Nine Days with St. John Henry Newman – Day 3

Day 3 – To Become a Saint

Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. It is enough for me to black the saint’s shoes – if St. Philip [of Neri] uses blacking – in heaven.

-John Henry Newman

There is an irony to John Henry Newman being declared a saint. 

If you had asked him what he thought about saints early in his life, he would have said something like this: “The honour paid to the saints surely is practically a dishonor to the One God. Is it not practically polytheism? Are not the saints the Gods of the multitude in Roman Catholic countries? Is there not a natural tendency in the human mind to idolatry, and shall the Church, the pillar of the Truth, cherish it instead of repressing it?” (Letter to Mrs. William Wilberforce, November 17th, 1834).

It’s quite a contrast to a letter he wrote almost 40 years later, when he stated that “As the love of the father on earth does not interfere with love of mother, and the love of mother leaves us capable of loving brother and sister, so a Catholic loves the Blessed Virgin and the Saints without any harm to sovereign love and devotion which fills him towards the Holy Trinity in Unity” (Letter to Mrs. Pearson, April 1st, 1881).

What happened in between?

The story is too long to recount here, but it could be sufficient to say that Newman’s view of the Saints evolved as he encountered the Church Fathers and the Saints themselves, not as an academic exercise, but within a heartfelt desire to learn the Truth of Christ as it related to his own soul. People entered his life that influenced his thinking, sometimes nudging him gently in directions he couldn’t imagine going. With his usual sharpness of mind, he reasoned through Catholic teaching about the Saints and acknowledged them, first, as heroes of the faith and, later, as active helpers to those of us on the earthbound side of eternity. When he embraced the Catholic Church in 1845, he embraced its authority to establish the very doctrines he had once denounced.   

Newman could not have known that he was at the very mid-point of his life and would spend the next 45 years in service to the Church he had embraced. During those years, he showed the attributes most people would expect of a Saint. He was humble, kind, sacrificial, faithful, compassionate, self-aware, determined, clear thinking, clear speaking, always ready to defend the faith, vigilant in his prayers, never presumptuous about his sins or his holiness, and firmly dedicated to Jesus Christ and His Church. 

Those who knew him best considered him a saint, though he was quick to reject such a notion. 

Biographer Sheridan Gilley tells the story of a meeting between Newman and Bishop William Ullathorne, a Benedictine monk who had played a large role in Newman’s conversion and life as a Catholic. Both men were in their 80s and Ullathorne was convalescing from a stroke. Before parting, Newman bowed his head and asked for the Bishop’s blessing. Ullathorne obliged and, as they walked to the door, Newman lamented that he had been indoors all his life, while Ullathorne had battled for the Church in the world. Ullathorne knew – as we do now – that it was a typically Newmanesque statement for him to make, considering the many schools, universities, churches, and missions he had founded. 

Newman spoke, not from a false humility, but from the kind of forgetfulness he had about his own accomplishments, taking no personal pride in them at all.

About this moment, Bishop Ullathorne wrote: “I felt annihilated in his presence: there is a Saint in that man!”

Now that Cardinal Newman is officially Saint John Henry Newman, it’s easy to become sentimental about him. We are tempted to highlight only what is good while ignoring the flaws. No doubt Newman – like all the Saints – would refute such an attempt. In my experience as a Catholic, I’ve found that the commonality of the saints is not that they were perfect, but that they were not – and yet, even in their imperfections, they obeyed God’s call, following it wherever it may lead. 

Newman put it best when he wrote:  

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.

These are the words of a Saint.

PRAYER: (Adapted from John Henry Newman)

Make me like Yourself, O my God, since, in spite of myself, of such You can make me, of such I can be made. Look on me, O my Creator, pity the work of your hands, let me not perish in my infirmity… 

Let me have in my own person what in Jesus You have given to my nature. Let me be partaker of that divine nature in all the riches of its attributes, which fullness of substance and in personal presence became the Son of Mary. Give me that life, suitable to my own need, which is stored up for us all in Him who is the life of men. Teach me and enable me to live the life of saints and angels….

Breathe on me, that my dead bones may live. Breathe on me with that breath which infuses energy and kindles fervor.

In asking for fervor, I ask for all that I can need, and all that you can give…I am asking for strength, consistency, and perseverance. I am asking for deadness to every human motive and for simplicity of intention to please you. I am asking for faith, hope and charity in their most heavenly exercise… I am asking to be rid of the fear of man, and the desire of his praise. I am asking for the gift of prayer, because it will be so sweet. I am asking for that loyal perception of duty which follows on yearning affection. I am asking for sanctity, peace and joy all at once…

Lord, in asking for fervor, I am asking for Yourself, for nothing short of You, O my God, who have given Yourself wholly to us. Enter my heart substantially and personally, and fill it with fervor by filling it with You. You alone can fill the soul of man, and you have promised to do so. You are the living flame, and ever burn with love of man: enter into me and set me on fire after your pattern and likeness. Amen.

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Written by Paul McCusker

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