Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Iron Hardness, Surpassing Sweetness: Newman as Preacher

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Iron Hardness, Surpassing Sweetness: Newman as Preacher

Article excerpt

BLESSED JOHN HENRY NEWMAN'S importance as a Catholic thinker is beyond dispute. Since well before his canonization process was opened there were predictions that he would be not only "Saint John Henry Newman" but "Doctor of the Church." The French theologian Jean Guitton recounted that in 1957 an increasingly ill Pope Pius XII whispered in his ear, "Console yourself: Newman will one day be a Doctor of the Church." (1) After his cause was opened such talk continued. Even in the absence of Newman's direct influence or quotations from his works, many have referred to the Second Vatican Council as "Newman's Council." (2) Blessed John Paul II recognized his contributions in Fides et ratio by naming him, as well as others such as Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Edith Stein, and Vladimir S. Soloviev, a model for exploring the relationship of faith and reason. (3) It is certainly this recognition that prompted Pope Benedict XVI to alter his own practice of sending a representative to preside over beatification ceremonies by going himself. His homily on this occasion foregrounded the intellectual contributions that Newman has made to such topics as university education, faith and reason, and the development of doctrine. (4)

But Doctors of the Church are something more than brilliant thinkers--they are saints first and foremost. As the end of Benedict's homily made clear, Newman was, above all, a Christian and a priest. Both before and after he became a Catholic, Newman was usually engaged in pastoral work at the same time he was undertaking intellectual tasks. Even when Newman was ensconced in Oxford, he was never an "ivory tower" intellectual in the sense that his writings were somehow separated from his living faith and pastoral work. Some of his most powerful and unforgettable writings are sermons, and his name was originally made during the 1830s as a preacher.

It was during this period that many of his greatest sermons, those known as the Parochial and Plain Sermons, were written and preached. His sermons were so influential that people began to refer to "Newmania" and jokes were made that undergraduates recited the creed, "Credo in Newmanum": I believe in Newman. When Newman would preach at the University Parish of St. Mary the Virgin on Sunday afternoons, crowds would gather to hear him, many of them undergraduates at Oxford. Some of the university authorities, in an attempt to stifle his influence, changed the dinner hour at their colleges so young men would have to choose between dinner and hearing Newman. Many of them chose Newman.

The Anglican Newman was not a dramatic preacher. Fr. Ian Ker, Newman's biographer, describes his sermons as "read, with hardly any change in the inflexion of the voice and without any gesture on the part of the preacher, whose eyes remained fixed on the text in front of him." The "only obvious rhetorical device" was "the long pause," which "appeared to be not for effect but the result of sheer intensity of thought." (While as a Catholic he more usually preached only from a set of notes, he did not thereby become more theatrical.) Nevertheless, the effect was powerful, even for one like Matthew Arnold, who left Christianity behind altogether but who never ceased to venerate Newman's intellect and carried for a lifetime the memory of Newman preaching in Oxford. He would recall "the charm of the spiritual apparition, gliding into the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St. Mary's, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music,--subtle, sweet, mournful." (5)

Most observers, though, remembered the content of the sermons. Richard Church, Newman's younger Oxford Movement colleague, recalled in his history of the movement that they "made men think of the things which the preacher spoke of, and not of the sermon or the preacher." (6) Owen Chadwick would later write, "Newman created his effect by disappearing into the reality of which he spoke, as though he must get out of its way. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.