Saint John Henry Newman

The Perfection of Saint John Henry Newman

Tollite hostias et introite in atria eius: adorate Dominum in aula sancta eius. Bring up sacrifices, and come into His courts: adore ye the Lord in His holy court.—words, brethren, from the Communion of today’s Mass.

This Mass is offered in thanksgiving for the canonization of the Oratorian priest, John Henry Newman, which took place earlier this morning at the Vatican. 

In the early 1960s the Trappist monk Thomas Merton admitted: “For a long time I had no ‘resonance’ with Newman (because I did not bother to listen for any; I think pictures of him scared me). I was suspicious of letting him in…. But now I … am with difficulty restrained from taking too many books of Newman out of the library when I have more books than I need already.” Merton’s meeting with Newman, when at last it came, was on a profound level. As he said: “There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely observe, meet, or know. A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of the other. (Cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to heart in the wholeness of the language of music; true friendship is a kind of singing).” Merton makes reference here, of course, to the motto Cardinal Newman adopted for his coat of arms: cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to heart. His invocation of the language of music is apt because, as Merton notes, “Newman was a profoundly musical person and all that was best expressed itself, for him, in terms of music, harmony, oneness, sound.”

Merton thus came to revere Newman, despite the earlier failure on his part to resonate with the Oratorian Cardinal: “I revere him deeply, though formerly I ignored and misunderstood him. … What moves me is his greatness, the polish of a ‘finished’ man, a masterpiece, who because he is perfect beyond the ordinary seems to have reached a stasis, a condition that is not of time. He is not of his time, or ahead of it, or behind it. He is outside of it. Indeed, he reaches this condition by suffering a kind of rejection which liberates him into a realm of a final perfection, a uniqueness, a humility, a wisdom, a silence that is definitive and contains all that he has ever said. So that, even when he quietly continues to speak and to write, perhaps for a few people only or for no one at all, he is saying things for everyone of all time who can grow to understand this peculiar type of greatness. He seems ‘old’, and belongs to the past, yet he survives indefinitely. Newman is always young.” Merton even brilliantly imagines Newman’s very gestures: “He must have had a way of looking at you, of listening to you, with a respect you could not imagine you had suddenly deserved. He had, above all, style. And this, a fact which contradicts identification of banality with modesty, is necessary for perfection.”

In the language of the spiritual writers of his early monastic training, Merton thus affirms that Newman had achieved what is “necessary for perfection.” In other words, Merton quietly asserts that John Henry Newman was a saint. How many others have nurtured the same inner conviction? Lady Lothian, a new convert in 1851, was nervous of meeting Newman but was soon put at ease in his presence. “That which struck me most was his childlike sympathy and humility,” she wrote, “and next to that the vivid clearness with which he gives an opinion… His saying of Mass is most striking. I do not know what makes the difference, but one is conscious of a difference…” From the other end of the social spectrum, as it were, there is the story of an old Irish woman, an immigrant during the potato famine. She was always glad to learn that Newman was on the rota to celebrate Mass in the Oratory church. Why? “Oh, Father Newman!” she exclaimed, “How he used to lift our hearts!” Today the universal Church has proclaimed, to the overflowing joy of his sons and daughters down the ages, that John Henry Newman is a saint. John Henry Newman is a saint.

When, following the light of his conscience, informed by unremitting study, this popular Anglican clergyman at last assented to the truth of the Roman Catholic teaching on Church authority (which, he confessed, initially “gave him a stomach ache”) he said a final farewell to his familiar surroundings and nearly all of the dear friends from the first half of his life. He begged an Italian mission priest to hear his confession and receive him into the Catholic Church, which he believed to be “the one true fold of the Redeemer.” The famous politicians Gladstone and Disraeli wrote, trying to dissuade him from pursuing the course on which he was apparently determined. Renouncing his dearest ties, midway through life, for an uncertain future among the despised Roman Catholics was a white martyrdom, a witness of dispossession without shedding blood. Tollite hostias et introite in atria eius: adorate Dominum in aula sancta eius. The “little death” of Newman’s conversion was the seed sown in the earth that would bring forth fruit abundantly. For many years after his conversion, Newman remained a non-person, as far as the English Establishment and even many of his relatives were concerned. Today, an Anglican writer can fairly sum up the event in these words: “For Newman, only certainties would do: the Anglican compromise was not an option for him. So he fought again in his own brilliant and sensitive mind the battles which had bitterly divided Europe in the sixteenth century.” As Pope Paul VI saw it, “Guided solely by love of truth and fidelity to Christ, Newman traced an itinerary, the most toilsome but also the greatest, the most meaningful, the most conclusive, that human thought ever travelled during the last century, indeed one might say during the modern era, to arrive at the fullness of wisdom and peace.”

In his early days, from the high pulpit of St Mary’s Church in Oxford, Newman held university undergraduates captive with his vision of classical Christianity and the life fostered by the sacraments over the course of the liturgical year. Here they came face to face with a man of deep integrity, whose silvery voice bodied forth a serene but staunch conviction of the truth of the ancient Christian faith. Newman’s work of reviving Apostolic Christianity in the Anglican Church of his day, his concurrent search for the veritable Church of Christ, and his unsung service to the Birmingham Oratory when it became his Catholic home, was fuelled by an unquenched desire for truth and illumined by the gifts of the Spirit.

As Newman himself wrote to Sir John Acton: “Of course you know very well, without my telling you, that anyone who wishes to do good of any kind, must start with the full understanding that he will get no thanks for doing it from anyone—and must be content to look for his reward in that quarter only, towards which he looked in faith and prayer, when he began it. The poet calls fame ‘the last infirmity’—but I think for my part that the last infirmity is the wish to be praised by our Superiors, and intimate friends, and good men—and that we must set out by believing that God’s highest tribunals on earth, whether ecclesiastical or moral, will be, for the time, or till we are gone, unfavourable in their view of those deeds of ours which God Himself most approves. And therefore we must, with the holy Apostle, put ourselves above human judgment of every kind, for qui judicat me, Dominus est [he who judges me is the Lord].

Let St John Henry Newman’s voice resonate with us today, gathered here in Holy Family Church, as he himself meditates on the Holy Family: “O my soul, thou art allowed to contemplate this union of the three, and to share thyself its sympathy, by faith though not by sight. My God, I believe and know that then a communion of heavenly things was opened on earth which has never been suspended. It is my duty and my bliss to enter into it myself. It is my duty and my bliss to be in tune with that most touching music which then began to sound. Give me that grace which alone can make me hear and understand it, that it may thrill through me. Let the breathings of my soul be with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Let me live in obscurity, out of the world, the world’s thought, with them. Let me look to them in sorrow and in joy, and live and die in their sweet sympathy.”

By Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

The Eucharistic Consolation of St John Henry Newman

We are offering the Forty Hours Devotion this year in thanksgiving for the canonization of our Oratorian cardinal, John Henry Newman, which took place last Sunday in the Vatican. From that day forward John Henry Newman is inscribed in the roll of saints officially recognized by the Church, worthy of our devotion and fit to be publicly invoked for prayer. Some are already voicing the hope that this eminent convert, drawn to Rome from the Anglican Communion, will eventually be made a Doctor of the Church, in recognition of the rich store of religious literature he has bequeathed us. Tonight we can do no better than to attend to some things he has said about the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. 

Although Newman had already arrived at a deep understanding of what theologians call the sacramental economy and, in particular, the place of the Eucharist within the disposition of God’s saving work among us, a surprise awaited him when at last he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He recounts this event in a letter to a friend:

We went over [i.e., to the Catholic Church] not realising those privileges which we have found by going. I never allowed my mind to dwell on what I might gain of blessedness —but certainly, if I had thought much upon it, I could not have fancied the extreme, ineffable comfort of being in the same house with Him who cured the sick and taught His disciples. … When I have been in Churches abroad, I have religiously abstained from acts of worship, thought it was a most soothing comfort to go into them—nor did I know what was going on; I neither understood nor tried to understand the Mass service—and I did not know, or did not observe, the tabernacle Lamp—but now after tasting of the awful delight of worshipping God in His Temple, how unspeakably cold is the idea of a Temple without that Divine Presence! One is tempted to say what is the meaning, what is the use of it?

Needless to say, in Newman’s time Anglicans had not yet begun to recover the Catholic practice of the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament outside of the liturgy. So Newman first encountered as a Roman Catholic what he described as “the distant glimmering Lamp which betokens the Presence of our undying Life, hidden but ever working.” Again, he writes to an Anglican friend:

I am writing next room to the Chapel—It is such an incomprehensible blessing to have Christ in bodily presence in one’s house, within one’s walls, as swallows up all other privileges. … To know that He is close by—to be able again and again through the day to go in to Him.

While studying theology in Rome, he exclaimed: “It is really most wonderful to see this Divine Presence looking out almost into the open streets from the various Churches.” 

Fittingly enough, Newman celebrated his first Mass as a Catholic priest on the feast of Corpus Christi. Later, preaching on this same feast, Newman entered a large claim for it: “There is no feast which shows more wonderfully what Christianity is.” No wonder Newman was drawn to St Philip Neri, who introduced the Forty Hours Devotion to Rome, and who enjoined his Oratorian Fathers to celebrate Solemn Vespers each evening during the Octave of Corpus Christi. But how does Newman underline the significance of the Blessed Sacrament as God’s present gift and privilege to us? Let us examine his teaching on the Presence of God, man’s loss of this Presence, and the manner in which the Presence was restored.

When God created the human race, man enjoyed not only the powers inherent in the nature God had given him, but the grace of living in God’s Presence. This Presence was the light of his soul and the fulfillment of his desire for happiness. But then the aboriginal catastrophe intervened. As Newman explains:

When Adam fell, his soul lost its true strength; he forfeited the inward light of God’s presence, and became the wayward, fretful, excitable, and miserable being which his history has shown him to be ever since; with alternate strength and feebleness, nobleness and meanness, energy in the beginning and failure in the end. … [Man] lost … [his] spiritual life and health, which was necessary to complete [his] nature, and to enable it to fulfill the ends for which it was created.

Newman underlines the emptiness of man’s soul deprived of God’s Presence, and the desperate and wayward quests provoked by the loss of what alone can satisfy him:

Man is not sufficient for his own happiness: he is not happy except the Presence of God be with him. … He has a void within him which needs filling, and he knows not how to fill it. He is ever restless when … not dull and insensible, seeking in one thing or another that blessing … lost. … He alone is sufficient for the heart who made it.

In the fullness of time, God made haste to repair the painful rift between himself and the human soul. He did this in a marvellous way, by himself coming among us as a man. For the brief span of Christ’s life on earth, man could come face to face with God, in an accommodated way, apposite to his own fallen condition. Of course, even then Christ was rarely enough perceived to the full extent of his divinity. And so this Presence must instigate a drama which held out the promise that man could once again be made whole—whole in Christ, perfect God and perfect man. Newman narrates the event of the Christian Mystery in this way:

Christ then took on our nature, when he would redeem it; He redeemed it by making it suffer in His own Person; he purified it, by making it pure in His own Person. He first sanctified it in Himself, made it righteous, made it acceptable to God, submitted it to an expiatory passion, and then He imparted it to us. He took it consecrated it, broke it, and said, “Take, and divide it among yourselves.

Newman’s formulation underlines the logic of his conviction that no one “realises the mystery of the Incarnation but must feel disposed towards that of the Holy Communion.” God not only unites himself to human nature in his conception and birth as man, he also binds himself to the appearances of bread and wine so that we might partake of the feast of this divinised humanity. He leaves us the Blessed Sacrament to build up his Church and perpetuate his saving Presence among us. Newman touches upon the mysterious sacramental Presence of Christ in a sermon on the road to Emmaus:

Only by faith is He known to be present; He is not recognized by sight. When he opened his disciples’ eyes, He at once vanished. He removed his visible presence and left but a memorial of Himself. He vanished from sight that He might be present in a sacrament; and in order to connect His visible presence to His presence invisible, He for one instant manifested Himself to their open eyes; manifested Himself, if I may so speak, while He passed from His hiding place of sight without knowledge, to that of knowledge without sight.

Newman meditatively ponders the paradox of a hidden Presence in the same sermon:

We know that the closer any object of this world comes to us, the less we can contemplate it and comprehend it. Christ has come so close to us in the Christian Church … that we cannot gaze on Him or discern Him. He enters into us, He claims and takes possession of His purchased inheritance; He does not present Himself to us, but He takes us to Him. He makes us His members. Our faces are, as it were, turned from Him; we see Him not, and know not of His presence, except by faith, because he is over us and within us.

Despite their initial blindness, the disciples on the road to Emmaus later recollected that their hearts burned within them when the Stranger was speaking. Just so, Newman says, for all Christians:

if they have come to Him in sincerity, they will experience a sort of heavenly fragrance and savour of immortality, when they least expect it, rising upon their minds, as if in token that God has been with them, and investing all that has taken place, which before seemed to them but earthly, with beams of glory. And this is true … of all the rites and ordinances of the Church, of all providences that happen to us; that, on looking back on them, though they seemed without meaning at the time, elicited no strong feeling, or were even painful and distasteful, yet if we come to them and submit to them in faith, they are afterwards transfigured, and we feel that it has been good for us to be there; and we have a testimony, as a reward of our obedience, that Christ has fulfilled His promise.   

Br Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

Newman and the Communion of Saints

Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, diem festum celebrantes sub honore Sanctorum omnium. Rejoice we all in the Lord, keeping feast day in honour of all the Saints. –words, brethren, from the Introit of the Mass.

The Roman Martyrology, a catalogue of martyrs and saints arranged according to the order of their feasts, was last updated in 2004. This edition lists 7,000 saints and blesseds currently venerated by the Church and makes no claim to comprehensive inclusiveness. Moreover, of those holy men and women actually noted in the Martyrology, we can commemorate only a fraction at Mass during the year. Today, therefore, we keep the feast not only of the sancti whose images surround us, whose names we know and customarily invoke, but of all God’s elect, who throughout the course of time have rendered him glory. Their variety is captured in memorable rhyme by a children’s hymn:

And one was doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green. … And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast. 

As this sprightly hymn draws to a close, it advises today’s children:

They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still… You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea. 

Still … you can meet them. A choirboy, who often sang this hymn, one day verified, all unanticipated, that last verse—first in a subjective event, later confirmed by an authoritative decree of the Church. You can meet them … and, if you do, it will probably be a surprise. This old choirboy, barely able to repeat the words of his childhood song, had been admitted to the chapel of Castel Gandolfo, where an old man already knelt before the altar. Then, without fanfare, commenced a quiet celebration of low Mass. A small congregation was assisting, and the readings of the foremass were parcelled out amongst those in attendance. An ordinariness veiled the splendour of the Roman rite such that all might have been unfolding at any small parish in North America. And then at last the celebrant arose and left his prie-dieu, mounted to the altar and turned towards the congregation saying, “The Lord be with you.” The first vision of his face this transition entailed made you catch your breath at the realization: “It is the Pope!” How could the pre-announced strike one as so revelatory? Perhaps because now, face to face, you saw with blinding clarity that the man who had been so inconspicuous, in no way imposing, face buried in his hands, was indisputably more present than anyone else in the room. At this Mass you, unsuspecting, were being immersed in his prayer—a prayer of unfathomable depth and stillness. Without your anticipation or approbation, you simply saw: here was a saint. Not the darling of the international media or a powerful Bishop of Rome, but completely St John Paul II. Still, you can meet them … So be vigilant.

It might seem as if a feast day in honour of all the Saints would reference something so abstract and general that it could at best pose a notional interest. The feast of any particular saint is compact of biography, legend, folklore and all the recorded idiosyncrasies of this peculiar person. But taking all saints together, we seem to be confronted with either an anonymous crowd or a dry definition of sanctity as such. Is this so? We good citizens of modern liberal democracies may well be tempted to think so. If we take either the political definition of man—a rights-bearing individual—or a characterization of individual human psychology—an entity moved by pleasure and pain—as exhaustively comprehending our human identity, we have little choice but to regard the human aggregate as impersonal and faceless. It is not a whole but an abstraction. To regard man as merely a rights-bearing individual or as a private entity motivated solely by his own pleasures and pains would condemn us to lifelong loneliness, owing nothing to anyone, our business exclusively our own, and in the last analysis loved and cared for by none. Of course the communists, the fascists, and even the various parties found in liberal democracies, in their own clumsy way, attempt to ameliorate our lonely individuality with resounding declarations of rights, the imposition of universal laws upon the recalcitrant, and ready use of coercive power for collective ends. But fewer and fewer these days believe such expedients touch the heart of man and its longing for community. Rather than mass disciplinary regulation of atomic individuals, we yearn—do we not?—for something both more intimate and more jubilant.

Isn’t this precisely what the saints—and pre-eminently all the saints together—possess? In the Credo, we profess our faith in the “communion of saints.” The earthly pilgrimage of a saint as he traces his way to the Lord may well appear solitary and idiosyncratic. But in heaven the saints are one body—una cum, united in one communion—to a degree that constitutes a standing reproach to the continuing feebleness of the Church Militant’s attempts to exhibit the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. The communio sanctorum is no communist device but the very lifeblood of a communitarian organism. A communion is no mere aggregate of individuals but a corpus of deeply personal relations interiorly achieved and mutually fulfilling. The communio sanctorum is suffused and embraced by the quiet light of God. This communitarianism has been well described by a modern scholar: “The soul which is open to the invasion of spirit … experiences an extension of its personality, interpenetrating and interpenetrated by the personalities of its fellows; this is the natural activity of the spirit, and is called love. It is the inner bond which unites spirit to spirit, like to like; but it comes to pass through reverent recognition of the unlikeness of soul to soul; their differentiation, that is, as separate and distinct manifestations of the same spirit.”

As you will know, the Toronto Oratory keeps this feast as its foundation day. On November 1, 1975, the brief granted to us by the Holy Father was implemented, thereby erecting the first Oratory of St Philip Neri in the Dominion of Canada. The date is a happy chance because the spirituality of the Oratory is nothing if not a recognition of the communio sanctorum, a corporate striving for communio. 

Not yet a month ago, we rejoiced in the canonization of the founder of the English Oratories: Cardinal John Henry Newman. No one can doubt, now, that this religious genius, so close to English Oratorians, is also a saint. In the course of his life, Newman fought free of the constrictions of individualism as well as the totalizing political control of the religious impulse. His traditional mentality was personalist and communitarian. Hence Newman’s fascination for St Philip Neri, whose Oratory was to be a “school of prayer” held together not by vows of religion but by the supernatural bond of charity. This is the positive statement of the Oratorian vocation. Fr Jonathan Robinson, in his own founding role, also drew out, by way of contrast, the shadow implications of this statement: “Everyone talks about the desirability of community today, but do we also know that community involves sacrifice?”

Newman, indeed, knew the “bright sacrifice” of community. When the redoubtable Fr Frederick Faber contemplated offering his own religious community as a complement to Newman’s fledgling Oratorian band, the future saint warned Faber that the Oratory bore little resemblance to the model he had adopted for his Wilfridian monks: “In many important respects it differs from what you are at present. It is not near so ascetic—indeed it is not ascetic.”

In thus disclaiming a decisive role in Oratorian spirituality for traditional works of asceticism, Newman was not declaring that the principle of mortification—putting to death the old man—is foreign to the Oratory. But the Oratory intends to forge another way, more suited to modern circumstances. The proper Oratorian mortification is not a matter of comparatively external disciplines, even when these are still practiced, but rather consists in consciously promoting the good of community life and so striving to love, without counting the cost. The editor of Newman’s Oratorian papers put it this way: “The precise point of contrast between Oratorians and all others, whether seculars or regulars, lies in a willing submission to the ascesis of community life as the great means of perfection.” This formulation correctly underlines the point that Newman regarded the common life as a means of spiritual perfection, not a dilution or mitigation of some higher ideal. Community life in the Oratory, Newman says, “is the exhibition and the exercise of a great counsel, carrying with it a great sanctification, according to the maxim, which has almost become a proverb in the Oratory: ‘Vita communis, mortificatio maxima.’ 

Pray, brethren, that all who are here tonight, who have been touched in some way by the holy presence of St Philip Neri, will enter into God’s glory and find within themselves the fruits of the bright sacrifice, the communion of all the saints. “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God—and I mean, God helping, to be one too.”

Br Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

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