The year 1990 marks the centenary of the death of John Henry Newman, one of the most influential figures in the recent history of the Catholic Church. This contribution to the centenary is by Dr Peter J. Elliott, an Australian priest who is an official of the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome.
There we sat, on the afternoon of April 26th, in the Sala Borromini of the Rome Oratory, while Austrians played chamber music according to the taste of the man we were honouring. Our small Australian contingent at the opening of the Newman centenary celebrations included an Anglican Archbishop and a Catholic auxiliary Bishop. We were waiting for the President of Italy, Francesco Cossiga, who makes no secret of his devotion to Newman.
I could not help thinking how Newman must have been smiling at us all, with our different backgrounds and heritages and interests. Yet he had brought us together, here in the Rome Oratory where the second great work of his life began.
In the late evening of August 11,1890, at the Birmingham Oratory, Cardinal John Henry Newman died full of years and wisdom and holiness. As the cause of his beatification goes forward, the articles and books pile higher, scrutinising the man, analysing his thought, his personality, his sanctity, taking him this way and that. However, those devoted to Newman may sense that at times he has been exploited. It has happened before to saints and fathers of the Church.
I would give two obvious examples. On the one hand there are those who have set Newman up as some kind of talisman, pasting his great name over exaggerated interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, loudly toasting their own imperial consciences, but never their Pope. On the other hand, there are those who use certain selected quotations from his works to drop these orthodox bricks on the toes of their opponents, who are unfortunately alienated from Newman and the vision of faith and life which he offers our age.
In each of these possessive interpretations of the great man there is a ground of truth. Newman may rightly be called "the father of Vatican II." It is appropriate that we happen to be celebrating the silver jubilee of the close of the Council in the year of the centenary of his death. However, he may also be cited as a constant and forceful opponent of a kind of "liberal" Christianity which has proliferated in recent years. But to alight on one of these elements and to concentrate on it alone not only does the man a disservice, but dishonours the Faith and the history of the Church.
A misuse of Newman may arise from not reading him. Let us return to the sources, and take up his works and read them. Reading Newman, we find that he belongs to us all. He is not a figure on which to pin partisan causes which reduce religion to ideology.
A scholar, convert, friend, apologist, theologian, historian, philosopher, poet, preacher, musician, even novelist and satirist, so many dimensions are found in his personality, and each may be taken as an occasion for study and reflection. But, one dimension of his life is easily forgotten: his unceasing pastoral work. He was always the pastor of souls, from the earliest appointment to a poor Anglican parish over the river from Magdalene College, Oxford, on into his major life's work of being a priest in the Oratory Parish in Birmingham. Nor did the Cardinal's purple change that love for souls in the last eleven years of his life.
He was close to people at all levels, the poor and the wealthy, old folk, children and young people, no easy achievement in the stratified society of his time. There was also the typically Victorian ministry he exercised through writing letters. The correspondence is a key to his soul, to the disciplined daily life of prayer which was the source of his priestly ministry as a warm and generous "doctor of souls" .
The spirituality we find in his poetry, his sermons and Meditations and Devotions is the fruit of a continuous and candid converse with God. It is never sentimental, but there is no fear of religious emotion. Much of the piety of his age is there, and yet there is a purity of expression and a directness which has not dated. The private litanies are magnificent. The eucharistic and marian themes integrate personal faith with dogma. His prayer is always the path of conversion, to know and love Jesus better and better each day. Newman never lost the Evangelical awareness of being redeemed by a personal Lord and Saviour, who calls us to give ourselves to him totally. The Christian realities of conversion and vocation are intertwined throughout his life from the early years.
In the mind and soul of Newman, vocation and conversion are both past events and ever-present realities. God has a particular Providence for those he chooses and calls. Therefore he is a particular meeting point in that most interesting form of ecumenism between Catholics and Evangelicals. He rejoiced in the free gift of grace, yet he maintained a dramatic sense of sin, never morose always a call to loving repentance.
At the same time he cherished the heritage of those distinctive traditions of High Anglicanism, an attentive regard for patristic scholarship, a love of symbol and ceremony. His awareness of the process of development from the earliest Christian times checked any lapse into hollow ritualism.
His reverence for religious experience checked the tendency towards academic aridity. Even his "Englishness" rose above the limitations of one culture, as is evident in his love for Ireland, forever reciprocated by the Irish devotion to his prayer and prose. Moreover, his knowledge of Eastern Christian traditions freed him from identifying the Faith only with Western Europe.
However, Newman's abiding message for all Christians today is a lesson we need to take to heart in lives beset with distractions and causes and projects. Everything in this world must be seen in the light of eternity. In the end, what matters is eternal salvation. Indeed it is only this eternal destiny which gives a profound significance to all that we think or say or do.
The "Kindly Light" that led him forward guides us still. It is the one "Light of the world", Jesus Christ, who is both our guide and destiny. May John Henry Newman be mindful of us as we follow that light:
"... O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone."