In His Own Words: Newman’s Dream for the Church

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By Isaac Withers

The full texts of many of John Henry Newman’s sermons and speeches remain and we can continue to be guided by Newman’s advice on many of the key questions of morality and spirituality. All of the extracts in this article are taken from his addresses, ‘The Second Spring’ and his ‘Biglietto Speech’.

In these final days leading up to the canonisation of John Henry Newman, as many of us head off to Rome for the celebrations in the eternal city, it might be a good time to reflect on Newman’s dreams for the Catholic Church. His passion for Church renewal which so powered his research into the Early Church and his leadership of the Oxford Movement did not leave him after his conversion – in fact he continued to be a voice for renewal even when he had found his home in the Catholic Church.

There are two key addresses after his conversion and to Catholic audiences, that sum up his dream for revival in the Catholic Church well.

The Coming of a Second Spring

On July 13th 1852, at St. Mary's, Oscott, Newman delivered an address to the clergy of Westminster. For context, it helps for us to keep in mind that this was only seven years after his conversion to Catholicism and the personal trails that came with that. He begins his address by describing Catholicism in England pre the English Reformation.

Three centuries ago, and the Catholic Church, that great creation of God's power, stood in this land in pride of place. It had the honours of near a thousand years upon it … it energized through ten thousand instruments of power and influence; and it was ennobled by a host of Saints and Martyrs. … Mixed up with the civil institutions, with kings and nobles, with the people, found in every village and in every town,—it seemed destined to stand, so long as England stood, and to outlast, it might be, England's greatness.’

However, after the reformation, Catholicism became illegal in England and the Church of England became the official Church, with much martyrdom and persecution of Catholics following. Newman writes of this:

‘… all seemed to be lost … The presence of Catholicism was at length simply removed,—its grace disowned,—its power despised,—its name, except as a matter of history, at length almost unknown. It took a long time to do this thoroughly; much time, much thought, much labour, much expense; but at last it was done. Oh, that miserable day, centuries before we were born! ... There, perhaps an elderly person, seen walking in the streets, grave and solitary, and strange, though noble in bearing, and said to be of good family, and a "Roman Catholic." An old-fashioned house of gloomy appearance, closed in with high walls, with an iron gate, and yews, and the report attaching to it that "Roman Catholics" lived there; but who they were, or what they did, or what was meant by calling them Roman Catholics, no one could tell;—though it had an unpleasant sound, and told of form and superstition.’

Here, Newman eloquently gives a sense of the England his generation grew into, in which English Catholicism was mythical and present only in a ghostly way, made a thing of the past by the powerful over centuries of suppression.

But times were changing radically in Newman’s day. For the first time in centuries, Catholicism was being recognised in Britain with the passing of ‘The Roman Catholic Relief Act’ in 1829 which allowed Catholics to sit in Westminster Parliament and which was the culmination of the process of Catholic Emancipation throughout the United Kingdom. On the 29th September 1850, Pope Pius IX re-established the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, which saw the first Catholic diocese in England since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This is not to say that the centuries of bigotry against Catholics disappeared, but it was these were momentous steps.

In this context, Newman saw the return of Catholicism to England in his lifetime as nothing short of miraculous.

‘We should judge rightly in our curiosity about a phenomenon like this … It is an innovation, a miracle, I may say, in the course of human events. The physical world revolves year by year, and begins again … The past never returns … The past is out of date; the past is dead. … This, then, is the cause of this national transport, this national cry, which encompasses us. The past has returned, the dead lives. Thrones are overturned, and are never restored; States live and die, and then are matter only for history. Babylon was great, and Tyre, and Egypt, and Nineve, and shall never be great again. The English Church was, and the English Church was not, and the English Church is once again. This is the portent, worthy of a cry. It is the coming in of a Second Spring; it is a restoration in the moral world, such as that which yearly takes place in the physical.’

Here, Newman sees the divine at work, because earthly powers and empires crumble and disappear, never to return – and yet, ‘the English Church was, and the English Church was not, and the English Church is once again’.

A Great Work to do in England

Although there was change in the air, Newman did not take this for granted, he saw a new mission at hand and he knew that trials would accompany this.

‘We know not what is before us, ere we win our own; we are engaged in a great, a joyful work, but in proportion to God's grace is the fury of His enemies. They have welcomed us as the lion greets his prey. Perhaps they may be familiarized in time with our appearance, but perhaps they may be irritated the more. To set up the Church again in England is too great an act to be done in a corner. We have had reason to expect that such a boon would not be given to us without a cross. It is not God's way that great blessings should descend without the sacrifice first of great sufferings. If the truth is to be spread to any wide extent among this people, how can we dream, how can we hope, that trial and trouble shall not accompany its going forth?’

However, he also encouraged his brother priests in his address that they did not enter this mission and these new challenges alone.

‘One thing alone I know,—that according to our need, so will be our strength. One thing I am sure of, that the more the enemy rages against us, so much the more will the Saints in Heaven plead for us; the more fearful are our trials from the world, the more present to us will be our Mother Mary, and our good Patrons and Angel Guardians; the more malicious are the devices of men against us, the louder cry of supplication will ascend from the bosom of the whole Church to God for us. We shall not be left orphans; we shall have within us the strength of the Paraclete, promised to the Church and to every member of it.’

Into The Truth

Newman’s decades of mission that followed this address show how actively he took part in the bringing about of this ‘Second Spring’. From his establishment of the Catholic University of Dublin and the Oratory school in Birmingham, through to his mission to the people of Birmingham in his ministry at the Oratory, to the writings he would give to the whole Church and the immense volume of letters he would write to so many individuals, helping them to draw closer to Jesus and His Church. When he was made a cardinal 1879, he gave another address, reflecting on his life’s work and looking to the future.

His reaction to becoming a cardinal is one of surprise as he says, ‘such an elevation had never come into my thoughts’. Looking back on his life of mission he admits humbly, ‘in a long course of years I have made many mistakes. I have nothing of that high perfection which belongs to the writings of Saints … but what I trust that I may claim all through what I have written, is this,—an honest intention, an absence of private ends, a temper of obedience, a willingness to be corrected, a dread of error, a desire to serve Holy Church, and, through Divine mercy, a fair measure of success.’

He goes on to use this address to draw out the cause he believed to be his most important battle – the battle against liberalism, which he saw as a battle about the nature of truth itself.

‘I rejoice to say, to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth; and on this great occasion, when it is natural for one who is in my place to look out upon the world, and upon Holy Church as in it, and upon her future, it will not, I hope, be considered out of place, if I renew the protest against it which I have made so often.

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy … Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.’

Newman saw this erosion of belief in revealed truth as dangerous, and foresaw that if it was allowed to be treated as a matter of opinion or taste, it would fade from society. Newman cared so much about this cause that the inscription on his gravestone reads, ‘out of shadows and symbols unto the truth.’ His life was a personal discovery of the truth, immense personal loss to pursue it, and guiding others towards the great truth that he had discovered.

To Stand Still

Sometimes the forces at work in the world can seem so much bigger than individuals are capable of fighting. However, if we look at the major battles of Newman’s life, we see the life of a man who fought for things he believed in, seemingly regardless of the scale of the struggle. The cause of the Oxford Movement seeking a ‘better reformation’ in the Anglican Church, the re-establishment of Catholicism in England and the fight against liberalism for the sake of the truth are the most obvious examples. These were all huge challenges that were massively counter cultural. What was it that gave Newman the strength through his decades of pursuing the truth? He concludes his address as a newly appointed cardinal with these words on courage.

‘Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it. I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.’

Isaac Withers