Today we mark the feast of the Blessed John Henry Newman – one of the spiritual and intellectual giants of the Church. His life spanned almost the whole of the noneteenth century. He was born in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars and died only a quarter of a century before the Great War. He came to Christ as a schoolboy, and the rest of his life was a pilgrimage to know and love him more.
A Calvinist at first, Newman came by degrees to understand something so many still fail to grasp, which is that Christianity has a history. Yes, we are born again into a new life, but that life is in the context of the church founded by Christ. The more Newman delved into history, the less certain he became that the church he was born into was that churc. It certainly claimed to be part of it, and for half his life, Newman held to that view. In order to explain how that could be so when it was not in communion with the Bishop of Rome, Newman sought to find support from history; what he found was that history knocked that argument to pieces.
St Peter was the prince of the Apostles. Ancient writers distinguished leadership by looking at how many times a person was mentioned, and Peter scored highly – quite apart from the fact that Jesus asked him to ‘feed my sheep’ and changed his name from Simon to Rock. The Western Church had always beenin communion with Rome, and now the church he was in was not. So, Newman found ways of explaining this. The Anglican 39 Articles could be read in a ‘Catholic’ sense, and one could find unity in the ancient creeds, avoiding the ‘accretions’ the Romans had added. The problem was that the more he delved into history the clearer it became that the so-called ‘accretions’ were simply developments of what had always been there.
Take, for example, veneration of the Virgin Mary. As far back as history would go, men had indeed called her ‘Blessed’ even as Scripture said they would. Men and women loved her for her love of her son and for her care and her sacrifices – parents could identify with her, and mothers above all. Simple people simply loved her, and they did what people do when they love someone – they made pictures of her, they made prayers to her. Unlike every other saint associated with Jesus, she and she alone had no runoured burial place. The people loved her, the Church noted that, as it noted that she was the second Eve, and if she was that, and if Jesus was sinless, she too, must have been sinless, and if sinless, how could she have suffered the penalty of Adam? Out of these simple observations and devotions came Marian veneration and doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception. These things grew in the Church – how was that?
Newman came to see that the real question was the opposite one – if the Church was moved by the Spirit, how could it not grow and come to a greater understanding of the ‘faith once received’? Since the Catholic Church in communion with Rome showed all these signs of life, then, Newman came to see, it was where he needed to be – and he joined it.
His life in his new Church was not easy. Converts are not always welcome, and when they are, they are expected to be as conservatively Catholic as possible. Newman continued to write and think with the inspiration of the Spirit, and that did not pleases many in a Church which felt itself under seige and thought the only way to go was to put up the barricades and find a few last ditches in which to die. But Newman persevered, and was finally rewarded with a Cardinal’s hat. Five years ago he was beatified by one of his greatest admirers – the most theologically brilliant Pope since the Middle Ages, Benedict XVI.
For most of his life Newman was a simple parish priest ministering to the poor. Through him God gave us much we needed – and still need.
Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.