Nine Days with St. John Henry Newman – Day 6
Day 6 – Peace and Conflict
We are so constituted, that if we insist upon being as sure as is conceivable, in every step of our course, we must be content to creep along the ground, and can never soar. If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards; and whereas we are given absolute certainty in nothing, we must in all things choose between doubt and inactivity…
-John Henry Newman
It may be difficult for so-called Cradle Catholics to appreciate the many steps of faith John Henry Newman made to become Catholic. In the midst of his exhausting work in the Church of England, he diligently studied to find the Truth. Studying in those days wasn’t simply nipping down to the local library or going online to Google various topics. He had to search and dig, read and discern. What made it more difficult was that Newman was a public figure. His writings had put him at the forefront of a debate over the very soul of Anglicanism. His thinking, as it developed about the nature of doctrine and the church, was laid out in public sermons, letters, and essays. People reacted. Many feared he was moving in the direction of that unclean thing: the Roman Catholic Church.
Ironically, Newman had no real taste for Roman Catholicism as a cultural entity. His visits to Rome and impressions of Italian Catholics were not favorable. He wasn’t drawn to Catholicism for anything other than the sheer Truth of it. To become Catholic was nothing short of a courageous act.
Biographer David Newsome, in The Convert Cardinals: Newman and Manning, makes the point that religion truly mattered in the 19th century. “It mattered so much that differences or deviations of belief could promote a bitterness of strife barely credible to the children of the children who lived through these conflicts…” Quoting historian George Kitson Clark: “Probably in no other century, except the seventeenth and perhaps the twelfth, did the claims of religion occupy so large a part in the nation’s life, or did men speaking in the name of religion contrive to exercise so much power.”
So, inevitably, Newman’s small steps to become Roman Catholic became a giant leap of faith in many other ways. His career in the Church of England was finished. Teaching positions would be difficult to come by. The many outlets to publish his work were closed. His role as a shaper of opinions would diminish. He could slip into cultural obscurity after years of being in the public eye. It wasn’t merely a case of ego but of mission. He was an articulate communicator who believed God had called him to proclaim the truth. What would become of him now that he had cut himself off from the very center of England’s religious culture?
And what of the Catholic leaders at the time? For some of them, Newman was like the church leaders in the first century after the conversion of the Apostle Paul: someone to be watched carefully. They didn’t know what to do with him. Some accused his writings of being heretical.
Yet, Newman was undaunted. He threw himself into the “system.” He traveled to Rome to study theology at a proper Catholic institution. He settled on joining the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, an order with few rules, no official vows, but whose members lived together with “no bond but that of love.” In time, Pope Pius IX gave Newman permission to establish Oratories in England.
Various scandals followed him, often in the form of attacks from those who could never forgive him for becoming Catholic, or those in the Catholic Church who were over-scrupulous about everything he said or did. His writings were often challenged as heretical, delated to Rome, but exonerated when communications worked well enough for him to defend himself. He was sued for libel by a former priest-turned-Protestant, lost the case due to evidence not appearing in time, and had to rely on the charity of friends and supporters to pay the fine.
He became the Rector of the University of Dublin, only to see the university fail due to a lack of support from the bishops in Ireland. An attempt to establish an Oratory in Oxford failed because it was deemed that Newman was too controversial. He was at odds with various Catholic leaders when he argued in favor of the role of conscience for laypeople even while the first Vatican council was establishing a stronger stance on the infallibility of the Pope.
All the same, Pope Leo XIII admired Newman. Adversaries admitted that he was saintly, even in the midst of conflict. Academics recognized the sharp thinking and logic behind his theology. Friends extolled his understanding of the human heart and how it made him the ideal priest after the mind of Christ.
I have often thought of John Henry Newman when, after I became a Catholic, Protestant family and friends were bewildered, even angered, by my decision. As a writer who had made something of a name for himself in the Evangelical world, I knew many doors would close to me. I wondered what role my abilities as a writer might play in my service to the Church and, for a few years, wasn’t sure they ever would. When it came to relationships, I found myself walking on eggshells or stepping on toes (sometimes landmines). I still fret, not about being Catholic, but about the Catholic I am becoming, as I wrestle with obedience and strive to give up everything, no matter how precious, to Christ.
What Newman teaches me is to be tenacious in my faith and faithfulness. Learn humility, maintain integrity in response to the conflicts that come. I try to follow the words that guided Newman himself:
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
(Adapted From John Henry Newman)
Divine Lord, we humbly beg of you to show Your great power, and manifest Yourself more and more, and reign both in our hearts and in the world.
Stand by us in trouble, and guide us on our dangerous way.
Choose ‘the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty’
Support us all the day long until the shades lengthen and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done!
Then in Your mercy may You give us safe lodging,
and a holy rest, and peace at the last! Amen
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