SERMONS PREACHED ON VARIOUS OCCASIONS
John Henry Newman
Reprinted with introduction and notes by Fr James Tolhurst
(Gracewing, 2007, hardback, 398pp, $60.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Likely to be beatified soon, John Henry Newman remains one of the intellectual and spiritual giants of the Catholic Church. He is perhaps the most famous convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and the influence of his thought is such that he has been described by some theologians as the father of Vatican II.
This Sermons Preached on Various Occasions reprint is part of a project by the Birmingham Oratory, of which Newman was a member, to reprint his works, making them widely available again.
As the title suggests, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions is a compilation of sermons and addresses by Newman that were delivered in the period 1850-1873, the bulk of them in the 1850s when the first edition was published, with sermons preached after 1857 being added to later editions of this anthology.
In an era prior to radio and television, listening to sermons was a common activity. Preachers vied with one another with many of them having their works published to satisfy the demands of a devout reading public, particularly in the 19th century which witnessed increasing rates of literacy and frowned upon the reading of secular literature on Sundays.
Unlike modern audiences, with their limited attention spans conditioned by the length between TV ad breaks, a casual word count suggests Newman's sermons each took around 35 minutes to preach, such a length being accepted as normative.
The circumstances surrounding the publication of this volume are of themselves interesting. Having already established a reputation as a preacher whilst an Anglican clergyman, Newman states in his preface that he did not intend to publish sermons upon becoming a Catholic. This volume he saw as an exception, on account of necessity, which he does not detail, but from other sources we can infer that they were financial as Newman was attempting to support a range of Church initiatives at the time.
The first group of sermons were preached in the period 1856-1857 in the University Church of the Catholic University of Ireland, which the Irish hierarchy had asked Newman to establish, a project that was not fully realised.
These sermons were designed primarily for undergraduates. Thus, Sermon I, 'Intellect, the instrument of religious training', expounds the proposition that intellectual knowledge and religion should not be separated. The second sermon follows on logically with Newman exploring the danger of self-sufficiency, that is the belief that one can live his or her life without God.
Perhaps one of the best sermons in the first section is Sermon V, 'Dispositions for faith', in which Newman explores the reality of conscience and argues that as the voice of God in the soul it is proof of God's existence. Given this concept, it is no wonder that many 20th century atheists have rejected the notion of a conscience, with the subsequent dev-astating ethical consequences.
The second section, a compilation of occasional sermons, includes his two-part address, 'Christ Upon the Waters', preached at the installation of Dr Ullathorne (who had worked in Australia as a young priest) as the Bishop of Birmingham when the Catholic hierarchy in England was re-established by Pius IX in 1850, and his famous 'Second Spring' sermon, which celebrates the re-birth of the Catholic Church in England.
Other occasional addresses include funeral panegyrics for two good friends, the first being for Right Rev H. Weedall, president of Oscott College. The second was for James Robert Hope Scott, a fellow Anglican convert and lawyer, who had given Newman considerable legal assistance. Born James R. Hope, he was the grandson of the second Earl of Hopetoun (and thus a distant relative of John Hope, the seventh Earl of Hopetoun, Australia's first Governor General. He added Scott to his surname when he married Sir Walter Scott's grand daughter.
The cadences of Newman's prose reflect those of the 19th century. As works of literature alone, they bear merit. Some scholars have suggested that Newman's musical talents (he was an accomplished violinist) bore fruit in his preaching and writing, and the beauty of the prose seems to validate this suggestion.
Nevertheless, the ideas contained therein, for example the discussions about conscience mentioned above, remain relevant today. Their length makes them ideal to be read as individual pieces for reflection. While some sermons are more theologically demanding than others, these are balanced by ones such as the Philip Neri sermons that are more of a narrative. Indeed, the description of the bonfire of vanities in Florence under the auspices of Savonarola is particularly amusing.
Sermons Preached on Various Occasions provides an excellent exposition of aspects of Catholic belief and practice while at the same time serving as an introduction to the writings and thoughts of John Henry Newman.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based secondary school teacher.