St John Henry Newman (Abbot Cuthbert Brogan’s Sermon)
When I was a young student at St Benet’s Hall, in my early twenties, the Oratorians arrived in Oxford and suddenly the religious scene in this city became much more exotic than it had been before. It became three dimensional. We heard things not heard for a long time, and we saw items of religious dress and liturgical objects we had only read of in the 1907 Catholic Encyclopaedia. More and more young faces poured into St Aloysius and a steady flow of converts crossed the Tiber. The Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware – used to describe the Church of England as a most generous mother, one who gives away most of the children to the other churches. I, being an Anglican convert, signed up for the Newman paper. And it gave me a lot of grief, reading acres of his 19th century prose proved no easy task. I discovered that there is no immediacy about Newman, but such subtlety, such fine articulation, requires the approach of what we Benedictines call lectio divina, reading and reading again and again until depths are fathomed and meaning emerges. All Anglican converts are, in a way, disciples of John Henry Newman, we have all followed that same route and recognise his struggles. Newman, slowly but surely, became a friend. For the first ten years or so of my priesthood, nigh every sermon looked to the Fathers of the Church for its inspiration and Newman for clarity of thought and purity of doctrine.
In those days, and they are not so long ago, we never imagined that Newman would be declared a saint. We knew there was talk of the cause in the background, but we frankly thought that the project was simply the result of an overactive Oratorian imagination. His vast intellectual output distracted us from his sanctity. I had lived with the Passionist Fathers at the Shrine of Blessed Dominic Barberi before belong a monk, and so I tended to look to Barberi for holiness in this story, and to Newman for intellect. Indeed, one of my old monks – now long dead, was a great Newman fan. He loved Newman’s writings, but would insist, ‘He should not be beatified! He could be very quirky, and held grudges for years on end!’ When we reminded this monk that he himself had a rather spectacular track record for holding grudges, he replied, ‘but I am not up for beatification!’ So there you have it! Many spoke of their hope that Newman would be declared a doctor of the Church, and that his intellect might somehow thereby be canonised rather than the man himself. And so it is
When Newman was made a Cardinal he was inundated with letters of congratulation, but recalled that he was particularly pleased to receive the congratulations from the Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation, and that he was pleased simply ‘ because it came from the Benedictines’. This fact was enough for him. In his historical sketches he described the monastic life as free from corruption in its daily work, free from distraction in its daily worship. And in this he recognised his own ideals. Newman was no monk, he did not live the monastic life, but it is true to say he lived a monastic life. The ora and labora - prayer and work - of our monastic tradition were the chief occupations of Newman, and what was his retirement at Littlemore if not a monastic sojourn?
His search was for the Truth. His intellectual project was a constant relegation to the periphery all that did not lead to the Truth or distracted form the Truth. And all this at tremendous personal cost. His was an ascetic life, a lifelong forsaking of all that does not lead to God. And his askesis was a search not for a thing but a person, the God who is Truth Himself, the Wa,y the Truth, and the Life. He was not seeking a theory but reality Itself. And his vocation was not a short project not a mere academic essay, not a sprint, but a marathon – a pilgrimage, the work of a lifetime, a work usque ad mortem - unto death - as St Benedict loves to say. Newman’s work was what the French like to call a travail de bénédictin - a Benedictine work – a work which rather like an illuminated manuscript, requires great patience and precision across many year.
One of the marvellous aspects of God is that he is at once utterly complex and utterly simple. Some of the saints have glimpsed this. St Benedict saw all this is, in a ball of fire. Julian of Norwich saw the same in a hazelnut held in her hand. Newman in the complexity of intellectual endeavour, found the simplicity which is God. And his key was humility, that he approached the sources of revelation – scripture and tradition - with profound humility. And so he was not left disappointed and his researches were fruitful. Humility means rootedness in the truth, the truth about ourselves as well as about God. This is the stuff of all the spiritual masters and Newman sits comfortably amongst those masters.
And so Newman is a saint, and a saint for our day. His reverence of the Truth is a corrective in our world of fake news, his intellectual honesty and humility is a corrective to arrogance and pride. His prophecy of what liberalism would do to the National Church he so loved has come true. What would Newman make of phrases such as ‘two integrities’? What of the relativism which threatens the Catholic Church of our day?
He is a saint of the mystery of the Church. If we are disillusioned with the Church today we can recall how Newman’s path to seeing the true dignity and nature Church was far from straight-forward or immediate. Likewise he is a saint of the liturgy, a wonder obscured and often disappointing today. His writings on the liturgy are a rich seam yet to be properly quarried, and reverence for St John Henry goes hand in hand with a profound respect for the Church’s godly and ordered worship and a love of its tradition. And we Benedictines were making the same discoveries in parallel. Just as the Oxford Movement began in 1833, so in the same year Dom Guéranger refounded the Abbey of Solesmes and discovered in the liturgy what Newman discovered through doctrine. Both held the Incarnation to be the main principle of Christianity. What Newman saw in the sacred deposit of doctrine developing organically down the centuries, Dom Guéranger saw prolonged in the Sacred Liturgy. He believed the Sacred Liturgy to be the prolongation of the ‘great principle’ of the Incarnation in the Church of his today and of every age..
In celebrating Newman as a saint we celebrate theory turned in to practice. He made his doctrine his own, he practised what he preached. He gave flesh to the word in the concrete choices of his own life. This is holiness.
And his trust in divine providence is a lesson and a consolation to us all. When writing about early Benedictines he observes, they had no magnificent plan of work beyond the daily round of duties: they let each day do its work as it came'. And in speaking of where God is to be found – he gives us some useful indictors. Pointing out that Moses saw the glory of God as he passed by, he explains how when we look back we can see God’s hand at work. We see His guiding hand in the teachers, the friends, the priests and religious, the various circumstances we have been through – in all these we see that who, what and where we are today is no accident but part of a plan gradually revealed in our lives. This looking back – gives us a confidence to live the present day with trust and the future with hope. When John Henry looked back he could see his own life being crafted by God: his evangelical conversion as a boy, impressions of dogma impressed on his imagination, his failures at exams, his crises of confidence, the hurtful disputes, the parting of friends, the bitterness of separation from loved ones which his conversion engendered. In all these joys and vicissitudes we see this heavenly patron being prepared by God not only for the heroic witness of his earthly life, but also as his useless fullness to us as a heavenly patron.
Preaching here a few years back on St Philip’s Day I noted that St Philip Neri left the region of Monte Cassino for Rome and St Benedict left Rome for Monte Cassino. And so the Oratorian way and the Benedictine way travel the same route, a route which involves community life, the liturgy, music, prayer, joy, and hospitality. This is one reason why Benedictines and Oratorians often get along so well, and perhaps why our Dom Stanislaus lives so happily with the Oratorian community here in Oxford during term time – at least that’s his side of the story.
St Benedict tells us that as we run the way of God’s commands our hearts expand with the indescribable delight of love. What St Benedict tells us in the year 500 would be confirmed centuries later in that expansion of heart of St Philip. And from Newman we hear Cor ad cor loquitur - heart speaks unto heart. And so we give thanks to almighty God that St John Henry communicates so eloquently what St Benedict and St Philip held dear, and joins these two great patriarchs of ours in prayers for their sons. We ask their prayer sand to them we join our own as we pray today for the Fathers of the Oratory, for the City of Oxford, and for the whole Church, the One, True Fold of the Redeemer, the vine which God’s own right hand has planted. Amen.