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April 13, 2003|
Born on February 21, 1801, young John Henry, son of a London banker, received from his mother, who was of French Protestant stock, a religious education with a distinctly Calvinist slant. Full of prejudice against Catholicism, he firmly believed that the Pope was the Antichrist. However, at the age of fifteen, as he was beginning his studies in high school in Ealing, close to London, a considerable change of opinion took place in his mind, thanks to a light from on high. «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.» In addition, he was seized by a thought at odds with his Protestantismhe felt called by God to live in celibacy. This is why, pushing aside all thoughts of marriage, he resolved to remain single and to enter the service of the Anglican Church.
First vicar of Christ
In 1820, the young student earned his Bachelor of Arts, and, two years later, was named a fellow (a distinction conferred on the elite of graduates of each college) at Oriel College, Oxford, which automatically gave him entrée into the most refined circles in that venerable institution. In 1828, he was given a post there as «tutor,» in which he was responsible for teaching both literature and moral education to students. Mixing with the other fellows, the young Newman was under the influence of the ideas of his dayexcessive confidence in the world and in human liberty, unbridled and without regard to law. He wrote, «The truth is, I was beginning to prefer intellectual excellence to moral; I was drifting in the direction of liberalism.» Under the positive influence of a friend, Hurrel Froude, Newman freed himself from this deadly course. Ordained a deacon of the Anglican Church in 1824, he soon became vicar of Saint Clement's Church in Oxford, while waiting to become the parish priest at Saint Mary's, the university church, of which he was given charge in 1828.
The church he belonged to was at that time in the midst of a crisis. After approximately three centuries of persecuting Catholicism, the official religion of England was undisputed but henceforth languishing and lifeless. The clergy, driven by purely human views, was concerned with amassing ecclesiastical benefices, and did not worry itself with giving spiritual direction or exercising apostolic action. Worship no longer held wonder or dignity. The Anglican Church seemed to be not so much the guardian of the religious faith that forced itself upon reason and enlightened the conscience as an establishment closely linked with the government, from which it received political privileges and considerable wealth.
A passion for antiquity
In 1830, Mr. Hugh Rose of Cambridge, looking for collaborators for an Ecclesiastical Library, suggested to Newman that he write a history of the first Councils. To carry out this work, John Henry carefully studied the Fathers of the Church of Alexandria, particularly Saint Athanasius and Origenes. He came away from this study with the conviction that Providence, through the intervention of Angels, directed events and peoples, Jewish and pagan, towards the full Revelation of the truth in Jesus Christ. It was only at the end of 1833 that the fruit of this study would be published under the title Arians of the Fourth Century.
Sounding the alarm
If, in Newman's eyes, the doctrinal position of Anglicanism seemed unassailable, its moral deterioration seemed to him to be linked to its abandonment of patristic Tradition. As a result of his contact with the Fathers, he hoped for a rejuvenation of his Church. Convinced that the doctrine of the Church of England rested fundamentally on the Fathers, he thought that a return to the Fathers was synonymous with a return to the Anglican theologians of the sixteenth century. Newman was in favor of a via media, an intermediary position between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, in which he maintained against the first the authority of Tradition and the first Fathers, and rejected in the second some doctrines that seemed to him to be innovations that had appeared over the course of the centuries. On the other hand, he considered the Anglican Church to be a branch of the Catholic Church, the two other branches being the Greek Church and the Roman Church.
But in 1839, while studying the history of the Monophysites (fifth-century heretics who insisted that Jesus Christ had only one nature), he became aware of the impossibility of supporting Anglicanism. He was thunderstruckit was completely unexpected. «It was difficult to make out how the Eutychians or Monophysites were heretics, unless Protestants and Anglicans were heretics also; difficult to find arguments against the Tridentine Fathers, which did not tell against the Fathers of Chalcedon; difficult to condemn the Popes of the sixteenth century, without condemning the Popes of the fifth. The drama of religion, and the combat of truth and error, were ever one and the same. The principles and proceedings of the Church now were those of the Church then; the principles and proceedings of heretics then, were those of Protestants now. I found it soalmost fearfully.»
A shattered theory
Nevertheless, Newman did not yet give up his defense of Anglicanism. Although he recognized that the Anglican Church had neither the unity nor the universality of Christ's Church, he wanted to make every effort to prove that she at least had the other notes of the true Church. He consequently drew up the «Tract 90,» in which he tried to demonstrate that the 39 articles promulgated by Queen Elizabeth in 1571, articles that serve as the basis of the Anglican faith, were compatible with Catholic principles. But this document sparked a crisis. The heads of the university and a majority of the Anglican bishops violently condemned him and considered all the supporters of the Tract suspect. It was a terrible blow to Newmanhe saw it as proof that his Church neither could nor wanted to assimilate the Catholic elements that he was striving to introduce into it.
What would the Fathers do?
In his retreat, another thought occurred to Newmanwere not these «new dogmas,» that the Anglicans blamed the Roman Church of having made up, actually an homogenous development of the apostolic faith? He thus undertook to write his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This study allowed him to overcome the last obstacle that held him back from the Roman Church. This Church had, in fact, invented nothing. She had only drawn from the deposit of Revelation more and more precise doctrines, but always with the same meaning. On October 6, 1845, he suddenly broke off his work, then, two days later, had an Italian Catholic monk, Father Dominic, come to Littlemore. Scarcely had he arrived than Newman prostrated himself at his feet and asked him to hear his confession. After a night of prayers, Newman, with two followers, made his profession of the Catholic faith and received Baptism conditionally. From then on, «through the gift of God's mercy they [belonged] to that Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter and the other Apostles, who are the depositories of the original Apostolic tradition, living and intact, which is the permanent heritage of doctrine and holiness of that same Church» (Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 24, 1973). Although one may feel legitimate joy about belonging to the Catholic Church, it should not make us proud; rather we should humbly give thanks. Indeed, «[a]ll the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged» (Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, 14).
The «chiefest friend»
The Church is the work of Jesus Christ, «a work through which He continues, is reflected, and through which He is always present in the world. She is His spouse, to whom He has offered Himself completely. He has chosen her for Himself, He established her and constantly keeps her alive. He also has given His life so that she might live... Brothers, let us keep in mind this truth: Jesus Christ loved the Church... If God loved the Church to the point of sacrificing His very life, this shows that she is also worthy of our love» (John Paul II, homily given in Costa Rica, March 3, 1983). Saint Augustine could write this succinct phrase: «To the degree that one loves the Church, one possesses the Holy Spirit.» Perhaps this contains one of the most valuable lessons from the life of Cardinal Newman. His writings cast a very clear light on love of the Church inasmuch as she is God's continual outpouring of love for mankind in every stage of history. The Cardinal had true supernatural vision, capable of perceiving all the weaknesses existing in the human fabric of the Church, but likewise a solid perception of the mystery hidden beyond our human view. We can make our own the ardent prayer to Jesus Christ that spontaneously burst forth from his heart: «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 eyethat when the Church speaks Thou dost speak. Let not familiarity with this wonderful truth lead me to be insensible to itlet not the weakness of Thy human representatives lead me to forget that it is Thou who dost speak and act through them.»
Pope John Paul II said to the youth gathered in Toronto last July: «If you love Jesus, love the Church!» Let us ask Mary our Mother to live as true sons and daughters of the Holy Catholic Church, so that we might be found worthy of eternal life.