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Newman is a perfect companion for Holy Week

A portrait of Newman (c 1876), by Jane Fortescue Seymour

Newman’s prayers are a rare combination of theological depth and literary quality

On Good Friday, as Catholics piously walk the Via Crucis, many will pray the meditations of John Henry Newman – and not just because he is expected to be canonised later this year. They are a rare combination of theological depth, spiritual intensity and literary quality – much like the man himself.

There are two versions, the longer and the shorter. In 2001, for the bicentennial of Newman’s birth, his meditations were chosen for the night-time papal Via Crucis at the Colosseum. The shorter version was chosen, as it almost always is for public recitation, because it is thought a bit too controversial to use the more profound longer version. The text too bold for timid souls is the Sixth Station (Veronica), which Newman beautifully connects to the Fourth Station (Blessed Mother) and the Fifth Station (Simon of Cyrene).

“The relief which a Mother’s tenderness secured is not yet all she did,” Newman writes of Mary’s role on the via Dolorosa. “Her prayers sent Veronica as well as Simon – Simon to do a man’s work, Veronica to do the part of a woman. The devout servant of Jesus did what she could. As Magdalen had poured the ointment at the Feast, so Veronica now offered Him this napkin in His passion. ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘would I could do more! Why have I not the strength of Simon, to take part in the burden of the Cross? But men only can serve the Great High Priest, now that He is celebrating the solemn act of sacrifice.’ O Jesus! let us one and all minister to Thee according to our places and powers.”

What struck me this Lent though was the Eleventh Station, when Jesus is nailed to the Cross: “When he reached the projection where His sacred feet were to be, He turned round with sweet modesty and gentleness towards the fierce rabble, stretching out His arms, as if He would embrace them,” Newman writes. “There He hung, a perplexity to the multitude, a terror to evil spirits, the wonder, the awe, yet the joy, the adoration of the Holy Angels.”

It was that word “perplexity” that I noticed. I encourage my students at the chaplaincy at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, to pray daily Newman’s prayer, sometimes called “The Mission of My Life”. “Perplexity” appears there too: “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 … 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 …”

For many years praying that prayer, I thought that perplexity was related to the search for truth, of seeking for reality amid the shadows and imaginings of this world, and of the human mind. It was an intellectual project, to move from perplexity to clarity, from confusion to understanding, from darkness to light.

But the multitude at the foot of the Cross, beholding the man, were not on an intellectual search. They were confronted by the one they thought – just days earlier – was the Anointed One, the Christ. And now, they recall that the one who hangs from the tree is cursed (cf Deuteronomy 21:22-23, Galatians 3:13). The anointed is the cursed? It is an impossibility, a contradiction, a perplexity.

It is not a perplexity amenable to resolution by reason. For the perplexity is not about the truth of one or another aspect of reality, but about God’s plan, His purposes, His providence. It was this perplexity – How can this be God’s will? – that the crowd had to work out.

It is this perplexity that the disciple faces in every age; more than the search for truth in itself, we struggle to understand God’s providential purposes for ourselves. What does this suffering mean for me? What does this fracture mean for my marriage? What does this division mean for my parish? What does this folly mean in the life of nations? What does this iniquity mean in the life of the Church? What is God saying here? Does He really know what He is about?

In this vale we are perplexed. To contend with God’s purposes is a perplexity that serves Him, for His purposes then occupy our minds and hearts.

It is not the perplexity of the researcher in the library. It is the perplexity of the rabble at Calvary. And for the rabble of every age, the answer remains the same:

We adore Thee O Christ and we praise Thee; Because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca