“A pure block of purpose.” That’s how a friend of Newman’s summed up his life. From start to finish, Blessed John Henry Newman pursued one singular, overarching quest: the quest for truth.
As a student and professor at Oxford, as an Anglican preacher and scholar, and finally as a Catholic priest and cardinal, Newman dedicated himself to learning the truths of Jesus Christ and to living according to those truths. Truth was the “purpose” that Newman used to carve the “pure block” of his life.
The True Foundation. This thirst for the truth is what makes Newman a wonderful model for us in our own day and time. Newman understood that the surest and strongest foundation for our lives is the truth—the truth of who God is, the truth of who we are, and the truth of how God has called us to live. He understood that feelings—even religious, “spiritual” feelings—come and go and shouldn’t become the basis for our lives. He knew that public opinion rises and falls. And he knew that the idea of following our own dreams and desires can be perilous, as these dreams may be based on self-centered goals as opposed to a desire to do what is pleasing to the Lord.
Newman himself put it this way in his Apologia: “From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.” From a very young age, he was committed to following the truth wherever it led him. And eventually, this quest led him to the doors of the Catholic Church.
In making his decision to become a Catholic, Newman knew that there would be sacrifices and hardships involved. He knew that he would have to resign his treasured position as a professor at Oxford, since at the time only Anglicans were permitted to hold professorships. He also knew that his new Catholic friends were younger and less brilliant than his Anglican friends. He knew that many Catholics, particularly in the hierarchy and in the theological world, would mistrust him. They would look for ways to criticize or even reject his theological methods and his conclusions. At one point, he wryly remarked: “I am going to those whom I do not know and of whom I expect very little—I am making myself an outcast.”
Sacrifices for the Truth. He was right, too. He did become a kind of “outcast” in his new church. Many doubted his sincerity. Some even suspected that he was an Anglican spy, sent to undermine Catholicism from the inside. Just as St. Paul found a cool welcome among the Christians in Jerusalem—people he had persecuted before his conversion—so John Henry Newman was greeted with guarded smiles and thinly veiled skepticism among English Catholics.
But that didn’t matter to Newman. He wanted to get to work. He wanted to serve his new church and help it prosper in a sometimes hostile environment. But even here the deck was stacked against him. His two main projects in his first years as a Catholic—establishing a new Catholic university in Dublin and overseeing a new translation of the Bible into English—ended in embarrassment. The Church leaders who championed these projects gave him little support, and when the projects failed, Newman received much of the blame.
So badly was Newman treated at this time—and so despondent did he become—that many suspected he would abandon Catholicism and return to the Anglican Church. But the truths of Christ and his love for the Church were much bigger than any negativity or persecution aimed at him. “I have not had one moment’s wavering of trust in the Catholic Church ever since I was received into her fold,” he wrote. How could he? Because he had found the truth, and he determined to stay faithful to it. In the end, he was vindicated, even named a cardinal. But it would take years before the cloud was lifted.
Be Perfect? Even though he lived more than a century ago, Newman’s faithfulness to the Church, with all of its beauty and despite its weaknesses, speaks volumes to us today. In the midst of all the beauty and holiness of the Church today, we too can find weaknesses. “Progressives” and “conservatives” treat each other with suspicion and contempt. News of pedophile priests and subsequent cover-ups continues. And there is a decline in the number of Catholics who actively practice their faith or attend Mass.
Given all these challenges, we may be tempted to ask: “How can I ever hope to ‘be perfect’ (Matthew 5:48) when I am surrounded by so much imperfection? How can I be perfect when I myself have so much sin and weakness? Is there any hope at all?”
“Yes, there is!” Newman would say. He would tell us that it is possible for us to live a life worthy of the Lord. And he would offer some words of advice to help us along the way.
First, he would tell us: Hold fast to the truth. Immerse yourself in Scripture and the teachings of the Church. Read the lives of the saints. Take some time to pray every day, asking the Lord for an open heart and a humble spirit. Build your life on the solid, unwavering foundation of truth, and you will be blessed.
Second, he would encourage us to learn the difference between truth in teaching and truth in life. Newman came to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was the only Church that could draw a direct line back to the apostles. He saw it as the one community of faith that remained true to the authentic teaching of Christ. But he also saw that this Church was made up of ordinary humans who were prone to make mistakes and commit sins. So he would tell us not to dismiss the Church itself simply because of the failings of some of its members.
Finally, and most important, Newman would caution us against trying to discover, let alone live by, the truth of God only on the basis of our own strength or understanding. As much of a scholar and intellectual as John Henry Newman was, he was also a prayerful man. Every decision he made, especially his decision to enter the Catholic Church, arose out of his inner relationship with the Lord, not just out of his study and logic. And that’s what kept him faithful.
Love Makes Faith. Prayer, study, humility, faithfulness, and holiness. These virtues are key to understanding John Henry Newman’s life of faith. They are also the keys that will keep us filled with hope in the midst of our own challenges.
Newman shows us that it takes more than human reasoning to form a foundation that can weather all the storms of life. It takes a heart surrendered to the Lord in prayer. It takes a heart that is humble and ready to be taught by the Spirit. We can’t simply muster up the kind of faith and conviction that we need to live the Christian life. We need to be filled with God’s grace as well. Newman himself put it this way:
“We are Christ’s not by faith merely, nor by works merely, but by love. . . . It is love that makes faith, not faith love. We are saved . . . by that heavenly flame within us, which, while it consumes what is seen, aspires to what is unseen. Love is the gentle, tranquil, satisfied acquiescence and adherence of the soul in the contemplation of God.”
Lovers of Truth. John Henry Newman joined a long line of saints who held fast to the truth despite strong opposition. Ignatius of Loyola was arrested by the Spanish Inquisition. Mary MacKillop was silenced by her superiors after she unmasked a pedophile priest. John of the Cross was imprisoned by his own religious superiors. Yves Congar was forbidden to teach theology because of his forward-looking views on ecumenism and the laity—views that the Church later embraced at Vatican II.
These men and women show us how valuable it is to hold fast to the truth in humility and gentleness. Our world isn’t perfect. Our church isn’t perfect. Our family isn’t perfect. And certainly none of us is perfect either! But if we can follow the example of John Henry Newman and try our best to stay open to God’s grace and let God’s love guide us, we will find the grace and the consolation to keep moving forward.
So let’s all place our hope and trust in the Lord. Let’s all become lovers of truth—lovers of Jesus who is himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life!