking farewell:
O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends, should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; if what he has said or done has ever made you take interest in him, and feel well inclined towards him; remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God’s will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it.
St. John Henry Newman, we remember you and give thanks for your heavenly friendship. Pray for us!