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Newman as a Convert and Counsellor of Converts
Different topics - 9 Oktober 2008

By Fr. Peter Willi, Rome

John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801- 1890) ranks among the most famous converts of the Roman Catholic Church. H. J. Coleridge, S.J. wrote in an obituary: „The process of a true conversion is not often without something of the shadow of the cross upon it, but in the case of the Cardinal it was a veritable birth- pang. It was this that made him in the most true sense the father of many souls – he had passed through all their difficulties beforehand for them.“ [1]

Newman’s influence on converts, from the time of his own conversion until today, cannot be too highly appreciated. His long fight for the truth and the one true Church have made him a wise and sensible counsellor of converts. With his extraordinary awareness of the development of religious processes and a special sense of the movements of the soul and conscience, he was well prepared to accompany the faithful who looked for his guidance before and after their conversion. If someone is wrestling with the question of conversion or is aiming at better understanding and counselling converts, they would do well to seek Newman’s guidance.

Let us first trace the essential steps to Newman’s own conversion.

I. Newman’s Way into the Roman Catholic Church

1. His Striving after Truth and Holiness

The question of conversion gained some relevance for Newman in the year 1839. The decisive starting- point, however, is his so- called first conversion in 1816. This first conversion took place in an evangelical atmosphere, but not with the evangelical pattern of conversion. At that time the young Newman accepted two principles which, in the end, led him into the Church of Rome: the dogmatic principle and the principle of holiness. „When I was fifteen, (in the autumn of 1816), a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.“[2]

Newman came to the conclusion that religion essentially rests on truth, and not on feelings or personal opinions. Various evangelical books and the witness of faith of a pious evangelical teacher saved him from falling into agnosticism, to which he had been drawn by reading some works of Paine, Hume and Voltaire.

The dogmatic principle of religion, of which he remained convinced throughout his life, was complemented by the principle of holiness. „Holiness rather than peace“ and „Growth the only evidence of life“[3] – these sentences kindled in him a thirst for holiness and helped him to overcome the idea that it would be sufficient to lead a virtuous, though not a pious life.[4]

Searching for truth and striving for holiness were for two driving forces in Newman’s life of faith, complementing and conditioning one another. For him, truth was never an abstract doctrine without any relation to real life. Man is touched by truth in his whole existence and is transformed by it to the degree that he recognizes and accepts its binding character. Some notes in his diary, revealing how he struggled for an adequate understanding of baptism, show how much Newman was personally involved in the quest for truth. „I think I really desire the truth, and would embrace it wherever I found it….I really desire the truth.“[5] His way into the Roman Catholic Church must be understood in the context of these very personal words. This way was marked by the questions: What is the Truth? How can I find it? Who proclaims it to me?

In his „Apologia Pro Vita Sua“, Newman gives a detailed account of how he gradually gained access to the fullness of Catholic Truth, listing the persons, friends and teachers, the books and events which led him to the Roman Catholic Church. [6]

Newman knew that man has to strive after holiness in order to find truth. Through original sin, man’s understanding has been weakened and he is spiritually blind. Therefore he finds it difficult to grasp the truth. But he can find it, if he is prepared to adopt the spiritual attitudes of humility and docility, which are „qualities of mind necessary for arriving at the truth in any subject, and in religious matters as well as others.“[7] Truth cannot be found without repentance and conversion, without the effort to overcome sin and guilt, without obedience to God’s will. The following words, taken from a sermon from 1830, are characteristic of his own personal way of searching for the truth, linked with his striving after holiness: „May we ever bear in mind, that the ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov.I,7); that obedience to our conscience, in all things, great and small, is the way to know the Truth; that pride hardens the heart, and sensuality debases it; and that all those who live in pride and sensual indulgence, can no more comprehend the way of the Holy Spirit, or know the voice of Christ, than the devils who believe with a dead faith and tremble!“[8]

In a sermon four years after his conversion, he compares the increase in interior light with the quiet but steady growth of a rivulet becoming a river: „He has poured on us His grace, He has been with us in our perplexities, He has led us on from one truth to another, He has forgiven us our sins, He has satisfied our reason, He has made our faith easy“[9]

2. „From Truth to Truth“ (1816- 1833)

In the course of his first conversion the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Redemption were the first great truths of faith to have a strong impact on the thinking and prayer of the young Newman. He confessed to believe in eternal salvation and eternal damnation. Later in his life he renounced some Calvinistic maxims which he had adopted in his youth, such as the view that the once-only event of conversion and regeneration brings with it the absolute certainty of eternal salvation.

A book by Thomas Newton (Dissertations on the Prophecies 1754/58; 1843, 18th edition), and in it especially the identification of the Pope with the Antichrist, made a lasting impression on him: „My imagination was stained by the effects of this doctrine up to the year of 1843; it had been obliterated from my reason and judgement at an earlier date; but the thought remained upon me as a sort of false conscience.“ [10]

In December 1817 he started his academic education at Trinity College, Oxford. Full of zeal he studied the various scientific disciplines, while whole- heartedly aiming at the realization of the biblical ideal of holiness. His diaries bear witness to this. As a result of overwork, the final examinations (1820) did not bring him the expected High Honours. One year later, however, he was elected Fellow of Oriel College and thus won a renowned position in the University of Oxford. In 1824 he was ordained deacon and in the following year priest in the Church of England. While his earlier years were marked by his striving after personal holiness – „Myself and my Creator“[11] – his commitment to pastoral work gave his spirituality and his striving for holiness an ecclesial dimension. „I have the responsibility of souls on me to the day of my death.“[12] As with Saint Paul, his theological thinking became ever more closely linked to his pastoral work.

During the years 1822-1826 Newman parted completely with evangelicalism. At the same time, during the third decade of his life, he intensively turned his attention to the mystery of the Church. A remark by his brother Francis clearly illustrates this: „To him the Church is everything, to me the Church is nothing.“[13]

With the help of Hawkins, so kind to him in his early Oriel years, Newman came to the insight that Tradition is required to interpret and explain the Bible and that the two sources of Revelation cannot be separated. Walter James drew his attention to the doctrine of Apostolic Succession and Whately taught him that the Church is a God- given and visible body, independent from the state. Bishop Butler’s „Analogy“ brought the meaning of the visible Church and the historical character of revelation home to him and laid the foundations for his future idea of probability and for the analogy between nature and revelation.

In the year 1828 Newman began reading the Fathers of the Church systematically, beginning with Ignatius and Justin. He felt especially drawn to Clement, Origin and Athanasius. The Fathers of the Church became a spiritual source from which he drew with zeal and joy. He speaks again and again about their importance for him, both before and after his conversion. „The Fathers made me a Catholic, and I am not going to kick down the ladder by which I ascended into the Church.“[14] Newman’s first major work, The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833), was a fruit of these studies, demonstrating the need of defining the doctrines contained in the Bible. The Council of Nicea offered one of the earliest and most famous pieces of evidence for this process.

Newman’s friendship with Richard Hurrell Froude had a strong influence on him. Froude opened the way for him to accept the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the veneration of the Blessed Virgin, and, he admitted, he „taught me to look with admiration towards the Church of Rome, and in the same degree to dislike the Reformation.“[15]. After Froude’s death (1836) Newman inherited his Roman Breviary and prayed it thence forward.

Newman’s years in Oxford before the beginning of the Oxford Movement show a steady and continuous growing into the fullness of the Creed, so that C. S. Dessain summed up this period in these words: „By the end of 1832 Newman had recovered in substantial completeness the whole circle of the truths of Revealed Religion.“[16]

This rediscovery did not happen in an erratic, inorganic, or antithetic way. Rather, it resembled a process of continuous growth and maturation. The following words from a sermon in the year 1839 most probably reflect Newman’s personal experience: „God Almighty seems at this time to be mercifully leading numbers on to the full truth, as it is in Jesus (…); He is leading them on, and they do not know it themselves. They are gradually modifying and changing their opinions, while they think they remain stationary. Others, perhaps, see how it is with them: they do not; in due time they will. Such is God’s wonderful way.“[17]

3. The Oxford Movement and the Quest for the True Church (1833- 1841)

In 1833 Newman returned to England from his Mediterranean voyage, which had almost cost him his life because of an insidious illness in Sicily. Profoundly purified by the pain and agony he suffered, he was back on English soil, moved and urged on by an interior certainty that he was called to accomplish a great work in his country. With Pusey, Keble, and others he started the Oxford Movement with the intention of renewing the Church of England, resorting to the Church Fathers and the early Church as a model for all later Christian generations. Starting from dogmatic, ecclesiological and sacramental, as well as from anti-Roman principles, the leaders of the Oxford Movement set out to counteract the liberalism of the day and to instill new life into the Church of England, which was inclined to compromise, and weakened by a bourgeois spirit; always, however, clearly distinguishing the movement from the Roman Catholic Church.

Newman endeavoured to set the Church of England on a firmer theological foundation; developing the theory of the „Via Media“. He thought that the Roman Church had deviated from the Church of the Fathers by innovations and errors; whereas the Protestant Churches had impoverished themselves by rejecting many truths. In the Church of England, however, as the „via media“, the true Catholic Church, had survived, yet was in need of a comprehensive interior renewal.

Newman came ever more under the spell of the Fathers of the Church. Their thoughts penetrated his sermons and the so – called „Tracts“, the pamphlets through which Newman and the other spiritual leaders of the Oxford Movement spread their ideas. The theological confrontation with the Fathers of the Church brought him step by step closer to the Roman Catholic Church, even though he was not aware of it at first. Newman’s influence in Oxford and the whole of England reached its height in 1839.

In 1839 his theory of the „Via Media“ suffered a severe blow for the first time, although just momentarily. Newman studied the conflict between Rome and the Monophysites in the fifth century. He realized that there were three divisions: first, the Monophysites led by Eutyches, then, some Eastern Churches which took up a position between Rome and Eutychianism, but also ended in heresy; and finally, Rome. With true greatness of spirit Newman discerned the parallels to his own day: the Monophysites were represented by the Protestant Churches, the moderate Monophysites by the Anglican Church and the Christians under Pope Leo the Great by the Roman Church. The judgment of the latter had stood the test of time. The „Via media“ of those days proved to be erroneous, would it prove so in his day?

„He who has seen a ghost, cannot be as if he had never seen it. The heavens had opened and closed again. The thought for the moment had been, ‘The Church of Rome will be found right after all;‘ and then it had vanished. My old convictions remained as before.“[18] In the year 1841 this „ghost“ as Newman called it, appeared for the second time. Studying the Arian disputes, he discovered once more a „via media“, which only existed for a limited period. He became more and more aware that in the question of truth there is no middle way, no position of compromise.

More disillusions followed. The publication of „Tract 90“, in which he sought to give a catholic interpretation of the 39 Articles of the Church of England, and thus to prevent Anglicans who were sympathetic with the Roman Catholic Church from converting, met with fierce opposition from the established Church. Newman bowed to the pressure from above. In that Tract he advanced the view, among others, that the Catholic Church was at present realized in the Roman, Greek and Anglican Churches (the branch theory). The text of „Tract 90“ was being discussed widely and either intensively defended or opposed.

Newman was greatly upset and worried when the Church of England agreed to set up a bishopric in Jerusalem, even though there were no members of the Church of England living there. This political move, the plan that a bishop for Jerusalem should be appointed alternatively by England and Lutheran Prussia, was intended to reinforce English influence around the Mediterranean. Newman solemnly protested against this political misuse of religion, against what he deemed to be a move to make the Church of England more Protestant and less Catholic. His trust in the Anglican Church was shaken. Looking back on those days he wrote: „From the end of 1841, I was on my death- bed, as regards my membership with the Anglican Church, though at the time I became aware of it only by degrees.“[19]

4. The Last Struggle

Early in 1842 Newman retired to Littlemore near Oxford with some of his friends. They wanted to come to a clear understanding of the truth through a life of study, prayer and fasting. In September 1843 Newman resigned his ministry at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, feeling that he should not burden the consciences of others with his own state of uncertainty.

During these last years before his conversion Newman was not impatient. He was fully willing to follow the light in an attitude of loving obedience and faith. True to this principle, which he kept throughout his life, in 1843 he retracted earlier anti- Roman charges. Love and an appreciation of Rome had already gained his heart, but he felt as yet unable to take the step of conversion.

At the beginning of 1845, Newman decided to study intensely the persistent question of the true Church and the „additions“ in the teaching of the Roman Church. The result of this enormous spiritual effort is the scholarly treatise, „An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine“. He became firmly convinced that the later doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church were a legitimate development of the teaching already present in the early Church. „As I advanced, my difficulties so cleared away that I ceased to speak of ‘the Roman Catholics,‘ and boldly called them Catholics. before I got to the end, I resolved to be received….“[20] The question of conversion became for Newman one of salvation or damnation. „The simple question is, Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? am I in safety, were I to die to- night? Is it a mortal sin in me, not joining another communion.“[21]

Newman viewed conversion as a calling by God into an unknown country – as that experienced by Abraham.[22] There were many arguments against conversion: the appearance of the Roman Catholic Church in England at that time; the inevitable separation from friends and the fact that he would disappoint many Anglican faithful; the pain he would suffer because of causing perplexity, uncertainty and anxiety among those who were entrusted to his pastoral care; the fact that he had no link with English Catholics and no knowledge about their ways of religious expression; the fear that this might be a deception and that he might later return to the Church of England full of repentance.[23]

Newman’s inner feelings were characterized by despondency, by a certain unwillingness and discontentment, by constant pain [24], by fear of the many changes his conversion would bring and by the awareness that God’s hand lay heavy on him without intermission.[25]

He experienced a severe conflict between his feelings and the call of his conscience. The arguments for and against his conversion involved him in an interior fight, as fierce as it was painful. Already one year before his conversion he had to admit: „And as far as I know myself, my one paramount reason for contemplating a change is my deep, unvarying conviction that our church is in schism, and that my salvation depends on my joining the Church of Rome.“[26]

When he was finally sure that he had found the truth [27] and did not want to let God’s unique call of grace pass unanswered, [28] he asked the Italian Passionist Father Dominic Barberi to receive him into the Roman Catholic Church. It took place on October 9th, 1845.[29]

Pusey, his faithful companion in the Oxford Movement, understood Newman’s conversion in these terms: „Our Church has not known how to employ him. and since this was so, it seemed as if a sharp sword were lying in its scabbard, or hung up in the sanctuary because there was no one to wield it. … He is gone unconscious (as all great instruments of God are) what he himself is. He has gone as a simple act of duty with no view for himself, placing himself entirely in God’s hands. And such are they whom God employs.“[30]

II. Newman as a Counsellor of Converts

1. What is a Conversion?

Newman always spoke with respect about all that he had received in the Church which was his first home. It was completed, enriched, purified and brought to perfection in the Roman Catholic Church. „That Church has added to the simple evangelicism of my first teachers, but it has obscured, diluted, enfeebled, nothing of it – on the contrary, I have found a power, a resource, a comfort, a consolation in our Lord’s divinity and atonement, in His Real Presence, in communion in His Divine and Human Person, which all good Catholics indeed have, but which Evangelical Christians have but faintly.“[31]

Newman acknowledged whatever is true and good in each Christian denomination and in other religions. He had already acquired this positive view during his Anglican days by accepting Justin’s doctrine of the „lógos spermatikós“. The Roman Catholic Church, however, as an „oracle of truth“,[32] preserves „all truth that is elsewhere to be found, and more than all, and nothing but truth.“[33]

Turning to the Roman Catholic Church means on the one hand to rediscover all „dispersed“ truths and to enter into the fulness of truth; but on the other hand it also means leaving behind error and heresy.[34] In the Church of Rome one discovers the great symphony of truth; isolated strains of which are to be found in many religious denominations. This is what makes a heresy: to take a partial truth as being absolute, singling it out and separating it from the whole.

„…The Catholic Creed is for the most part the combination of separate truths which heretics have divided among themselves and err in dividing.“[35] In the quest for truth Newman insists on the acknowledgement of that which unites, and that which separates the various Christian denominations and the different religions, with a spirit of discernment and an attitude of respect, yet without obscuring the truth. Thus a platform is created on which a dialogue can take place .

2. The Starting Point of Conversion and Preparation for It

Conversion is the final stage of a journey, which did not begin with human initiative, but with Christ’s calling. Newman compares it to the call of Abraham; [36] elsewhere he attributes it to the working of the Holy Spirit. [37] What is decisive is its being God’s Will, from which all duties and rights are deduced. On one occasion Newman describes conversion to the Roman Catholic Church using our Lord’s words about leaving one’s home and one’s family, thus seeing it as a particular call addressed to individuals. Such an understanding of conversion is necessary before the would-be convert takes the step of conversion and the Church accepts it.

If, then, conversion originates in God’s Will, ways have to be followed which make the knowledge of God’s will possible also in other instances. According to Newman, the journey, from the initial awareness of the working of God’s grace, which gently urges one on the way of conversion, to the final step of the conversion itself, is a complex and intricate one. Principally it is a journey marked by the reciprocal action of grace and freedom. First, God grants the would-be convert „rays of light“, which to a certain extent attract him to the Roman Catholic Church and may convey to him a first, unexpected, and therefore often unwanted and rationally unaccountable certainty that the Roman Church is the true Church.

„To the surprise of all that know them, often to their own surprise, those who fear the Church, or disown her doctrines, find themselves drawing near to her by some incomprehensible influence year after year, and at length give themselves up to her, and proclaim her sovereignty. Those who never spoke to a Catholic Priest, those who never entered a Catholic Church, those even who have learned their religion from the Protestant Bible, have, in matter of fact, by the overruling Providence of God, been brought through that very reading to recognize the Mother of Saints.“[38]

A person, touched by these first rays of light, but at the same time alarmed, must take recourse in prayer. Newman writes to a person looking for advice: „If you ask Him to teach you the truth, He will do so, slowly perhaps, but surely.“[39]

Besides praying, the would-be convert needs to study the doctrines of the Church in his search for truth.

Newman often talks about this absolutely necessary condition. „Be convinced in your reason that the Catholic Church is a teacher sent to you from God, and it is enough. I do not wish you to join her, till you are. If you are half convinced, pray for a full conviction, and wait till you have it. It is better indeed to come quickly, but better slowly than carelessly….“[40]

Nobody should join the Roman Catholic Church while unable to accept the fullness of her doctrine. Whoever has not reached the personal certainty that the Roman Catholic Church contains the fulness of truth, should remain in his own ecclesial communion. This applied to Newman’s highly appreciated and saintly friend John Keble.[41] Although on the threshold of the Roman Catholic Church, he died with a good conscience, even though, objectively, it was erroneous. Throughout his life he had sincerely and honestly searched for the truth and had lived according to his insight. He accepted practically all of the Catholic doctrines, but never recognized the necessity of unity with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter. Therefore his conscience obliged him to remain in the Anglican Communion.

The beauty of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that someone is drawn to it, are not, for example, reasons sufficient to justify the step of conversion. It is, however, possible for someone to hear the call to become a Roman Catholic, and to gain the certainty that the Roman Church is the true Church, while participating in her liturgy.

On the way to conversion the would-be convert accumulates one argument after another in favour of entering the Catholic Church and accepting her doctrine. It may also happen that, without any initiative on his/her part, the Holy Spirit awakens motives and insights in the future convert which point to conversion. The reasons are cumulative and mutually supportive, urging the free will towards conversion. The will is urged to act not only by reason, but also by conscience. According to Newman, religious processes and decisions necessarily include the action of reason and in no way should they exclude it. On the other hand, such processes and decisions should not be limited to reason alone.

In many cases the way to conversion requires striving after moral renewal. According to Newman’s teaching, sin acts as a burden on the spiritual faculties of man. It weakens the will, hinders man from recognizing and accepting the truth, and confuses his feelings. By means of purification and conversion, man is enabled to recognize the order of Divine Providence, God’s will and His truth, and to put them into practice. His thinking is thus freed from the influence of inordinate passions, his will is healed from division and disruption, his emotions are re-established in harmony, and he acknowledges his conscience more and more as the guiding principle which is enlightened by God, and, if followed, brings about inner unity and harmony.[42]

Conversion not only implies turning away and refraining from sin with contrition and penance, but also practising Christian virtues; among them for example perseverance while patiently advancing on the way of conversion. „You look up, and you see, as it were, a great mountain to be scaled; you say, ‘How can I possibly find a path over these giant obstacles, which I find in the way of my becoming a Catholic? I do not comprehend this doctrine, and I am pained at that; a third seems impossible; I can never be familiar with one practice, I am afraid of another; it is one maze and discomfort to me, and I am led to sink in despair.‘ Say not so, my dear brethren, look up in hope, trust in Him who calls you forward.“[43]

Remembering his own long, personal, interior struggle, Newman encourages converts to wait patiently, to search for the truth honestly and sincerely, and to have deep trust in Divine Providence.

He warns against forcing a person’s way of conversion into conformity with a specific pattern. Every convert needs to be individually accompanied. Newman is aware of the fact that every conversion is different, and therefore also the time and kind of preparation differ, as do the arguments and decisive reasons.

„Some men are converted merely by entering a Catholic Church; others are converted by reading one book; others by one doctrine. They feel the weight of their sins, and they see that that religion must come from God which alone has the means of forgiving them. Or they are touched and overcome by the evident sanctity, beauty and (as I may say) fragrance of the Catholic Religion. Or they long for a guide amid the strife of tongues; and the very doctrine of the Church about faith, which is so hard to many, is conviction to them. Others, again, hear many objections to the Church, and follow out the whole subject far and wide….“[44]

Whoever accompanies a would-be convert is obliged to serve God’s plan for that particular person in an attitude of faith and a spirit of discernment.

Whoever comes into the Church, should come in humility. Newman dismisses the possibility of a reception „ad experimentum“. If someone does not come in an attitude of submission, it is better for that person to wait. None should join the Church to criticize her, but to receive and to listen.

Newman warns, that „the chance of conversion“ might be missed.[45] In his pastoral letters he frequently manifests a certain anxiety that someone may let the day of conversion, as „a day of salvation“, pass by, without having made use of it.[46] Newman does not deny the fact, that man can find salvation outside the Catholic Church, „Saving Grace is given out side the Catholic Church – but not to those who are not in invincible ignorance and in good faith – Many a soul is saved who does not belong to the visible body.“[47]

If, however, God calls someone to leave his communion, and if that person received with the call the grace of insight, then he is obliged to submit to God’s will in obedience and faith. „It is quite true that, when a man is convinced, that he is not a member of the Catholic Church and that the communion of Rome is that Church, he is bound at once to submit himself to it, and to ask for admittance.“[48] No one can flee being chosen for conversion without guilt, if it comes down to it, he may even lose eternal salvation.[49]

3. Objections to Conversion

Newman sees life as lived in the tension between the attractive power of God’s grace and the seductive temptations of Satan. Thus the dramatic fight between light and darkness, between acting according to God’s will or the will of the individual precedes each conversion. Newman therefore speaks of the „suggestion of the enemy who wants to hold you back“[50]; he knows of the „temptations which the evil one ever throws in [the] way“[51] immediately before the convert is to take the decisive step. A conversion may also be hindered by external circumstances. For example, the fact that the convert will cause severe pain to the members of his family. „You say you have to pain relations by your step – alas, that is the trial which all have to go through. … But God will support you under every trial He puts upon you….“[52]

Another obstacle may be the fact that the weak, human element of the Church often obscures the divine dimension, thrusting it into the background. But this argument is never sufficient to prevent a conversion. „I allow, then…the existence of that flood of evil which shocks you in the visible Church; but for me, if it touched my faith mortally in the divinity of Catholicism, it would, by parity of reason, touch my faith in the Being of a Personal God and Moral Governor. The great question to me is, not what evil is left in the church, but what good has energized in it and been practically exercised in it, and has left its mark there for all posterity.“[53]

But obstacles which come from within might be even more oppressing than those from without. Doubts, above all, weaken the will-power required for conversion. Newman distinguishes two kinds of doubt. Intellectual doubts may undermine the belief in the divine origin of the Church. Doubts of this kind may be overcome by continuous study and research, accompanied by prayer and moral conversion. Whoever follows this way faithfully and with perseverance, will reach conviction and certainty of the divine authority of the Church.

While intellectual doubts should be overcome before conversion, there are moral doubts which can only be removed by conversion. Newman writes about converts who are haunted by moral doubts: „They do not reflect that their present difficulties are moral ones, not intellectual; I mean, that it is not that they really doubt whether the conclusion at which they have arrived, that the Catholic Church comes from God, is true; this they do not doubt in their reason at all, but they cannot rule their mind to grasp and keep hold of this truth.“[54] The last step on the way to conversion is not an act of conclusive reasoning that leaves us in a pleasant state of mind, but moreover an act of free will made in faith. This act has the nature of a risk,[55] yet is built on a firm conviction and made possible by God’s grace.[56]

Before the convert takes his last step, he might be harassed by an uncertainty which is scarcely intelligible, and rationally almost inexplicable. The uncertainty can be paralysing and may be accompanied by feelings that make conversion seem almost impossible, beyond human strength. Newman tells the faithful in such a situation that „all their trouble will go, when once they have entered the communion of Saints and the atmosphere of grace and light, and that they will be so full of peace and joy as not to know how to thank God enough, and from the very force of their feelings and the necessity of relieving them, they will set about converting others with a sudden zeal which contrasts strangely with their late vacillation.“[57] As a support for those who have to „clear the last hurdle“ on their way to conversion, one which is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety and perplexity, Newman recommends the example of those who were in similar situations, but then found interior peace in the Catholic Church. „Take the experience of those who have gone before you in the same course; they had many fears that their faith would fail them, before taking the great step, but those fears vanished on their taking it….“[58]

4. The Mission to Guide Converts

When God’s grace calls members of other Christian denominations into the Catholic Church, the Church, too, is given a great responsibility. Inadequate preparation of converts, careless or precipitate reception, dishonest and persuasive proselytism, but also unjustified dissuasion from conversion, are all factors which fail to meet this responsibility.

The instruction of converts demands a profound knowledge of the truth taught in the Catholic Church and the arguments against it. Empathy, patience, firmness and other virtues of spiritual guidance are required, as well as the readiness to smooth the way of the convert through prayer and a mature witness of faith.

Nobody may be exempted from the decision or forced to take it. Newman writes in a pastoral letter, „I say this, in order that you may see why I cannot much as I wish it decide for you. Of course I wish your conversion now; but as to what your duty is, I can only say that in some cases I should agree with a father who urged his son to put off his reception, in another case I should not.“[59]

The would-be convert and the person accompanying him on the way to conversion ought to walk together in the presence of God. They should be ready and open to recognize and to fulfil the will of God, while meeting all the requirements that can possibly be met by man, neither precipitating the „kairos“ of the conversion nor failing to seize it.

As a Catholic, Newman had many painful experiences. Having left his beloved Anglican Church, he was then confronted with different expressions of spiritual immaturity in the Catholic Church. He described the Catholic Church. „I grant that it has not done so much good as it might have done. I grant that in its action, which is human, it is a fair mark for criticism or blame. But what I maintain is, that it has done an incalculable amount of good, that it has done good of a special kind, such as no other historical polity or teaching or worship has done….“[60]

Therefore Newman devoted himself with fervour to the task of renewing the Church interiorly so as to enhance her supernatural and spiritual radiance, which give her the ability and the right to receive converts. „To me conversions were not the first thing, but the edification of Catholics. So much have I fixed upon the latter as my object, that up to this time the world persists in saying that I recommend Protestants not to become Catholics. And, when I have given as my true opinion, that I am afraid to make hasty converts of educated men, lest they should not have counted the cost, & should have difficulties after they have entered the Church, I do but imply the same thing, that the Church must be prepared for converts, as well as converts prepared for the Church.“[61]. Newman objects to an opinion widely held in the Church of his time, that „with Catholics, to make converts, is doing something; and not to make them, is ‘doing nothing.'“[62]

With the vision of a prophet Newman supported a „spiritual ecumenism“, such as that put forth by the Second Vatican Council, which calls for a resolute renewal of the whole people of God.

Newman warns emphatically against the danger of accompanying the converts only up to their conversion, and then leaving them alone during the difficult phase of getting familiar with the Catholic way of life and ways of expressing religion in the Catholic world. This is an offence against charity. „There are those who only wish to convert, and then leave the poor converts to shift for themselves, as far as knowledge of their religion goes. The other end which is so important, is what I call levelling up. If we are to convert souls savingly they must have the due preparation of heart….“[63]

Newman can teach us how to approach our separated Christian brethren in love. A quotation from a letter to John Keble, his spiritual friend and former ally in the Oxford Movement, may serve as an example. „You are always with me a thought of reverence and love – and there is nothing I love better than you…and many others I could name, except Him whom I ought to love best of all and supremely. May He Himself, who is the over abundant compensation for all losses, give me His own Presence – and then I shall want nothing and desiderate nothing – but none but He, can make up for the losses of those old familiar faces which haunt me continually.“[64]

Newman’s concern for the converts is marked by his respect for the state of the conscience of each person and by his readiness to set out with everyone acting as their counsellor. Not shrinking from dogmatic principles, he makes the search for truth the key concern. At the same time he embraces the converts with Christian warmth, cordiality and dignity, which eases and aids their journey into the Church.

He says in one of his Anglican sermons: „…it is as great a fault to act without a call as to refuse to act upon one.“[65] This challenge of Christian life applies to conversion as well, and characterized his commitment for converts.

A last quotation of Newman may illustrate his attitude towards the ecumenical dialogue – complementary to his view of conversion. He pleads for a dialogue without compromise in the question of truth, not obscuring or avoiding existing differences. There should however not be a lack of the virtues of patience, love and the recognition of all the goodness effected by God in many hearts. „I may think, as of course I do, that I am right and those who differ from me are wrong – but it does not mend matters for us to conceal our mutual differences – and nothing is more unmeaning, as well as more untrue, than compromises and comprehensions. Of course unreal, and but verbal, differences do exist between religious men – but such are not the differences which exist between Catholics and their opponents. It would be best, if they did not exist – it is next best to confess them plainly though in charity.“[66]

It is obvious that – through his own journey into the Catholic Church and in his guidance of converts – Newman anticipated the principal guide-lines on ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council in their basic theological statements and their pastoral application.


[1] H. J. Coleridge, A Father of Souls, The Month, 70 (1890), p. 161.

[2] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (= Apo.), London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1888, p. 4.

[3] Thomas Scott, Force of Truth, quoted by Newman in Apo., p. 5.

[4] Cfr. John Henry Newman, Autobiographical Writings (= AW), London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956, p. 169.

[5] AW, p. 202f (emphasis by Newman).

[6] Shortly before his conversion, Newman describes the process of the gradual conquest of Truth in these words: „That there is a truth then; that there is one truth;…that the search for truth is not the gratification of curiosity; that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the mind is below the truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts; that our choice is an awful giving forth of lots of which salvation or rejection is inscribed; that ‘before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith;‘ that ‘he that would be saved must thus think,‘ and not otherwise…; this is the dogmatical principle, which has strength. (John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Westminster, MD: Christian Classics,Inc., 1968, p. 357.

[7] John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (= PPS) in Eight Volumes, Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1966, VIII, p. 113.

[8] PPS I, p. 227.

[9] John Henry Newman, Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (= Mix.), Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1966, p. 223.

[10] Apo., p. 7.

[11] Apo., p. 4.

[12] AW, p. 201

[13] Cf. Francis William Newman, Phases of Faith, quoted by W. Becker, Newman und die Kirche, Newman Studien I, (edited by H. Fries and W. Becker), Nürnberg: Glock und Lutz, 1948, p. 238.

[14] John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching (=Diff.), Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1969, II, p. 24.

[15] Apo., p. 25.

[16] Charles Stephen Dessain, John Henry Newman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 15.

[17] PPS VI, p. 102.

[18] Apo., p. 118.

[19] Apo., p. 147.

[20] Apo., p. 234.

[21] Apo., p. 231 (Emphasis by Newman).

[22] Cf. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (=LD) edited at the Birmingham Oratory by Ian Ker and Thomas Gornall (Vols. I-VI), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978-1984, and Charles Stephen Dessain (Vols XI-XXXI), London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1961-1977, XIII, p. 371.

[23] Cf. Apo., pp. 227-233.

[24] Cf. Apo., p. 228.

[25] Cf. Apo., p. 233.

[26] Apo., p. 229.

[27] Cf. LD XIV, pp. 38f.

[28] Cf. LD XXV, p.353.

[29] The intense inner struggle which preceded his reception forms the background of a sermon in which he extensively treats the question of conversion: „And oh, the blessedness, if we can look back on the time of trial, when friends implored and enemies scoffed, and say: The misery for me, which would have been, had I not followed on, had I hung back, when Christ called! Oh, the utter confusion of mind, the wreck of faith and opinion, the blackness and void, the creary scepticism, the hopelessness, which would have been my lot, the pledge of the outer darkness to come, had I been afraid to follow Him! I have lost friends, I have lost the world, but I have gained Him….“ (Mix., p. 236-237)

[30] H. P. Liddon, Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893, II, p. 461.

[31] LD XXXI, p. 189.

[32] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (=GA), Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1973, p. 115.

[33] GA, p. 189.

[34] During his stay in Rome in the years 1846-1847, Newman visited the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino and wrote in the visitors‘ book: „O Sancti Montis Cassinensis unde Anglia nostra olim saluberrimos Catholicae doctrinae rivos hausit, orate pro nobis jam haeresi in pristinum virgorem expergescentibus“ (LD XII, p. 111, n. 3).

[35] John Henry Newman, Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1888, p. 200.

[36] Cf. LD XIII, p. 371.

[37] Cf. LD XXVII, p. 110.

[38] John Henry Newman, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1968, p. 56.

[39] LD XXV, p. 13.

[40] Mix., p. 233.

[41] Cf. LD XXII, p. 209.

[42] cf. appeal to Anglican faithful, Mix., p. 213.

[43] Mix., p. 213.

[44] Mix., pp. 233f.

[45] Cf. Mix., p. 235.

[46] Cf LD XXVIII, p. 413; LD XXVIII, p. 332.

[47] LD XXVIII, p. 129 emphasis by Newman

[48] LD XXVII, p. 58.

[49] Cf. LD XI, p. 71; XXIII, p. 347.

[50] Mix., p. 232.

[51] Mix., p. 235.

[52] LD XI, p. 71.

[53] LD XXVII, p. 261.

[54] Mix., p. 187.

[55] Cf. LD XII, p. 168; LD XXVIII, p. 332.

[56] „What thanks ought we to render to Almighty God, my dear brethren, that He made us what we are! It is a matter of grace. There are, to be sure, many cogent arguments to lead one to join the Catholic Church, but they do not force the will.“ (Mix., p. 211).

[57] Mix., p. 187.

[58] Mix., p. 232f.

[59] LD XXXI, p. 108.

[60] LD XXVII, p. 283.

[61] AW, p. 258.

[62] AW, p. 258.

[63] LD XXV, p. 3.

[64] LD XX, p. 503.

[65] John Henry Newman, Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day, Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1968, p. 124.

[66] LD XXVI, p. 234.




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