Newman's Kindly Light Still Leads Us On

Article excerpt

John Henry Newman's life spanned the 19th century, 1801 to 1890. He was an Oxford scholar and theologian, and spent half his years as an Anglican and half as a Roman Catholic. Newman was the leading Anglican clergyman of his day and vicar of St. Marys, Oxford, when he dramatically converted to Rome. He was ordained a Catholic priest, died a cardinal of the church and became the most influential theologian of his generation. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the defining moment of Newman's long life - his entry into full communion. with the church of Rome, Oct. 9, 1845.

A friend of Victorian notables, including Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope and Prime Minister William Gladstone, Newman had a profound influence on many of the most brilliant minds of his generation. He was also a master of English prose and authored one of the best autobiographies in the language, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, two novels, a violin sonata, many poems, of which his "Dream of Gerontius" was set to music by Sir Edgar Elgar, and a hymn still sung by Sunday congregations, "Lead Kindly Light."

The effect of Newman's preaching, according to many contemporary witnesses, was extraordinary. Gladstone once compared his sermons at Oxford in the 1830s to Abelard's lectures at the University of Paris in the 13th century. Newman's homilies were so attractive, in fact, that one university dean, envious of Newman's influence, changed the Sunday dinner hour to discourage undergraduate attendance at Evensong; students then went without supper to hear Newman preach. These homilies, collectively called Parochial and Plain Sermons," are still in print.

In the 1830s many Oxford Anglicans, with a certain nostalgia for their spiritual past, were becoming curious about long-abandoned Catholic customs and liturgical practices. Some of Newman's own associates and students were visiting the newly opened chapel of a nearby Catholic college to hear plainchant and attend High Mass. Newman never participated, for in those days he was not attracted by Roman ways or worship.

In fact, his main criticism of the church of Rome at the time was its lack of holiness. "I see no marks of sanctity,' he wrote in a letter to a friend. "If they want to convert England" let them go barefoot into our manufacturing towns - let them preach to the people like St. Francis Xavier, let them be pelted and trampled on, and I will admit that they can do what we cannot. ... Let them use the proper arms of the church and they will prove that they are the church by using them."

Curiously, Some months before this letter was written, and unknown to Newman, an Italian priest by the name of Dominic Barberi had arrived in England as a missionary. Fr. Dominic had been moved aH his life by a strange longing to work for the conversion of England; he fulfilled, in his own person, the conditions laid down in Newman's letter. The Italian missionary, blissfully ignorant of the cultural differences between his homeland and this Protestant country, had begun his apostolate by walking through the streets of English industrial towns wearing his religious habit and sandals. He preached on street corners in broken English to everyone who would hear. Sometimes he was pelted with mud but, surprisingly, on other occasions people paused to listen.

Meanwhile, as a leader of the Oxford Movement, a program of renewal of the Church of England, Newman began, a serious study of the church of the early centuries. His purpose, at first, was to find in history support for the Church of England against encroachments by the state. By 1839, however, he was trying to develop a theological basis for the Anglican position between what he perceived to be the errors of Rome on the one hand, and the extremes of Protestantism, on the other.

There then came the moment, in the course of his studies; when Newman was struck by a historical similarity. It suddenly occurred to hun that an obscure fifth century sect, the Monophysites, had cut themselves off from Rome, the historical center of Christianity, in much the same way that the Church of England land was separated from Rome in the 19th century. …