John Henry Newman the scholar is widely studied and admired. We have disseminated his works. It is now time to bring his personal spirituality to a wider audience.
Foundational to Newman’s spirituality is his conviction of the primacy and immediacy of the unseen spiritual world around us: the all-pervasive presence of God, the angels, the saints, the holy souls departed. We need this conviction as our starting point as we try to evangelise peoples and cultures that are so often closed to the reality of the supernatural, or who take an unhealthy interest in warped versions of it – occultism and its derivatives.
In his sermon The Invisible World, he wrote: “…in spite of this universal world which we see, there is another world, quite as far-spreading, quite as close to us, and more wonderful; … The world of spirits then, though unseen, is present; present, not future, not distant. It is not above the sky, it is not beyond the grave; it is now and here; the kingdom of God is among us.”
Secondly, we should be inspired by the heroic docility with which Newman followed where the Spirit led. He was not in any way a charismatic in the modern sense of that label. He believed our prayer should always be tranquil and sober. By his painstaking study of Holy Scripture and Church history, in tandem with his life of prayer and service, he persevered step by step along the path to truth – a path that led him out of the prejudices which had coloured his earlier beliefs.
The convert who in 1845 professed the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true fold of the Redeemer was the man who for many years previously had seriously believed that the Pope was Antichrist, and the Roman Church a purveyor of idolatry, heresy, and superstition. Newman’s conversion to Catholicism took time. It took time because there was much in him that needed to change. On his ecumenical journey he responded to the promptings of the Spirit not by frothy emotionalism but by a calm and incremental perseverance.
On his earlier path, Newman’s most energetic enterprise was his invention of Anglo-Catholicism. It went deep with him. It took time for him to move beyond its shadows and images. Newman’s journey shows us that God can use all the circumstances and events of our lives, including our mistakes, to draw us to Himself. Grace builds on nature. The spiritual sensitivity and intellectual acuity that we admire in Newman were part of his life as an Anglican. Some of his finest sermons and most insightful studies were written as an Anglican, an inspiring testimony to the workings of the Holy Spirit outside the visible boundaries of the Church.
Thirdly, there is the fruitful integration within Newman himself of his love for God and his love of neighbour. Newman loved God with the same heart and mind with which he also loved other creatures. His celibate and chaste affective life was not clouded by anything akin to what the post-Freudian world likes to call “repression”. His capacity for deep friendship with others, women and men, is well documented in the attentive and affectionate letters he wrote to his closer friends.
In an age like our own when genuine friendship can so easily be occluded by an obsessive sexualisation of human affectivity, Newman reminds us that human love at its best is a pointer towards that supreme love to which we are all called, whatever our state in life and whatever our role in the Church: our personal love for our personal Saviour. John Henry’s human affections were integral to his spiritual life, and his friendships brought him closer to God.
Newman drew others to Christ through the attraction they felt towards him, their pastor. In this, he is a fine example of how we can best pursue our mission to evangelise. Merely repeating with cool detachment the words on the pages of the Catechism, true though they are, will not by itself turn hearts and minds to the Lord. Human warmth and inter-personal engagement are also needed. Heart must speak to heart. The human element is essential if the Spirit’s gift of faith is to take root and bear fruit.
Newman attracted others to the faith through his apostolate of friendship more than through an apostolate of controversy. He drew others along the path to God because he drew them to share in his own personal life, his mind, his heart. As their pastor and mentor, he was also their friend. I am certain that this relational approach to the pastoral apostolate is just as much part of Newman’s greatness as his theological insights into, for example, the authority of conscience and the development of doctrine.
Blessed John Henry Newman is a heroic example of how the apostolate achieves its finest results when heart speaks unto heart. We evangelise best not by aggressive proselytising, nor by relishing our differences, but by attracting. I pray that the Spirit will now give him to the universal Church as a saint and Doctor, to help us all in our mission to attract many more of our brothers and sisters to the knowledge and love of Jesus.
Fr Ignatius Harrison is Provost of the Birmingham Oratory