October 9: Saint John Henry Newman (England and Wales)

Memorial; Liturgical color: White


<<<      As mellow as a breeze, as elegant as a swan, he walked alone the path to Rome      >>>

Pope Benedict XVI, a professional theologian, did not typically perform beatification ceremonies, instead entrusting them to his Cardinals. But such was Benedict’s immense respect for Cardinal John Henry Newman’s life and thought that the Pope not only personally celebrated Newman’s beatification Mass but even traveled to England, Newman’s homeland, to do so in September 2010.

Cardinal Newman is known to most American Catholics as the namesake of the Newman Centers, which are found on the campuses of many secular universities in the United States. Yet Newman’s profile casts a much broader shadow than these university centers alone. John Henry Newman was a man of vast learning culled from a life of prodigious reading. He was a one-man library who mastered both Greek and Latin, had a comprehensive knowledge of Scripture, and was conversant with the theological nuances of every great theologian of the first five centuries of the Church. In addition, Newman elucidated complex theological material in a prose so elegant that the words of his many essays and books seem to glide across the page.

It was precisely in his writing where Newman’s gifts sparkled. He had that elusive gift called style. Newman’s swan-like gracefulness can be favorably compared with any other man or woman who has ever put pen to paper in the English language. Newman’s ability to express lyrically and precisely his every thought would have counted for little if he had had nothing to say. But, of course, Newman did have something to say. He had much to say, in fact.

The silken threads of Newman’s words weave like a loom. His intricate sentences thread over and under and around each other, creating a taut and beautiful garment of masterful theology, original insight, and deep historical awareness. When a foe pulled at this or that thread of his theological fabric, Newman would unsheath his pen from its inkwell and wield it like a rapier to slice into shreds his opponent’s arguments, but never his character. Newman did not make personal attacks. Newman’s exquisite works make for compelling reading, provided the reader concurs. If not, Newman was, and is, a gigantic problem who must be confronted.

John Henry Newman was a convert to Catholicism. He was raised as an Anglican and was somewhat evangelical in his youthful love of the Lord Jesus. As his head sunk deeper and deeper into books in adulthood, however, he concluded that to be immersed in history was to cease to be a Protestant. His conversion to Catholicism shook the English academic world and led to decades of adversarial letters, books, and essays arguing disputed theological points between Newman and his colleagues. But Newman’s ability to express his ideas on the page was so superior, his arguments so unassailable, and the personal cost he paid for converting so agonizing, that the totality of his witness ultimately carried the day.

Yet Newman was more than just a brain in a jar. His bravery in converting to Catholicism manifested steely resolve and deep virtue not otherwise apparent in his genteel and sensitive personality. His conversion cost him almost everything—status, friendship, income, prestige, academic positions—and on and on. Yet his example emboldened numerous others in subsequent decades to walk the same path to Rome which Newman had first trod alone. A whole generation of English academic converts to Catholicism trace their theological lineage to Cardinal Newman.

In the last few years of his life, Newman lived like a monk without a desert. Though he was never ordained a Bishop, Father Newman was named a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. It was a wreath of laurel crowning a great man’s quiet holiness, brave perseverance, immense erudition, and unequalled polish in composing from within the most dramatic work he ever authored—the story of his own holy life.

Saint John Henry Newman, from your place in heaven, we ask that your virtues of serenity amid controversy, of erudition amid confusion, and of steadfastness amid attacks provide a holy example to all Christians to persevere in seeking the truth. Amen.

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