Newman on St Paul

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Sr. Mary-Birgit Dechant FSO

What better way in which to begin than with Newman’s own words, taken from one of his homilies on St Paul, and to make them my own:

Most unworthy of him, I know, is the best that I can say; and even that best I cannot duly exhibit in the space of time allowed me on an occasion such as this, but what is said out of devotion to him, and for the divine glory, will, I trust, have its use, defective though it be.” (SVO 94)

The Church is celebrating a Year of St Paul, and it seems that in this year, John Henry Newman will be beatified. This seems only right for Newman, whenever he speaks of ‘the apostle’, he, like St Augustine long before him, has St Paul in mind. Pope Benedict XVI has invited the Church to concentrate on St Paul, so that we become inspired by his life and find in his words a direction for our lives as Christians today. So let us look at St Paul with Newman’s eyes and learn from him to appreciate the Apostle of the Gentiles.

Newman had a great spiritual affinity to Paul. Malachy Carroll says in his book The Mind and Heart of St Paul. A Newman Anthology on Saint Paul (St Paul Publications, London 1959): “It is significant how often, and in what varied contexts, Newman turns to Saint Paul, and how his style takes on a new brilliance when he does so. … We can scarcely explain this fusing of two minds across the gulf of nineteen centuries otherwise than in the terms of an immediate spiritual affinity between the two men.” (Carroll, X)

Newman published three homilies on St Paul – one in his Anglican days and two as a Catholic. Moreover, he quotes St Paul on numerous occasions: in the Development of Christian Doctrine, in the Grammar of Assent, in the Historical Sketches, in his letters, and most of all in his sermons; for example he mentions Paul 170 times alone in the first four Volumes of his Parochial and Plain Sermons. Newman had truly made Paul’s spirit his own.

In this short talk I can only concentrate on two characteristics of St Paul upon which Newman dwells in his sermons – his conversion and his zeal for souls, or with Newman’s own words ‘his sympathy’. Reading Newman’s words about St Paul, we also discover something of Newman’s own gift of sympathy and his zeal for souls.

The conversion of St Paul

In the second volume of Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons we find a sermon entitled: The Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. His Conversion viewed in reference to His Office. Newman helps us to understand why of all people Paul was chosen to be God’s instrument to ‘convert the world‘ (PPS II, 97). “To show His power, He [God] put forth His hand into the very midst of the persecutors of His Son, and seized upon the most strenuous among them.” (II, 97) Newman explains that we are all sinners before God whatever our background. The other apostles were also sinners, but because Paul had persecuted the faith, he considered himself as the least of the Apostles, or in his own words “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim 1:16). Or in Newman’s words: “in the history of sin and its most gracious forgiveness, he [Paul] exemplifies far more than his brother Apostles his own Gospel, that we are all guilty before God, and can be saved only by His free bounty.” (II, 99)

But Newman goes a step further. It is not only the experience of his sinfulness which makes him apt for his future mission, but that he underwent a conversion of mind. “Though he had never been polluted with Heathen immorality and profaneness, he had entertained views and sentiments very far from Christian, and he experienced a conversion to which the other Apostles (as far as we know) were strangers.” (II, 99) Newman is aware, that it is not easy to understand the religious views of people who have been brought up in a religious system different from our own. Because Paul had to undergo a radical change of mind, “it imparted to him a practical wisdom how to apply them to the conversion of others.” (II,101). It helped him to know “the hearts of men“. Newman even goes so far as to call Paul ‘an earthly Paraclete, the comforter, help and guide of his brethren.” (II,101).

However, because Newman is careful, he continues to show Paul’s spiritual cast of mind before his conversion: Newman does not want others to conclude, that they can continue to sin because they might then receive greater mercy. Paul had always been zealous for God, he had always striven to live up to His commands. Doubtless, he had sinned grievously by persecuting the Christians, but he obtained mercy because he had acted in ignorance (cf. 1 Tim 1,13). Paul, Cardinal Newman says, “kept a clear conscience, and habitually obeyed God according to his knowledge.” (II, 103) As he did not have full knowledge of the Christian truth, his conscience told him to do partly what was wrong and partly what was right. But because Paul was striving to be obedient, he was able to obey Christ when he appeared to him before the gates of Damascus. This is the great difference between Paul’s sin and the sin of those who are too proud to convert, be they Jews or Gentiles. Pride hardens the heart and makes us incapable of receiving God’s forgiveness. “The Holy Spirit is quenched by open transgressions of conscience and by contempt of His authority.” (II,105) Paul was not guilty of such sin, therefore God could lead him on. God can also lead on all those who have the same inner disposition as Paul. “God leads them on to the light, in spite of their errors in faith, if they continue strictly to obey what they believe to be His will.” (II,105f.) Although Paul’s conversion seemed so sudden and miraculous, it is an example for us all. Newman’s conversion was not sudden, but gradual, we can see his inner disposition which led him to that day in the last sentences of his homily: “Who has not felt a fear lest he be wandering from the true doctrine of Christ? Let him cherish and obey the holy light of conscience with him, as Saul did; … and the God who had mercy even on the persecutor of His saints, will assuredly shed His grace upon him, and bring him into the truth as it is in Jesus.” (II, 106)

When we read the letters of St Paul, we might be surprised about different features of St Paul’s character. Newman describes himself how conversion is simply the bringing into harmony the various aspects of a person’s character which might seem contradictory but come into harmony in Christ. In the case of St. Paul his zeal and his gentleness for example, normally virtues that may cause friction, if found in one and the same person, come to a fruitful union, fruit of his striving for “being sanctified wholly” (cf. US, 47).

Very Pauline, in that context, is the importance of every day and hour of a Christian life in its bearing on his eternal destiny (OUS 27), we all have to use the time to let Christ grow in us. We have to imitate him, so he will come to take over in us.

Newman points out how this growth occurs. We cannot keep from forming habits of one kind or another. Each of our acts, that spring from our thoughts, influences the rest of our activities, gives character to the mind, narrows the free will in the direction of good or evil, till it soon converges in all its powers and principles to some fixed point in the unbounded horizon before it. (cf. US 53). Conversion is principally a change of mind.

Paul’s Sympathy

Newman preached two homilies on St Paul in the University Church in Dublin in 1857. They are both published in the Volume Sermons preached on Various Occasions. One cannot help but admire the beauty of his words and the inner understanding with which he mentally draws the picture of the person Paul and his special qualities.

Some of us might have the impression that Paul was a kind of spiritual superman, for whom nothing was too much, who had no problems when enduring suffering, who was strongly determined and seemed almost harsh when preaching of the gospel of Christ and dealing with the first Christian communities. But Newman draws another picture, emphasizing his humanity and his ability to empathize with other people. Just because Paul is aware, that he is a man and not a sort of a superman by grace, he is open for God and open for those around him, “In him, his human nature, his human affections, his human gifts, were possessed and glorified by a new and heavenly life; they remained; … in his humility he calls them his infirmity. He was not stripped of nature, but clothed with grace and the power of Christ, and therefore he glories in his infirmity.” (SVO, 95)

St Paul never lost the awareness of his own frailty, and just because of his knowledge of being a sinner, he was able to sympathize with others. “He knew himself to be possessed of a nature, he was conscious of possessing a nature, which was capable of running into all the multiplicity of emotions, of devices, of purposes, and of sins, into which it had actually run in the wide world and in the multitude of men; and in that sense he bore the sins of all men, and associated himself with them, and spoke of them and himself as one.” (SVO, 96) This awareness that he was not better than others, enabled him to sympathize with their frailties and made him a true lover of souls.

He not only loved his own people, though he did suffer to a great degree over their not accepting the faith, he also prayed for those of a pagan background: “He had pleasure in thinking that all men were brethren.” (SVO, 99) He knew that all souls are longing for redemption and he felt with them. He sympathized with them all, wherever and whatever they were; and he felt it to be one special mercy, conveyed to them in the Gospel, that the unity of human nature was restored in Jesus Christ. (cf. SVO, 117) Newman explains why Paul became the Teacher of Nations: “To him specially was given to preach to the world, who knew the world; he subdued the heart, who understood the heart. It was his sympathy that was his means of influence; it was his affectionateness which was his title and instrument of empire.” (SVO, 103)

Doesn’t that remind us of what people said about Newman’s preaching? That he enabled them to understand themselves, their longings and feelings, their triumphs and their failures?

It is the habit, then, of his great Apostle to have such full consciousness that he is a man, and such love of others as his kinsmen, that in his own inward conception, and in the tenor of his daily thoughts, he almost loses sight of his gifts and privileges, his station and dignity, except he is called by duty to remember them, and he is to himself merely a frail man speaking to frail men, and he is tender towards the weak from a sense of his own weakness.” (SVO, 109)

Because Paul did not feel superior to his brothers, he was able to love them wholeheartedly and others were inspired with great love towards him. Not only did St Paul demonstrate his sympathy for those around him, but people felt sympathetically drawn to him, which in his case is nothing but the attraction of holiness, the influence of his being an image of God, imago Dei. (US, 92-94). They felt sympathy for a Christian like St. Paul, because they experienced, that in his virtuous living, the different traits of his character complemented each other. Thus they knew that he could be trusted, and taken as a guide to Christ and eternal life. Newman stresses the fact that the influence of a holy man who strives to follow Christ is incomparably more effective than even the effect of reading the Bible.

The many graces which he had received, mystical graces, did not draw him away from his brothers and sisters and it did not alienate him from his human affections. “He who had rest and peace in the love of Christ, was not satisfied without the love of man; he whose supreme reward was the approbation of God, looked out for the approval of his brethren. … He loved his brethren, not only ‘for Jesus’ sake,’ to use his own expression, but for their own sake also. He lived in them; he felt with them and for them; he was anxious about them; … His mind was like some instrument of music, harp or viol, the strings of which vibrate, though untouched, by the notes which other instruments give forth, and he was ever, according to his own precepts, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that wept’; and thus he was the least magisterial of all teachers, and the gentlest and most amiable of all rulers.” (SVO, 114)

Even when he thinks of heaven, he associates the joys of heaven with the presence of his converts. “For what is our hope or joy of crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thess 2,19f.) So, too, he mentions his friends and co-operators at the end of his letters, because they were very dear to his heart. (cf. SVO, 115)

Newman describes Paul saying: “He … is … the special friend and intimate of human nature. He who reveals to us the mystery of God’s Sovereign Decrees, manifests at the same time the tenderest interest in the souls of individuals.” (SVO, 116)

Newman concludes his second sermon on St Paul with a most tender reference to his Founder, St Philip, who had also had a great love for St Paul. Newman recognizes in St Philip similar gifts to St Paul: both aimed at forming the character of those entrusted to them and improving their hearts, and they drew souls to them by their interior beauty and by their love for their fellow Christians. (SVO, 120).

Can we then not also assume that Newman found in St Paul, as well as in St Philip, his own ideals of gentleness, of kindness, of zeal for souls, of inner understanding of the human nature? Newman ends his sermon entitled ‘St Paul’s Characteristic Gift’ with the following prayer: “May we all of us, my Brethren, in our respective callings and stations, be partakers of this same gift, a gift which is especially needful in this age.” (SVO, 120)

Newman showed his love for souls in many ways. His life is a living example as was St Paul’s, and his prayers follow us still. In this Year of St Paul may we do what Newman did in his life, to seek the prayers of St Paul and to grow in zeal for souls. The Holy Father wants to help us through this special year to grow in our missionary spirit. May we grow in ‘sympathy’ (in the Newmanian sense) for our brothers and sisters after Newman’s and Paul’s example and help each other on our way to God.

Cardinal Newman must surely be happy that his chapel here at Littlemore has been designated as a place where pilgrims can gain the plenary indulgence in the Year of St Paul. There will be various opportunities when you can do this – once a month at Vespers on Sunday, once a month at our Friday morning Mass and once a month during a Holy Hour in our chapel. We hope that many of you will make use of this favour. Let me conclude with Newman’s own words:

May this great Saint, this man of large mind, of various sympathies, of affectionate heart, have a kind thought for everyone of us here according to our respective needs! He has carried his human thoughts and feelings with him to his throne above; and, though he sees the Infinite and Eternal Presence, he still remembers well that troublous, restless ocean below, of hopes and fears, of impulses and aspirations, of efforts and failures, which is now what it was when he was here. Let us beg him to intercede of us with the Majesty on high, that we too may have some portion of that tenderness, compassion, mutual affection, love of brotherhood, abhorrence of strife and division, in which he excelled.” (SVO 104 f.)