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In honor of the bicentenary of the birth of Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman, February 21, 1801.
150 Years After His Conversion to Roman Catholicism, the Prophetic Witness of John Henry Newman is More Powerful Than Ever
There could be no better time to examine Cardinal Newman’s life and thought as it pertains to the priesthood and the laity. We are celebrating this 150th anniversary of his conversion to the Catholic Church at a time when many hundreds even thousands of his former co-religionists, both priests and lay people, are following his example.
Both in England and in the US, we have the examples of, respectively, Graham Leonard of London, and Clarence Pope of Fort Worth, Texas: two Anglican Bishops who recently have been received into full communion with the universal Church. Even the Duchess of Kent, a member of the royal family of England, was recently received into full communion and had an audience with the Holy Father.
These conversions are in many ways harbingers of the quest towards unity that is so clearly the work of the Holy Spirit as we cross John Paul II’s “threshold of hope” the third millennium, as he entitled it in his recent best-selling book. The Holy Father has repeatedly voiced his hope both publicly and privately, and indeed, as perhaps the greatest temporal goal of his pontificate for the reunion of Rome with the Eastern churches, so that the Church might “breathe with both lungs.” It is safe to say that if this reunion takes place, we can expect a large number of Christians of good will who adhere to Protestant denominations to follow suit, either corporately or individually.
When and if these reunions do take place, we will find Cardinal Newman’s thought and life constantly invoked, perhaps not only in the intellectual realm, as a tribute the power of his thought, but also in the spiritual realm, as the Venerable John Henry, through the example of a life of heroic virtue. The fact that Newman was cited four times in the new Catechism and once in “Veritatis Splendor” tends to highlight the current high regard in which he is held not only by the Holy Father but by the whole Church.
Newman’s importance for today’s world is also underlined when we see how clearly Newman, in his prophetic role, foresaw what he considered to be the inevitable clash between the Church and liberalism. All of the other varieties of both Christianity and agnostic thought he saw merely as sideshows to the showdown between the forces of God and the fallen world, between Catholicism and atheism.
As we approach the end of the millennium, we witness the tendency towards unity in Christianity in the universal Church. At the same time we also witness the collapse of Marxism, along with ideologies such as Darwinism and Freudianism. Who could doubt that we are involved in an epochal struggle? We only have to look at the heroic stance of the Church at the recent Cairo conference, standing virtually alone against the forces arraigned on the side of the “culture of death,” to see that we have arrived at the moment that Cardinal Newman so clearly foresaw.
At the heart of Newman’s religious conception of both the laity and the priesthood is holiness that is to say, union with Christ through an exact following of the specific vocation to which each person is called. There is quite a bit written about Newman and the laity, in fact, whole volumes. Unfortunately, almost all of it deals exclusively with the controversy in Newman’s early Catholic life, provoked by his article in the Rambler “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”. I say “unfortunately” because the authors of these volumes often seem to champion interference of the laity in the Ecclesia Docens, which is not at all what Newman had in mind. (This is somewhat understandable, although still regrettable, since most of these volumes were written amid the theological ferment surrounding the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.)
Newman’s views on the priesthood have not been examined thoroughly, mainly because they are not extraordinary although some of his insights, more as he lived them than as he committed them to paper, have had their impact in this century.
No author expresses his own views more clearly than Newman. Nonetheless, almost from the very beginning of his public life, his work has been subject to erroneous interpretation. Indeed his best known work, the Apologia pro Vita Sua was written in part to answer a false interpretation of some phrases from one of his sermons. In order to understand his views, then, it is necessary to understand something of the personality and character of Newman himself.
Newman was a profoundly religious man by temperament. This much is quite clear from his own autobiographical account. However he did not come from a long line of clergymen, as did a goodly number of his contemporaries in the Oxford Movement. During his university years he clearly felt a call to the clerical life and indeed even to celibacy, which was not all that common at that time. Yet in many other ways he was a man of the world. He drank deeply of the classics and history during his undergraduate years, formed many deep friendships, and had a keen interest in the world of music, literature, and politics. He chose the wine for his college. He played the violin, a hobby to which he returned in later life. He exercised vigorously with frighteningly long walks, enjoyed the fresh air of the sea by sailing (his close friend Hurrell Froude was to die of a chill caught as a result of one of those excursions). He was a poet, a novelist, a Latinist of the highest order (Vatican curial officials were astonished at the level of his classical Latin in their correspondence with him. He was able to express in a paragraph what took them a page!) and was arguably the greatest master of English prose style. All of this simply serves to emphasize that while Newman was eminently religious, he was not at all monastic.
His choice of the Brompton Oratory as the best setting for himself and his followers to live their priesthood was predicated in part on the idea that the life of the Oratory was most suited for men from university backgrounds who chose to live their dedication more clearly in the world. Any follower of St. Philip Neri, the great Roman saint of the Baroque and the Catholic reformation, would clearly have a deep appreciation for the secular. In short, Newman was in the world, but not of it. As such, his views on the role of the laity were not simply theoretical, but based on experience and observation.
For Newman, the enemy was not only the world, the flesh, and the devil in its classical formulation. Certainly he waged a life-long struggle against liberalism in its religious sense, which he defined simply as religious indifferentism. Indeed he tells us at the end of his life, upon receiving the Cardinal’s hat:
And I rejoice to say, to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. 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 error over spreading, as a snare, the whole earth. Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another...it is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true... revealed religion is not a truth but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous, and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.
Newman’s call for a devout, educated Catholic laity was not set in a vacuum. He realized, in a truly prophetic way, the absolute necessity of holy lay people in the world not only as a good in itself, but also in order not to let the world fall completely under the sway of liberalism. How at home he would feel waging the battles of the late 20th century as we approach the millennium! After all, he had clearly foreseen them all.
However, in his conception of the role of the laity, I believe we can say that Newman was also truly an enemy of what we can call clericalism. Russell Shaw defines it this way:
Clericalism assumes that clerics not only are but are also meant to be the active, dominant elite in the Church, and laymen the passive, subservient mass. As a result, the laity are discouraged from taking seriously their responsibility for the Church’s mission, and evangelization is neglected. So are efforts to influence the structures of secular society on behalf of the values of the gospel the evangelization of culture as it is called.... Clericalism deepens the confusion about lay and clerical identity.... perhaps as the most serious of all, clericalism tends to discourage laymen from cultivating a spirituality that arises above a rather low level of fervor and intensity. As the clerical mentality sees it, the serious pursuit of sanctity is the business of priests and religious. Minimalistic religious practice and legalistic morality are all that are asked of laymen and all many ask of themselves....
Although the Victorian Newman certainly would not have articulated the problem of clericalism in the same way as Shaw, he would have just as certainly have agreed with his analysis. In a notorious incident following the failure of Newman’s attempt to found an Oratory in Oxford as a sort of Catholic chaplaincy for the students, Newman was attacked by ultramontanists both in Rome and in England. He was supported in a open letter signed by 200 leading British Catholics, including all the Catholic members of parliament, and nearly all the Catholic peers. This famed cleric was backed by a totally lay group of Catholics, whose defense reflected their appreciation for his teaching.
It was this incident that provoked the attacks of Msgr. George Talbot, an English curial official in Rome and enemy of Newman, to say in an hysterical outburst that “if a check be not placed on the laity of England they will be the rulers of the Catholic Church in England instead of the Holy See and the Episcopate.... Laymen are beginning to show the cloven hoof.” Talbot then delivered his most famous lines:
What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.... Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.
Of course, Newman did not see the laity interfering in “ecclesiastical” matters, but certainly his conception of the role of the laity in the Church as well as in the world was on another level from that of Msgr. Talbot (who finished his days sadly in an insane asylum). At an earlier time, as a result of a controversy at The Rambler, Newman confronted his ordinary, Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham. According to Newman, “(the bishop) said something like ‘Who are the laity?’ I (Newman) answered (not these words) that the Church would look foolish without them.”
Newman had a deep knowledge of and love for the early Church Fathers. He had read through them all, in their original Greek and Latin, at least twice before he reached thirty. He could well be figured as the precursor of the ressourcement, the going back to the Church Fathers as sources for theological investigation, which has been such a notable characteristic of some of the giants of 20th century thought such as de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Congar.
He wrote various historical sketches on some of the leading Fathers, placing them in their historical context. He also had a deep devotion for everyday early Christians, both for the martyrs and confessors whom he so highly revered, as well as the untold millions who lived out their everyday lives bearing witness to Christ through their family and professional life. These are the men and women who were responsible, with the help of God’s grace, for the gradual but sure spread of the Church throughout the Roman empire during the course of the first three centuries up until the edict of Milan. This primitive Christianity was a model for modern Christian life. As Newman thought,
It (the Church) has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men as... are at once teachers and patterns of it.... But after all, say they are few, such Christians; and what follows? They are enough to carry on God’s noiseless work. These communicate their light to a number of lesser luminaries, by whom, in its turn, it is distributed.... A few endowed men will rescue the world for centuries to come.
Newman’s view is very much like the one Pope John Paul expressed in Christifideles Laici:
The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both men and women, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the kingdom of God in history.
As for Newman’s view of the laity’s participation in doctrinal fidelity and development we can consult Newman’s first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century, published when he was a young Anglican cleric and tutor at Oxford. It is a masterful and entertaining history of the Arian heresy, and the controversy leading up to and beyond the Council of Nicea. Newman’s basic thesis is quite simple: that the mass of Catholics were faithful to the authentic Trinitarian doctrine when, at least at a certain moment of the controversy, the majority of bishops were not.
The Catholic people, in the length and breadth of Christendom, were the obstinate champions of Christian truth and the bishops were not...And again, in speaking of the laity, I speak inclusively of their parish priests (so to call them), at least in many places; but, on the whole, taking a wide view of history, we are obliged to say that the governing body came short and the governed were preeminent in faith, zeal, courage, and constancy. This is a remarkable fact, but there is a moral in it.... Perhaps it was permitted to impress upon the church... the great evangelical lesson that, not the wise and powerful, but the obscure, the unlearned and the weak constitute her real strength. It was mainly by the faithful people that paganism was overthrown; it was by the faithful people, under the lead of Athanasius and the Egyptian bishops, and in some places supported by their bishops and priests, that the worst of heresies was withstood.
Here Newman in no way is calling the teaching authority of the hierarchy into question, the pope and the bishops in communion with him. Rather he is emphasizing the responsibility of the faithful to hold fast the faith entrusted to them. He finds the behavior of the Catholic lay faithful during the apogee of the Arian heresy a wonderful example of faithfulness to authentic Catholic doctrine when there appeared, at least, to be a temporary suspension of its propagation by certain elements of the hierarchy.
In that earliest age, it was simply the living spirit of the myriads of the faithful, none of them known to fame, who received from the disciples of the lord, and husbanded so well, and circulated so widely, and transmitted so faithfully, generation after generation, the once delivered apostolic faith; who held it with such sharpness of outline and explicitness of detail, as enabled even the unlearned instinctively to discriminate between truth and error, spontaneously to reject the very shadow of heresy, and to be proof against the fascination of the most brilliant intellects, when they would lead them out of the narrow way.
Cardinal Newman, of course, being a man of the 19th century and not the 4th, was above all concerned with the role of the Catholic laity in the world, a world that he saw increasingly falling into infidelity. As an Anglican minister and Oxford tutor he directed his personal counsel and pastoral preaching to effect a change, both spiritual and intellectual, in the people who heard him. Almost all of his writings, both Anglican and Catholic, are directed toward lay people, mostly to the educated classes. Although he does enter into theological discussion and disputation with some of the leading theologians of his day, both Anglican and Catholic, in Oxford and Rome, and on some occasions with the French, nonetheless it is normally the educated laity that he addresses. As he puts it in a justifiably famous passage that so clearly presages the Conciliar teaching on the laity:
What I desiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is; it is one of the “better gifts” of which the Apostle bids you be “jealous.” You must not hide your talent in a napkin, or your light under a bushel. I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity; I am not denying you are such already; but I mean to be severe and, as some would say, exorbitant in my demands, I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism, and where lie the main absurdities of the Protestant theory. I have no apprehension you will be the worse Catholics for familiarity with these subjects, provided you cherish a vivid sense of God above, and keep in mind that you have souls to be judged and to be saved. In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago, and they betrayed the Church in England. Our rulers were true, our people were cowards. You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it; to expose to the comprehension of others the fictions and fallacies of your opponents; and to explain the charges brought against the church, to the satisfaction not, indeed, of bigots, but of men of sense, of whatever cast of opinion. And one immediate effect of your being able to do all this will be your gaining that proper confidence in self which is so necessary for you. You will then not even have the temptation to rely on others, to court political parties or particular men; they will rather have to court you. You will no longer be dispirited or irritated (if such at present is the case), at finding difficulties in your way, in being called names, in not being believed, in being treated with injustice. You will fall back upon yourselves; you will be calm, you will be patient. Ignorance is the root of all littleness; he who can realize the law of moral conflicts, and the incoherence of falsehood, and the issue of perplexities, and the end of all things, and the Presence of the Judge, becomes, from the very necessity of the case, philosophical, long-suffering, and magnanimous. (Emphasis added.)
The passage is so clearly in line with the most recent teachings of the Church that it sounds familiar to us now. But how strange this teaching would sound to the ears of Catholics of the age of Victoria, the great majority of whom were either illiterate Irish immigrants or (a small minority) descendants of the “recusants” that small number who remained faithful through the long centuries of persecution.
The Cardinal’s ideal of the educated, well-formed layman would be in fact a person who was unreservedly loyal to the magisterium of the Church. Newman would have expected the layman to “assent” with him when he proclaimed:
I believe the whole revealed dogma as taught by the Apostles of the Church, and as declared by the Church to me. I receive it as it is infallibly interpreted by the authority to whom it is thus committed and (implicitly) as it shall be, in like manner, further interpreted by that same authority till the end of time. I submit, moreover, to the universally received traditions of the Church, in which lies the matter of those dogmatic definitions which are from time to time made, and which in all times are the clothing and the illustration of the Catholic dogma as already defined. And I submit myself to those other decisions of the Holy See, theological or not, which, waiving the question of their infallibility, on the lowest ground come to me with a claim to be accepted and obeyed.
John Henry Newman, with all his love for freedom of conscience, would not have recognized the theological notion of “dissent.”
Newman insisted, above all, that educated laymen “keep in mind that you have souls to be judged and to be saved.” Personal holiness is always at the heart of Newman’s project: the glory of God and salvation of souls. He was uncompromising in this regard. As he said, “Devotion is not a sort of finish given to the sciences, nor is science a sort of feather in the cap, if I may so express myself, an ornament and set-off to devotion. I want the intellectual layman to be religious and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.”
For Newman, the road to holiness was above all a work of grace. At the same time he was no quietist. He encouraged lay people both through his preaching and personal spiritual direction to pursue holiness through the ordinary: their family and professional circumstances, united to a life of devotion. Although it cannot be said that he had a well developed theology of work, he certainly did not see it as an obstacle to sanctity or unduly encourage laymen to flee the world. As he said:
It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.
We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by contrast what is meant by perfection.
He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day. I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.
As a keen student of antiquity, Newman had a great appreciation for the nobility of human virtues as evidenced in the literature and history of ancient Rome and Greece. At the same time the saints that he most admired St. Paul, the ancient Church Fathers, his spiritual father St. Philip Neri, and St. Francis De Sales could all be described as humanly attractive. His famous definition of a gentleman best describes what he would desire as the human qualities of the modern apostle although he would be (indeed he was) the first to point out that without faith and grace, all the human virtues in the world are for naught towards salvation.
It is almost the definition of a gentleman that he never inflicts pain. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself.
Newman’s ideal of the gentleman is in a sense a look at the ordinary and perhaps most effective means by which the layman shares his love of God with others by the apostolate of personal influence, or simply put, friendship. Newman himself had an extraordinary gift for friendship, which often translated into leadership. No one would normally describe him as extroverted or light-hearted. Yet one has only to peruse the many volumes of his letters and diaries, or look at the index of names in his autobiographical works, to see that he shared deep friendships with hundreds of people throughout his life.
Indeed, this personal influence was exerted very powerfully upon the people now surely numbering in the millions who have read his works and been hynoptized by his spell. Rare is the English or American intellectual convert to Catholicism who has not given a large share of the credit to Newman’s influence. He truly speaks heart to heart “cor ad cor loquitur”, a phrase that he chose as his personal motto. In short we are dealing with a powerful personality, a religious genius whose virtues have already been recognized by the Church. As Bishop Ullathorne, his Catholic ordinary, would say, “There is a Saint in that man.”
This ideal, in fact, forms the basis of Newman’s conception of the wholly integrated personalities of the saints, which were a determining factor in their attractiveness and heightened their personal influence on others:
There are those, and of the highest order of sanctity too, as far as our eyes can see, in whom the supernatural combines with nature, instead of superseding it, invigorating it, elevating it, ennobling it; and who are not the less men because they are saints. They do not put away their natural endowments, but use them to the glory of the Giver; they do not act beside them but through them; they do not eclipse them by the brightness of divine grace, but only transfigure them. They are versed in human knowledge; they are busy in human society; they understand the human heart; they can throw themselves into the minds of other men, and all this in consequence of natural gifts and secular education. While they themselves stand secure in the blessedness of purity and peace, they can follow in imagination the ten thousand aberrations of pride, passion, and remorse. The world to them is a book, to which they are drawn for its own sake, which they read fluently, which interests them naturally, though by reason of the grace which dwells within them, they study it, and hold converse with it for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Thus they have the thoughts, feelings, frames of mind, attractions sympathies, antipathies of other men, so far as they are not sinful, only they have these properties of human nature purified, sanctified, and exalted; and they are only made more eloquent, more poetical, more profound, more intellectual, by reason of their being more holy.
By no means would have Newman have looked down upon the various modalities of apostolic work as exercised through the many religious congregations and initiatives of the laity. Yet he would have insisted that at the root of it all must always be personal holiness exemplified in what Karol Wotyla referred to in the title of his book as The Acting Person. Newman would have felt at home today in using the philosophical and theological language of phenomenology, rooted in the perennial system of Thomism, that is so evident in the magisterial teaching of John Paul II. He would have understood very well the centrality of the need to make a “sincere gift of self” in order to effect the new evangelization so repeatedly called for by the Pope during the course of his pontificate. This task will principally be taken on by the Catholic layman the whole man: well-formed and totally faithful to the teaching authority of the Church, devout, hard-working, firmly centered in the family, cultured according to his circumstances, and educated in virtue, with a great desire to share his faith with others through friendship.
Relatively little has been written on Newman and the priesthood. But much of what Newman proposed for the Catholic layman can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the Catholic priest. His views on the priesthood are not overly remarkable, although the beauty with which he expresses them is. His life as a priest was exemplary, although even today there continues to be some controversy over his foundation and governance of the English Oratory.
As a Catholic priest he was noted for his love for the Mass and devotion to the Eucharistic presence. “To me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overwhelming as the Mass, said as it is among us. I could attend Masses for ever, and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth.”
Speaking about Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, he said,
It is our Lord’s solemn benediction of his people, as when he lifted up His Hands over the children, or when He blessed His chosen ones when he ascended from Mount Olivet. As sons might come before a parent before going to bed at night, so once or twice a week, the great Catholic family comes before the eternal Father, after the bustle or toil of the day, and He smiles upon them and sheds upon him the light of his countenance.
Newman spent hours each week over the course of decades at the Birmingham Oratory hearing confessions.
If there is a heavenly idea in the Catholic Church, looking at it simply as an idea, surely, next after the Blessed Sacrament, Confession is such. And such it is ever found in fact the very act of kneeling, the low and contrite voice, the sign of the cross hanging, so to say, over the head bowed low, and the words of peace and blessing. Oh, what a soothing charm is there, which the world can neither give nor take away! Oh, what piercing, heart-subduing tranquillity, provoking tears of joy, is poured almost substantially and physically upon the soul, the oil of gladness, as Scripture calls it, when at length the penitent rises, his God reconciled to him, his sins rolled away forever! This is Confession as it is in fact.
Newman’s preaching was simple in style and content, yet the impression it left was profound, producing innumerable conversions and changes of hearts. Short of the Fathers of the Church, it is hard to think of a man who had a better sense of the proper use of Scripture in preaching anticipating in many ways the new emphasis on Scriptural preaching put forth by the Church in the Second Vatican Council. Listen to the impression he left on one witness:
For a few moments there was breathless silence. Then, in a low, clear, voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St. Mary’s, he said, “Now, I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God.” It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying. I suppose it was an epoch in the mental history of more than one of my Oxford contemporaries.
The new Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests tells us “the identity of the priest comes from participation in the Priesthood of Christ, in which the one ordained becomes, in the Church and for the Church, a real, living and faithful image of Christ the Priest,” a sacramental representation of Christ, Head and Shepherd. The Cardinal puts it more poetically:
But when Christ had come, suffered, and ascended, He was henceforth ever near us, ever at hand, even though He was not actually returned, ever scarcely gone, ever all but come back. He is the only Ruler and Priest in His Church, dispensing gifts, and has appointed none to supersede Him because He is departed only for a brief season. Aaron took the place of Christ, and had a priesthood of his own; but Christ’s priests have no priesthood but His. They are merely his shadows and organs, they are his outward signs; and what they do, He does; when they baptize, He is baptizing; when they bless, He is blessing. He is in all acts of His Church, and one of its acts is not more truly His act than another, for all are His. Thus we are, in all times, of the Gospel, brought close to His Cross. We stand, as it were, under it, and receive its blessings fresh from it; only that since, historically speaking, time has gone on, and the holy One is away, certain outward forms are necessary, by way of bringing us again under His shadow; and we enjoy those blessings through a mystery, or sacramentally, in order to enjoy them really.
The cardinal had the highest estimation of the dignity of the priesthood but at the same time realized the frailty of the men called to this high office. He writes of this in perhaps his most complete and revealing sermon on the priesthood, “Men, not Angels, the Priests of the Gospel”:
But still men they could not be, if they were to be preachers of the everlasting Gospel, and dispensers of the divine mysteries. If they were to sacrifice, as He had sacrificed; to continue, repeat, apply, the very Sacrifice which He had offered; to take into their hands that very Victim which was He himself; to bind and to loose, to bless and to ban, to receive the confession of his people, and to give them absolution for their sins; to teach them the way of truth, and to guide them along the way of peace; who was sufficient for these things but an inhabitant of those blessed realms of which the Lord is the never failing Light?
And yet, my brethren, so it is, he has sent forth for the ministry of reconciliation, not Angels, but men: He has sent forth your brethren to you, not beings of some unknown nature and some strange blood, but of your own bone and your own flesh, to preach to you....Not a temptation, my brethren, can befall you, but what befalls all those who share your nature, though you may have yielded to it, and they may not have yielded. They can understand you, they can anticipate you, they can interpret you, though they have not kept pace with you in your course. They will be tender to you, they will ‘instruct you in the spirit of meekness,’ as the Apostle says, ‘considering themselves lest they also be tempted.’ Come then unto us, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and ye shall find rest to your souls; come unto us, who now stand to you in Christ’s stead, and who speak in Christ’s name; for we too, like you, have been saved by Christ’s all-saving blood.
Newman’s desire, both for the priesthood and the laity, was that each live up fully to the privilege and duty of the high calling of being a Christian. No one who approaches the writings of Newman will be left unchallenged in improving his relationship with God and neighbor. At the heart of Newman’s message for today’s Catholic is the sense of personal vocation.
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 and serve him in my calling.
© 1995 Fr. C. John McCloskey. Used with permission.
This article was first published as the “Essay” in the February 1995 issue of Catholic World Report, a publication of Ignatius Press. Special thanks to Philip F. Lawler, editor, and the staff of CWR for providing an electronic version of this document for webbing. :-)
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Created February 19, 2001; not revised.