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A beginner’s guide to the works of John Henry Newman

Newman’s glasses sit on his writing desk at the Birmingham Oratory (Getty)

Even by Victorian standards, John Henry Cardinal Newman was a prolific writer. He wrote and published in many genres, from the controversial to the pastoral; from fiction and poetry to historical sketches and educational theory; from doctrinal apologetics to the defence of religious faith as reasonable. During his lifetime and throughout the decades since his death, scholars and students have read, analysed and discussed these works.

I’ve been a student of John Henry Newman since I was a student in college when the Newman Center at Wichita State University held a week-long Newman School of Catholic Thought on his life and works. Many famous Newman scholars have informed my studies, including Fr Ian Ker, Edward Short, Joyce Sugg and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Newman, however, is being canonised not because he is a great and prolific writer, with a style and mastery of the English language that even his harshest critics acknowledged in his day. It’s the holiness and faithfulness to Jesus Christ and His Church that Newman expressed in those works that led to his Cause, devotion to him and prayers for his intercession.

So, which among his many works would help someone who has never read anything written by Newman understand why so many have been devoted to this saint?

Here are my suggestions.

Start with the Meditations and Devotions, a collection of prayers and reflections for students at the Oratory School in Birmingham. It was compiled and published by Fr William Neville in 1893, three years after Newman’s death. The saint’s simple, confident and humble faith is evident on the pages of this work, including his devotion to Our Lady, to his patron saint Philip Neri and to the Stations of the Cross, meditation before the Blessed Sacrament and the holy rosary.

In the “Meditations on Christian Doctrine” the reader will find one of his most famous quotations:

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 never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his – if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion 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.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever 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. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; 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 the future from me – still He knows what He is about.

Other meditation highlights include his “Short Road to Perfection” and the “Prayer for the Light of Truth”.

The neophyte should continue on the road to understanding Newman as a pastor of souls – that quality of his life that Benedict XVI highlighted at the beatification Mass in September 2010 – with a sampling of his Parochial and Plain Sermons. Newman was preaching in the 19th century to many nominal Christians in the Church of England: they hardly knew what they believed and barely acted on what they thought they believed.

In sermons such as “The Religion of the Day”, “Unreal Words”, “Doing Glory to God in Pursuits of the World” and “Christ’s Privations a Meditation for Christians”, he asked his congregation at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford why they did not – for example, in that last sermon – “have some little gratitude, some little sympathy, some little love, some little awe, some little self-reproach, some little self-abasement, some little repentance, some little desire of amendment” when hearing week after week what God has done for them. He told them exactly why:

But why is this? why do you so little understand the Gospel of your salvation? why are your eyes so dim, and your ears so hard of hearing? why have you so little faith? so little of heaven in your hearts? For this one reason, my brethren, if I must express my meaning in one word, because you so little meditate. You do not meditate, and therefore you are not impressed.

Then the offers the solution:

What is meditating on Christ? it is simply this, thinking habitually and constantly of Him and of His deeds and sufferings. It is to have Him before our minds as One whom we may contemplate, worship, and address when we rise up, when we lie down, when we eat and drink, when we are at home and abroad, when we are working, or walking, or at rest, when we are alone, and again when we are in company; this is meditating. And by this, and nothing short of this, will our hearts come to feel as they ought.

After the reader has sampled some of Newman’s works, an introductory biography would be helpful, such as Joyce Sugg’s John Henry Newman: Snapdragon in the Wall (Gracewing) or Fr Juan Velez’s Holiness in a Secular Age: The Witness of Cardinal Newman (Scepter Publishers).

Then, more Newman on characteristic religious themes. Here are some examples.

On conversion: the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, to understand why Newman came to believe that the Catholic Church was the “one true fold of Christ”, the one and only true Church.

On conscience: chapter five of his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, describing the rights and duties of a believer in obeying his or her well-formed conscience, not as means of being consistent with themselves, but of hearing the voice of God through “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

On the role of the laity in the Church: chapter nine in The Present Position of Catholics in England, lectures given to the lay brothers of the Oratory in Birmingham.

On the dangers of liberalism in religion (believing that one religion is as good as another): his Biglietto Speech when he was given the cardinal’s hat in 1879.

On death, judgment, heaven and hell: The Dream of Gerontius, read aloud and supplemented with listening to Edward Elgar’s dramatic setting of the poem.

The Development Christian Doctrine; The Idea of a University; and Grammar of Assent should follow, especially for readers with theological, educational and philosophical interests. And after reading these three of Newman’s four great works (the other being the Apologia), readers should go back to the Meditations and Devotions; his sermons; and never forget his hymn Lead, Kindly Light.

Stephanie A Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation (Scepter Publishers). She lives in Wichita, Kansas, and blogs at supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com. All the Newman works cited are available in print and online at newmanreader.org

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