Sr. Kathleen Dietz, FSO
“Such were the thoughts concerning the ‘Blessed Vision of Peace,’ of one whose long-continued petition had been that the Most Merciful would not despise the work of His own Hands, nor leave him to himself;-while yet his eyes were dim, and his breast laden, and he could but employ Reason in the things of Faith” (Dev., 445).
It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has been rocked with scandals over the past several years. Nor is it a secret that the media has enjoyed a heyday of scandal-mongering and Pope-bashing. Nonetheless, a recent New York Times – Time Magazine poll showed that “88% of Catholics– practicing and non-practicing– report that the scandal has had no effect on their dealings with priests. 82% say it will not affect their Mass attendance, 79% say it will have no effect on donations, and 87% say that it will have no effect on their children’s involvement in Church activities. … 52% of the general population says that the Vatican’s handling of the scandal has had no effect on their feelings towards the Church…” (www.CatholicCulture.org, May 5, 2010).
Furthermore, in February of this year, the National Council of Churches reported that the Catholic Church in this country has grown 1.49% in the last year – to 68 million members (www. Washingtontimes.com, February 12, 2010, Just in: Latest church growth statistics). In other words, according to the maxim Newman adopted from Scott, “growth the only evidence of life”, the Church is alive!
In fact, each year thousands throughout the world – indeed thousands in this country alone – are received into the Catholic Church, “the one true fold of Christ”, as Newman called her, at the Easter Vigil.
I might add that the priesthood is also alive – very much so. I had the very great privilege of being at both the Vigil and the Mass with the Pope on St. Peter’s Square for the closing of the Year of the Priest. I wish that all priests could have been present. It was truly inspiring. The attention with which not only the priests, but the bishops as well, listened to the Holy Father as he answered questions about living the priesthood today was really moving. 17,000 priests concelebrated Mass with the Pope under the broiling hot sun. They were there because they love the priesthood, they love the Pope, they love the Church.
Newman loved the Church. No one can come close to understanding him without knowing this fact. Newman loved the Church. Yes, his works can be studied under a hundred different aspects, his life can be psycho-analyzed, he and his works can be compared and contrasted with the likes of Gadamer, St. Thomas More, Locke, and so on, but neither can be truly understood without first accepting the foundational fact that Newman loved the Church.
We would like to take a closer look at what this love for the Church meant for Newman in his life. We will not dwell so much on his works now, but draw rather on his Letters and Diaries in order to get a more personal glimpse into our subject. We will, in fact, quote extensively from them because Newman always speaks best for himself.
II. Newman’s Love for the Church before his Conversion
John Henry Newman grew up, the eldest of 6 children, in a moderate Anglican family in which he learned “to take great delight in reading the Bible” (J.H. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua [Apo.], Ian Ker, ed. London: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 13). He knew his catechism perfectly, he says in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, but had no religious convictions until he was fifteen (Apo., 13).
“When I was fifteen,” Newman was to write nearly 50 years later in his Apologia, “in the autumn of 1816, a great change of thought took place in me and I fell under the influence of a definite creed … (Apo., 25). This was what Newman later called his “first conversion”.
This conversion was a radical conversion of heart to objective truth, what Newman called dogma. He received into his intellect “impressions of dogma” which remained with him for the rest of his life (Apo., 25). Newman was not referring to any specific dogma, but to dogma in general, that is, to a principle of objective truth independent of our thoughts and feelings, independent of us, to the dogmatic principle. This principle was imbedded in Newman and informed his thinking and his life, as well as his understanding of the Church.
Newman had been elected a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1822 and had thus joined ranks with the likes of Edward Hawkins, Richard Whately and John Keble, who were later also joined by Richard Hurrell Froude and Edward Bouverie Pusey. He described the members of that prestigious common room as being “neither high Church nor low Church, but…a new school,…which was characterized by its spirit of moderation and comprehension…” (AW, p. 73). At the time of his “first Conversion” Newman had been given books to read which were Calvinist in tone and through them he had imbibed a Calvinist way of thinking which he gave up gradually under the influence of other members of the Oriel Common Room and through his pastoral experience as a curate at St. Clement’s, where he served as deacon.
It was especially through the members of the Oriel Common Room that Newman first began to think and learn about the Church as such. In his association with them, as well as through his reading of such books as Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion (Cf. Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature, The Works of Bishop Butler, Vol. II. London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd., 1900.), Newman began to develop his understanding of the Church as a visible oracle of truth, independent of the State, with its own rights, prerogatives and powers. He learned the importance of apostolic succession and of the historical character of Revelation, and received an understanding of tradition.
These, coupled with the dogmatic principle which was the lasting legacy of his first conversion, served to root in Newman an idea of the Church, and I think it is safe to say that from then on Newman’s wrestlings with his religious opinions, as he called them, had always to do with his understanding of the Church. When reading the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, one is amazed at the openness and simplicity of Newman during those formative years prior to the Oxford Movement. The words he wrote in his diary in 1824 could serve as a kind of motto for those years and indeed for the entire time prior to his conversion. “I think,” he wrote, “I really desire the truth, and would embrace it, wherever I found it” (AW, p. 78).
It wasn’t until Newman came into contact with the Fathers of the Church, however, that we can begin to speak of his love for the Church, though his knowledge of her was still incomplete.
Newman had finished writing his Arians of the Fourth Century in July 1832, and in the course of its writing he had come to love and venerate the Church of the Fathers. He “saw the ruling hand of providence behind the champions of the church” such as Sts. Athanasius and Ambrose, Basil and Gregory (P. Misner, Papacy and Development: Newman and the Primacy of the Pope. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976, p. 51). He compared their Church to the Established Church in England:
With the Establishment (by which Newman means the established Church of England, the Anglican Church) …divided and threatened, thus ignorant of its true strength, I compared that fresh vigorous Power of which I was reading in the first centuries. In her triumphant zeal on behalf of that Primeval Mystery, to which I had had so great a devotion from my youth, I recognized the movement of my Spiritual Mother. … I felt affection for my own Church, but not tenderness … As to leaving her, the thought never crossed my imagination; still I ever kept before me that there was something greater than the Established Church, and that that was the Church Catholic and Apostolic, set up from the beginning, of which she was but the local presence and the organ. She was nothing, unless she was this (Apo., 47).
You see, Newman came to know and love the Church through his work with the Fathers, but he could not find that Church which he had come to know and love in the Church of England. There were similarities between the two, certainly, as two buildings have similarities, for example, but there were also great differences. As time went on, the over-riding question for Newman came to be: where is the Church of the Fathers, the Church established by Christ, to be found in 19th century England.
In the meantime, Newman had been ordained priest in the Church of England and served in that capacity not only in his tutoring and writing, but also as Vicar of the University Church of Saint Mary The Virgin, where his sermons became the moral fiber of the ground-swell in the Anglican Church which came to be known as the Oxford Movement. He quickly became the leader in the Oxford Movement, with his writings aiming at shaking up the status quo in the Church of England and drawing that body back to her catholic roots and principles. This he did, not as a rebel, but as one who sought the truth in all things and as one who knew obedience to church authority to be the hallmark of doing God’s will. So insistent was he on this principle, which he learned from the Fathers of the Church, that when his own bishop publicly spoke ever so lightly against the Tracts of the Times, he resolved to withdraw them, writing to his friend Pusey:
Nothing can stop the course of things, but our acting against God’s Will. … It is very well for people at a distance, looking at me, to say (as they will) I am betraying a cause and unsettling people. My good fellows, you make me the head of a party – that is your external view – but I know what I am, I am a clergyman under the Bishop of Oxford and anything more is accidental (LD VI, 307-308).
All the while the question – his question – was becoming more and more urgent – where is the Church of the Fathers, the Church established by Christ?
Put yourself in Newman’s place for a moment: You are one of the best known men in England. Your writings and your preaching have influenced countless people and you have defended the Church of England while seeking her reform, but she has not defended you. You really desire the truth and you are beginning to think the truth is in the Roman Catholic Church. You fight against this and even leave off writing about the controversies of the day, only to be confronted with the question again while reading the Fathers of the Church.
We will not concern ourselves with the details of how Newman found the answer to this urgent question, but we will remark that Newman eventually moved to Littlemore, a small hamlet just outside of Oxford where he served as Vicar because it was attached to St. Mary The Virgin. There he devoted several years to seeking God’s will concerning the answer to his question of the Church. Those years were spent in prayer, study and fasting in an effort to open his heart and mind to the truth and to God’s will.
Now we have arrived at the time when Newman has found the truth; he has found the Church of the Fathers in the Roman Catholic Church. He is writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and he sees his way clear. All that remains is for him to take the step. At this time, shortly before his conversion, we find him writing to his sister, Jemima:
My dear Jemima,
I have just received your very painful letter, and wish I saw any way of making things easier to you or to myself.
As to my convictions, I can but say what I have told you already, that I cannot at all make out why I should determine on moving except as thinking I should offend God by not doing so. I cannot make out what I am at, except on this supposition. At my time of life men love ease – I love ease myself. I am giving up a maintenance (his Oriel Fellowship), involving no duties, and adequate to all my wants; what in the world am I doing this for, (I ask myself this) except that I think I am called to do so? I am making a large income by my Sermons, I am, to say the very least, risking this – the chance is that my Sermons will have no further sale at all. I have a good name with many – I am deliberately sacrificing it. I have a bad name with more – I am fulfilling all their worst wishes and giving them their most coveted triumph – I am distressing all I love, unsettling all I have instructed or aided – I am going to those whom I do not know and of whom I expect very little – I am making myself an outcast, and that at my age – Oh what can it be but a sern necessity which causes this.
Pity me, my dear Jemima – what have I done thus to be deserted, thus to be left to take a wrong course, if it be wrong. I began by defending my own Church with all my might when others would not defend her. I went through obloquy in defending her. I in a fair measure succeed – at the very tie of this success, before any reverse, in the course of my reading, it breaks upon me that I am in a schismatical Church. I oppose myself to the notion – I write against it – Year after year I write against it – I do my utmost to keep others in the Church – From the time my doubts come upon me, I begin to live more strictly and really from that time to this, I have done more towards my inward improvement, as far as I can judge, than in any time of my life. Of course, I have all through had many imperfections, and might have done every single thing I have done, much better than I have done it – Make all deductions on this score – still after all, may I not humbly trust that I have not so acted as to forfeit God’s gracious guidance? And how is it that I have improved in other points, if in respect of this most momentous matter I am so fearfully blinded?
Suppose I were suddenly dying – one may deceive oneself as to what one should do – but I think I should directly send for a Priest – Is not this a test of one’s state of mind? Ought I to live where I could not bear to die? Again, I assure you it makes me quite uncomfortable travelling, lest some accident should cut me off in my present state. Is this a right frame of mind to be in? Have I lived so many years, have I made such high professions, have I preached to others so peremptorily, to be myself now in fear of death? What is the difference between me and a poor profligate? We both feel we have a work to do which is undone.
Why should I distress you kind heart with my miseries? Yet you must know them to avoid the greater misery of looking at me externally, and wondering and grieving over what seems incomprehensible. Shall I add, that, distressing as is my state, it has not once come upon me to say, ‘O that I had never begun to read theology!’ ‘O that I had never meddled in ecclesiastical matters!’ ‘O that I had never written the Tracts! Etc.’ …
My wish has been, as I have said above, to wait seven years, that is, till the summer of 1846 – but I cannot determine to do so. I cannot promise myself beyond next Christmas – My resolution to move has grown so much stronger lately, I cannot answer for my state of mind. Meanwhile may I not, may not you and all of us, humbly take comfort in the thought that so many persons are considerately praying for me? … May not one hope and believe, though one does not see it, that God’s hand is in the deed, if a deed there is to be, that He has a purpose, and will bring it to good, and will show us that it is good in His own time? (LD X, 595-596, 597 ).
Newman’s agony of tearing himself away from all he loved continued until his entrance into the Roman Catholic Church on October 9, 1845. Just a couple of months before his reception, he wrote to a friend explaining why he would enter the Catholic Church:
My conviction has nothing whatever to do with the events of the day. It is founded on my study of early Church history. I think the Church of Rome in every respect the continuation of the early Church. I think she is the early Church in these times, and the early Church is she in these times. They differ in doctrine and discipline as child and grown man differ, not otherwise. I do not see any medium between disowning Christianity, and taking the Church of Rome (LD X, 729, Letter to Richard Westmacott, July 11, 1845).
So his question had been answered.
III. The Joy of Being Catholic
At once upon being received into the “one true fold of Christ”, as Newman called it, Newman’s agony turned to a deep joy which he couldn’t help sharing with others. In a letter to the Marquise de Salvo, Newman denied the inevitable rumors that he already regretted becoming a Catholic:
… You will see from the letter which has already gone all I have to say – and how idle the report is that I repent of having joined the Catholic Church. This is said of every one in turn – and in every case which I am acquainted with most falsely – There is but one feeling of joy and happiness among those persons with whom I am acquainted who have become Catholics – and as to finding things we did not expect in the Church, I really do not know what is meant by ‘finding’. I inquired into the system of religion I was joining before I submitted to it. Many things indeed I have found – extreme kindness and unsuspicious cordiality far beyond my deserts – and great excellence of life and character among a circle of persons with whom I was hitherto unacquainted: [sic]
I earnestly exhort you to join the Catholic Church. It is necessary for your salvation, considering your present state of mind. … 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 – and you will have the strength of the whole Church of all saints who ever lived. You will be one of a body who have gone through far more than any of us are called to undergo – and their prayers and their sanctity will operate in you, and raise you above yourself. I am not speaking necessarily of sensible comfort, but of real power which will be yours in God’s presence (LD XI, 71).
To his friend, Maria Giberne, he wrote to express his joy at her reception into the Catholic Church:
This morning’s news from you was indeed a joyful surprise. … And now, My dear Miss G. that you have the power, pray begin your intercessions very earnestly (though I need not say it) for those dear friends of mine, or ours, who are still held back…. You have all the Saints of heaven to add [aid] you now, and especially that first and most glorious of Saints whose name you bear (LD XI, 74).
Then in February another letter to the Marquise de Salvo: “Madam, Your letter announcing your conversion gave me the most heartfelt satisfaction and I thank God for it … You have now found peace” (LD XI, 117).
After Newman had settled into being a Catholic, had studied a short time in Rome, had been ordained a Roman Catholic priest and had founded the first Oratories in England, he still had not lost his deep abiding joy at being Catholic and his great desire to bring others into the home which he had found. His letter to Mrs. William Froude written on June 16, 1848 reveals this:
I was thinking of you this morning, when I said Mass – Oh that you were safe in the True Fold! – I think you will be one day. You will then have the blessedness of seeing God face to face. You will have the blessedness of finding, when you enter a Church, a Treasure Unutterable – the Presence of the Eternal Word Incarnate – the Wisdom of the Father, who, even when He had done His work, would not leave us, but rejoices still to humble Himself by abiding in mean places on earth for our sakes, while He reigns not the less on the right hand of God. To know too that you are in the Communion of Saints – to know that you have cast your lot among all those Blessed Servants of God who are the choice fruit of His Passion – that you have their intercessions on high – that you may address them – and above all the Glorious Mother of God, what thoughts can be greater than these? And to feel yourself surrounded by all holy arms and defences – with the sacraments week by week, with the Priest’s benediction, with crucifixes and rosaries which have been blessed with holy water, with places or with acts to which Indulgences have been attached, and the ‘whole armour of God’ – to know that when you die, you will not be forgotten, that you will be sent out of the world with the holy unction upon you, and will be followed with masses and prayers; – to know in short that the Atonement of Christ is not a thing at a distance, or like the sun standing over against us and separated off from us, but that we are surrounded by an atmosphere and are in a medium, through which his warmth and light flow in upon us on every side, what can one ask, what can one desire, more than this? (LD XI, 224).
Indeed, what can one desire more than this? I was going to continue with examples of Newman’s love for the Church spanning his long life, but this letter says everything. Yes, we know that Newman suffered much at the hands of Church authorities. He was misunderstood, used, thrust aside, suspected. He saw and knew the sinful human face of the Church. He lamented it – he fought against it, both in himself and in others. But he also saw and knew the divine face of the Church. He brought the two together in his celebration of the Mass, in his prayers for countless souls, in his cheerfulness, in his perseverance, in his love for Holy Church. He understood well that the Lord’s promises to the Church, that he would be with her always (Mt 28:20) and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Mt 16:18), have a very practical meaning. Therefore he prayed:
“Let me never for an instant forget that Thou hast established on earth a kingdom of Thy own, that the Church is Thy work, Thy establishment, Thy instrument, that we are under Thy rule, Thy laws and Thy eye – that when the Church speaks, Thou dost speak. Let not familiarity with this wonderful truth lead me to be insensible to it – let not the weakness of Thy human representatives lead me to forget that it is Thou who dost speak and act through them” (Meditations and Devotions of the late Cardinal Newman, Christian Classics Inc., Westminster, Md., 1975, 378 – 379).
“Such were the thoughts concerning the ‘Blessed Vision of Peace…'” (Dev., 445). With these words Newman began the conclusion of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and with them we conclude our reflections on Newman’s love of the Church – that “Blessed Vision of Peace”. John Henry Newman loved the Church before he really found her and having found her, he never ceased loving her.
Conference at the National Newman Conference 2010,
Newman Association of America, Pittsburgh August 6, 2010