From the Priest

Here is Fr. Stephen’s homily for last Sunday, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 11th October on St. John Henry Newman:

Last Friday we celebrated the memory of England’s newest saint: John Henry Newman, who was canonised by Pope Francis on the 13th October, last year.

Some of us will remember John Huntriss’s excellent talk on Newman, given about this time last year, in this Church.

Let’s remind ourselves why Newman is so important to us, although he lived two centuries ago.

 

Born in 1801, he had a radical conversion experience aged 15, which he said made him certain of two things:

Newman said his conversion experience made him certain of two things:

First, the Existence of God.

Second, his own existence.

 

For Newman, the existence of God was never in doubt; never a matter of debate.

He was shy and sensitive. He fluffed his Oxford exams despite his intellectual brilliance, but became a tutor at Oriel.

He was ordained an Anglican priest aged 24 and three years later his renown even at his young age resulted in him becoming Vicar of the University Church, St. Mary’s.

For the next 17 years he and a group of friends became involved in what became known as the Oxford Movement, which promoted Catholic values in the Church of England, with the intention that the C of E should become a middle way between the Catholic and Reformed churches.

Newman was undoubtedly the intellectual leader of this group, but he found that the task of ‘catholic-ising’ the Anglican church was impossible

Anyway it made no sense, because you cannot have a part of the Catholic Church operating as an island, set apart from the Apostolic Church whose authority is vested in the Pope and Bishops.

On the 9th October, the day on which we keep his Feast, he was received into the Church by Blessed Dominic Barberi.

The decision was not without personal cost:

  • Broken relationships with family, friends and colleagues;
  • Mild suspicion on the part of Pius IX (‘No friend in Rome’, Newman said, ‘Mistrusted in England’)
  • Rows between the Birmingham and London Oratories, and
  • A major and public dispute with the novelist Charles Kingsley, writer of The Water Babies, who accused Catholic clergy, and Newman in particular, of corporate dishonesty.

These stresses caused Newman to write his spiritual autobiography ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua’; sometimes called the finest work of its kind since The Confessions of St Augustine.

Finally, aged 78, came recognition. Pope Leo made him a Cardinal – a great honour for one who was not a Bishop.

 

Why, then, is he so important to you and me?

 

The clue lies in two mottos with which he is associated:

The first is a Latin tag on his tomb which translates as ‘Out of shadows and illusions, into truth’. A phrase borrowed from Plato.

This dictum strikes many a chord, not just with so many of us who have shared his path from Anglicanism into the Church, but with all God’s people who tread the way of faith that leads us finally to eternity and the beatific vision.

As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: ‘For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.’

 

The second motto was chosen by Newman as part of his Cardinal’s coat of arms in 1879 and borrowed by Pope Benedict as the strap line for the Papal visit to the UK in September 2010: Heart speaks unto Heart: words that came originally from St Francis de Sales.

With these words, Newman reminds us of the deep and intimate relationship between God and every single one of us – something that so often we forget.

Newman’s posterity is considerable:

  • In literature and poetry, we owe to him ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ which describes the journey of the soul to God – from which we have the hymns ‘Firmly, I believe and truly’, and ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’. We have the hymn/poem ‘Lead kindly Light’ from his early years.
  • Theologically, his vision of the development of doctrine through the ages, whilst retaining essential truths, was a major influence on the Second Vatican Council, in connection with which Pope Paul VI called him ‘The invisible Father’.

Spiritually, his vision of the reality of God and the place of Conscience within the heart of man as the voice of the Lord within us, is not only part of his legacy for us but is also said to have made a great impact on Pope Benedict. (The homily finished with the Collect for St. John Henry Newman’s day).