Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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April 13, 2003
Palm Sunday

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

An American Presbyterian minister who had converted to Catholicism in 1990 once heard someone complain, «You became Catholic for the money.» «No, not for the money,» he replied, «but I did it for the riches!» Another minister who converted shortly thereafter clarified this thought: «We converts have been made so rich. We have been given wealth beyond our wildest dreams!... The anguish endured is not worth comparing to the riches gained—the Holy Eucharist, the Pope, the Magisterium, the sacraments, Mary, the saints—the splendor of Christ mirrored in His Church. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Ph. 3:8).» Over the course of history, there have been many who, though born outside the true Church of Christ, have succeeded, with the help of grace, in finding the way of full truth. John Henry Newman occupies an eminent position among them.

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 Protestantism—he 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

A precocious student, he was admitted to the University of Oxford at the age of sixteen. Fascinated by what he read, curious about all kinds of fields of knowledge, he enjoyed studying history, Eastern languages, poetry, and mathematics. A great lover of music, he loved to relax by playing the violin. He was open-minded, and devoted himself to everything with equal zeal. It was at this time that he began to love to be absorbed in meditation on invisible realities, and ardently sought to do good and to know the truth. «The interior drama that marked the long life of John Henry Newman was centered around the question of holiness and union with Christ. His most heartfelt desire was to know and to fulfill the will of God» (John Paul II, speech for the centenary of J.H. Newman's death, in 1990). This aspiration took shape over the course of his life in a great docility in following the voice of his conscience. «Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise... [Conscience] is a messenger of Him, Who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ» (Letter quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1778). Indeed, in the depths of his conscience, man discovers the presence of a law that he did not give himself, but which he is constrained to obey. This voice urges him to love, to do good and to avoid evil. However, conscience must be informed and educated throughout one's life by the light of the Word of God, but also by «carefully [attending] to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth» (Second Vatican Council, Declaration Dignitatis humanae, 14).

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 day—excessive 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

As he freed himself of worldly ideas, Newman felt developing in himself a great attraction for the Fathers of the Church, these ecclesiastical writers of the first centuries who, through their holiness and the orthodoxy of their doctrine, are special witnesses of Holy Tradition. Already at the age of fifteen, he had become acquainted with the Fathers of the Church through Joseph Milner's work, History of the Church of Christ. This book made him fascinated in Christian antiquity. Now the seed sown in adolescence grew in his soul, and he aimed to read the Fathers in extenso, in the original text. In the years that followed, he built up an impressive library of patristic works. But John Henry Newman was also fascinated with Holy Scripture. In fact, he wrote to his sister, Harriett: «If you have leisure time on Sunday, learn portions of Scripture by heart. The benefit seems to me incalculable. It imbues the mind with good and holy thoughts. It is a resource in solitude, on a journey, and in a sleepless night[.]» Reading the Bible assiduously prepared him for a better knowledge of the Church. Indeed, in keeping with the remark by Saint Augustine, «the Prophets spoke more plainly and openly of the Church than of Christ, foreseeing that on this a much greater number may err and be deceived than on the mystery of the Incarnation» (Catechism of the Council of Trent, on article IX, «I believe in the Holy Catholic Church»).

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

In July 1833, Newman had just returned from a vacation in southern Europe when the clergyman John Keble delivered a speech subsequently published under the descriptive title National Apostasy. This speech, denouncing the critical condition the Anglican Church was in, roused the consciences of Anglicans concerned about the true Christian identity of their Church. It remained in Newman's mind as the dawn of the religious movement known in history as the «Oxford Movement.» From its beginning, Newman voiced his agreement with the leaders of the Movement and contributed to the publication of «Tracts for the Times,» documents several pages long, unsigned and with no exact goal other than to sound the alarm on the danger the Anglican Church was facing. The tracts quickly gained considerable circulation. In the Anglican clergy, which until then was unaware of the situation, these novel and unexpected ideas generated a sort of shock. All were moved.

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 thunderstruck—it 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 so—almost fearfully.»

A shattered theory

Bishop Wiseman, an English prelate who would become a cardinal and archbishop of Westminster in 1850, published at this time an article on the Donatists, a group of African Christians who, in the fourth century, revolted against the universal Church and insisted that they alone had upheld the truth. In this article, Bishop Wiseman compared the Donatists to the Anglicans. A friend pointed out to Newman a phrase of Saint Augustine's included in the article—Securus iudicat orbis terrarum, which can be translated as The judgment of the universal Church is certain. «He repeated these words again and again, and, when he was gone, they kept ringing in my ears. Securus iudicat orbis terrarum; they were words which went beyond the occasion of the Donatists; they applied to that of the Monophysites. They gave a cogency to the article which had escaped me at first. They decided ecclesiastical questions on a simpler rule than that of Antiquity... What a light was hereby thrown upon every controversy in the Church! Not that, at a given moment, the multitude may not falter in their judgment—not that, in the Arian hurricane, countless Episcopal Sees did not bend before its fury and fall off from St. Athanasius—not that the crowd of Oriental Bishops did not need to be sustained during the contest by the voice and the eye of St. Leo; but that the deliberate judgment, in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces, is an infallible prescription and a final sentence against such portions of it as protest and secede... A mere sentence, the words of St. Augustine struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before... By those great words of the ancient Father, the theory of the via media was absolutely pulverised.» The via media appeared to him from then on to be the heretical way, the way that the Gospel of Saint John denounces, by which the thieves and marauders attempt to enter Christ's sheepfold, as opposed to the royal gate, which allows one to enter in complete dignity (Jn. 10:1-2).

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 Newman—he 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 1841, his position within Anglicanism had become so difficult that he saw himself obliged to entrust the responsibility of parish priest of Saint Mary's to his assistant priest. In the confusion of his broken heart, he withdrew with several followers to Littlemore, a hamlet close to Oxford, where he gathered his thoughts and started again from scratch on his studies on the claims of the Anglican Church. He especially felt the need to seek, in prayer and mortification, the grace needed to resolve the problem that was tormenting him. Aware of often being mistaken, he wondered if he was wrong again this time. The struggle was difficult and slow. In his honesty of soul, he wrote to his parishioners in Littlemore: «[R]emember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God's will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfill it.» Life in Littlemore was poor and austere—strict fasts, monastic silence, recitation of the canonical offices in accordance with the Catholic liturgy, meditation, weekly confession, frequent Communion. Scarcely had he moved in before he started to translate the works of Saint Athanasius. «I had determined to put aside all controversy, and I set myself down to my translation of St. Athanasius... I saw clearly, that in the history of Arianism, the pure Arians were the Protestants, the semi-Arians were the Anglicans, and that Rome was what it is now. The truth lay, not with the via media, but in what was called 'the extreme party.' » His constant concern was to know what the Fathers would do in his situation. This led him to a place he had never thought of going to.

In his retreat, another thought occurred to Newman—were 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»

Although Newman's «secession» had been anticipated, it had a tremendous effect on the Anglican world. It is estimated that over three hundred conversions took place immediately after his, and the movement continued for decades afterward. Newman had to bear a considerable sacrifice by leaving what had been his life up till that point and adapting to a Catholic environment which he did not spontaneously blend into. Ordained a priest in Rome in 1847, he returned to England to establish an Oratory community in Birmingham. From 1851 to 1858, he worked on founding a Catholic university in Dublin. After being criticized by a biased author, he wrote in 1864 his Apologia pro vita sua, an autobiography whose lucidity of style and sincerity of convictions earned him renewed favor and fame. Until his death in 1890, Newman tirelessly devoted himself to service of the Catholic Church. As a token of recognition of so much work undertaken with faithfulness and love, Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1881. At the end of his long life, Cardinal Newman could write in complete honesty: «My desire hath been to have Truth for my chiefest friend, and no enemy but error.»

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 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.»

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.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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