Monday, 8 October 2012

An opening of the heavens, a sudden gleam of supernatural brightness across a dark sky.

The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham began her celebrations of the feast of her patron, Bl John Henry Newman, yesterday with Solemn Evensong and Benediction at St. James's, Spanish Place. Typically high standards both in the choir loft and sanctuary gave due honour to our great patron, whose example of seeking after the Truth amid the encircling gloom remains ever relevant in an increasingly relativist world.

The Psalms

We have included a few preliminary photographs to give a fuller sense of the solemnity of the occasion alongside the exceptional sermon of the Provost of the Oxford Oratory, Fr Daniel Seward, who effortlessly drew connections between the pursuit of holiness and truth to which Bl John Henry devoted his life, and our own journey towards salvation.

The Very Reverend The Provost of the Oxford Oratory

On Thursday we shall begin the Year of Faith, which marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Both of these anniversaries give us a light on our own journey of faith. The Blessed John Henry Newman is often described as the “unseen Father of Vatican II” since his teaching, especially on the universal call to holiness, was so influential and came to a providential fruition at that Council. The Catechism we might see both as a great fruit of Vatican II and as a response to Newman’s call for an educated laity. The Catechism sets out for us in a comprehensive and accessible way the authentic teaching of the Church for our time. So how can Blessed John Henry be a companion for us in this Year of Faith? Above all it is in responding to the call of Lumen Gentium for us to form the People of God – each in our own place to form the Church, which is called to holiness. 

The saints show us that heroic sanctity is possible and necessary for us as Christians. They remind us of that call to holiness which is addressed to each of us, and they encourage us on our journey towards that perfection for which God has created us. St Philip used to say that we should never marvel at what the saints do, but rather at what God does in His saints. So here is the first qualification for holiness. If a person is merely a human marvel, that is no doubt a good thing, but it is not enough. He must point us beyond Himself to the God who is the source of all holiness. So to make someone a saint is not the equivalent of giving them the Nobel Prize or a kind of celestial knighthood, it is done for the glory of God alone. 

The deep wish to do God’s will and to pursue holiness marked out John Henry Newman from a young age, in a way that he saw very clearly to be a mark of Divine Providence. The Calvinist religion in which the young Newman began his spiritual journey attached great importance to God’s grace but very little to personal holiness. Yet his inner conversion at the age of fifteen was accompanied by an unusual conviction that God was calling him to a celibate life. St Paul said, “The world as we know it is passing away. I should like you to be free of all worries. The unmarried man is busy with the Lord’s affairs, concerned with pleasing the Lord”. So the young Newman, while still a Protestant, made that sacrifice of himself in witness to the transience of this world and the endurance of the kingdom of heaven. Celibacy is certainly not the only route to holiness of course, but for Newman, it was part of his conviction that God had a mission for him, a definite service, a work committed to him not given to any other.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost...

Holiness does not mean leaving the world – the saint lives in the world but he is not of the world. God’s own holiness means that He is infinitely separate from everything but Himself. He lives in unapproachable light – so that when the prophet Isaiah saw his great vision of the courts of heaven and the angels singing , “Holy, holy, holy”, he was overcome by terror that he, a man of unclean lips, should have seen the Lord of Hosts. Newman too had a profound reverence for the mysteries of the faith, which came from that Gift of the Holy Spirit which we call Fear of the Lord, or Wonder and Awe in God’s presence. King David tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”, and so we can only start to approach holiness when we first realize our deep unworthiness and the infinite gulf that stands between us and God. The sense of the awfulness of sin – a concept so often glossed over – was a constant theme in Newman’s thought. Newman was uninterested in the value which the world at large might put upon a person – it is the state of his soul in the eyes of God that matters. So he told his hearers in one of his sermon The Salvation of the Hearer the Motive of the Preacher: “We may securely prophesy of every man born into the world, that, if he comes to years of understanding, he will, in spite of God’s general assistances fall into mortal sin and lose his soul…Now what a thought is this! what a light does it cast upon man’s present state! how different from the view which the world takes of it; how piercing, how overpowering in its influence on the hearts that admit it.” 

Where does this human tragedy of sin begin? Its starts, Newman tells us, with a distrust of the supernatural reality of prayer. Unless we are rooted in that relationship with God which prayer entails, unless we are truly convinced that our hidden life is more real than the affairs of this world – what hope have we to escape the snares that lie in our path? Only God’s grace. It is for this reason that all of John Henry’s endeavours were ultimately directed to the salvation of souls. On the day of his ordination as an Anglican Deacon in June 1824 he wrote, “I have the responsibility of souls on me until the day of my death”. The Apologia tells us that the young Newman wondered whether God were calling him to preach the Gospel among the heathen. In his youth, our Holy Father Saint Philip burned with zeal to shed his blood preaching the Gospel in the far East, but he was told by a holy monk, “Rome is to be your Indies”. Similarly, a few days after his first ordination as Deacon, Newman’s diary records that he went to the Church Missionary House to ask about the qualifications to be a missionary. From what he wrote later, it seems as though he may have been rather hoping for a negative response: “They say weakness of voice, shortness of sight, want of eloquence, are not sufficient impediments.” 

The Censing of the Faithful

Nevertheless, Oxford, and later Birmingham turned out to be Newman’s Indies. As a tutor at Oriel, he considered his role to be as much pastoral as academic and his primary concern was for the souls of his undergraduate charges. A burning desire to save souls is universal among the saints. It is a fire caught from our Lord Himself, who said, “I am come to send fire on the earth and what will I, but that it be kindled.” Newman says, “such a zeal, poor and feeble though it be in us has been the very life of the Church, and the breath of her preachers and missionaries in all ages. It was a fire such as this which brought Our Lord from heaven, and which He desired, which He travailed, to communicate to all around Him”. And it was this zeal which caused John Henry Newman to take the gigantic step he did in entering the Catholic Church in 1845 – not a purely abstract love of Truth, but a conviction that the Truth that the Church teaches is the Truth that will save our souls. 

The Entrance

The Victorian contemporaries of Newman brought many improvements to the world: sanitation, education, social mobility, improved communication and so on. The picture of the nineteenth century philanthropist is a fine and noble one. Today too, we have the example around us of so many who rightly try to solve the problems of poverty, climate change and other human woes. This is good. But is there something missing? Is there one problem which is greater than any of these – the peril faced by the human soul? It is very easy to confuse God who is Truth with other, lesser goods that He created. This was essentially the temptation that faced Christ in the desert. Pope Benedict, in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, writes about this, saying, What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God...He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at that time have all passed away. Their glory…has proved to be a mere semblance. But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so.

The Magnificat

The world around us is transfixed by temporary realities – or even by things which are not real at all. This is not a new phenomenon. What we now call celebrity, Newman called notoriety and it was an equally potent force in the nineteenth century as in the twenty-first. Newman’s description of notoriety in Saintliness the Standard of Christian Principle has a strikingly contemporary ring to it:

Never could notoriety exist as it does now, in any former age of the world; now that the news of the hour from all parts of the world, private news as well as public, is brought day by day to every individual…And hence notoriety, or the making a noise in the world, has come to be considered a great good in itself, and a ground of veneration…Notoriety, or, as it may be called, newspaper fame, is to the many what style and fashion, to use the language of the world, are to those who are within or belong to the higher circles; it becomes to them a sort of idol, worshipped for its own sake, and without any reference to the shape in which it comes before them. It may be an evil fame or a good fame; it may be the notoriety of a great statesman, or of a great preacher, or of a great speculator, or of a great experimentalist, or of a great criminal; of one who has laboured in the improvement of our schools, or hospitals, or prisons, or workhouses, or of one who has robbed his neighbour of his wife…

The contrast that the Christian religion sets up to the love of celebrity or notoriety is that of saintliness.

“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning”. Our famous men are not the passing stars of this world but those whose names will live to all generations. This is why the Church gives us saints, Newman tells us: 

They are always our standards of right and good; they are raised up to be monuments and lessons, they remind us of God, they introduce us into the unseen world, they teach us what Christ loves, they track out for us the way which leads heavenward. They are to us who see them, what wealth, notoriety, rank, and name are to the multitude of men who live in darkness, - objects of our veneration and of our homage.

It is for this reason that we rejoice that our Cardinal has become the Blessed John Henry Newman. He stands as a reminder that there is a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that we see. He is a testament to the supernatural reality of Truth, and that the salvation of our souls is the only real goal of life. He must be for each of us an inspiration to strive for holiness. We may not be able to imitate Newman’s soaring intellect, his academic endeavour, or his grasp of fine detail, but we must be impelled to see in him “an opening of the heavens, a sudden gleam of supernatural brightness across a dark sky.” “Let us follow the saints, as they follow Christ”, and let us follow John Henry Newman in his kindness, his faithfulness, his docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, his confident trust in the supernatural reality of our holy religion and in his holiness. May he come to show to our own time the resplendent holiness of our Creator, who is for ever blessed in His angels and in His saints.

Tantum ergo...

Further photographs may be found here.

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