Blessed John Henry Newman was a man with a vision for the battles of our times. He fought with courage, and he calls us to take up the fight today, confident in our ultimate victory.
The Saints and Blessed ones have, throughout England’s history, spoken a word of encouragement and hope to successive generations. Like those “witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us,”[i] of which the Letter to the Hebrews speaks, the witnesses of the saints from every corner of this land and beyond have urged us towards that victory which faith assures. From those first missionaries to the English people sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great to awaken the hope of holiness in our land down to our present age, throngs a great communion of saints. Amid a “new evangelization” fourteen centuries later, we look to these holy witnesses to our faith for example and prayers as we face the spiritual struggles of today.
A prophetic warrior for our times
Pope Benedict, in speaking of the new evangelisation, has frequently pointed us towards the enduring testimony of John Henry Newman. When the Holy Father came to England in September 2010, he wished, he told us, to “present anew the luminous figure of Cardinal Newman, an intellectual and a believer …”.[ii] We are not all called to be intellectuals but we are all certainly called to be believers beside Blessed John Henry. And we need to ask today: what is his message to this generation and to generations yet to come?
For the new evangelization we can look to the holy witnesses to our faith for example and prayers as we face the spiritual struggles of today.
When welcoming the new British Ambassador to the Holy See the Pope spoke of “the remarkable prophetic clarity,” with which Cardinal Newman had identified the challenges that British and Western societies face today. Yes, Blessed John Henry had diagnosed, in its first symptoms we might say, the disease which now ails our own time. As Pope Benedict declared in London’s Hyde Park, “At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion. Here, is the first lesson we can learn from his life,” the Holy Father said, “when in our day, an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society …”
Cardinal Newman himself spoke of this being the enduring message of his life and labours when on becoming a Cardinal in 1879 he declared: “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 effort overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth …” As he wrote in his “Apologia,” “my battle was with liberalism …”, first as an Anglican and then, from 1845, as a Catholic. He was battling against what has rapidly become the dominant view of our own time, a view he summarised in his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” “that truth and falsehood in religion are but a matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another… that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth.” So we can reach the point when a Government proposes that marriage, the very foundation of the family, crucial to the well-being of society, can be redefined to mean whatever we wish it to mean. Newman foresaw the path which would lead to this confusion as Revealed Religion becomes regarded, he said, as but a sentiment, a taste, so that each individual makes it say just what he wishes it to say. He surely wanted us to see now that, “there never was a device of the Enemy, so cleverly framed, and with such a promise of success.”[iii] And in our present day we see the success of that ‘liberalism’ or ‘relativism’, an ideology which appears enticingly generous and broadly tolerant in demanding that one belief should be considered as true as another. Yet it becomes, as the Holy Father said in Glasgow: “a dictatorship of relativism, threatening to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.”[iv]
Cor ad Cor Loquitur
Scholars will long ponder the prophetic writings of Cardinal Newman, but his underlying message can surely be considered a gentle but insistent declaration that the truth can, indeed, be truly known. For his basic spiritual message, Pope Benedict explained, “testifies that the path to knowledge is not withdrawal into ‘self’, but openness, conversion and obedience to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life,”[v] Our Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed John Henry Newman continues to speak encouragement to every heart, assuring us of victory in this struggle in which we are now engaged. Let us listen to the voice of an aged Cardinal Newman saying to us, “it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid …” He said, “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 our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to his Vicar on earth.”[vi] Newman knew where our trust must be placed: in the Word of God, our Almighty King and His Vicar on earth. Newman envisaged the possibility of centuries of confusion to come but declared, “this present ordeal, though different from any of the preceding, will be overcome.” In the conclusion he had drawn repeatedly from the Scriptures and the history of the Church, he said we have only to stand firm and we will “see the salvation of God.”
So, as St. Cuthbert, St Edward the Confessor, and a thousand saints have spoken a timeless message of hope and encouragement to so many before us, may Blessed John Henry Newman speak to our hearts and continue to speak to the hearts of those who come after us. May he bring to our times the voice of his “prophetic clarity,” of which Pope Benedict speaks. And by the heroism of his own life offer the assurance that by standing firm in faith and by our very faithfulness we will see with him, “the salvation of God.”
[i] Heb 12:1
[ii] General Audience 22nd September 2010
[iii] Biglietto Speech 1879
[iv] Bellahouston Park, 16th Sept. 2010
[v] General Audience 22nd Sept. 2010
[vi] Biglietto Speech 1879
This article is originally found on pages 12-13 of the printed edition.