John Henry Newman: A Conversion To Die For

Author: David Birch

John Henry Newman: A Conversion To Die For

David Birch
Professor of Communication, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia
Associate Editor ofThe Priest: The Journal of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy

Reflection on Newman's way of 'simply doing God's will'

The 'Awful Reality' of Catholicism

On 25 September 1843, the Rev. John Henry Newman, Vicar of one of the most famous churches in England, St Mary's Oxford, preached his last sermon as an Anglican at Littlemore, (a satellite parish of St Mary's where he now lived in a small community of men living in an interesting "monastic" experiment in Anglican Catholicism.) He asked the congregation to, "pray for him, that in all things he may know God's will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it". He was still two years away from his reception into what he was to call "The One True Fold", and which in England at that time was still generally referred to as "Roman" Catholicism.

With his Beatification now certain, many more books and articles will be written about Newman to add to the thousands already written. The grounds for his conversion to Catholicism will be covered many times over, with probably ever increasing complications and subtleties. But I would suggest we need not over-complicate Newman's conversion, despite it taking him the better part of seven years to make the final step. Nor indeed do we need to over-complicate (or over-liberalise) his Catholicism. His conversion was, as this last Anglican sermon puts it, Newman simply doing God's will, and his Catholicism, simply his fulfilment of God's will. It took Newman seven years to finally determine God's will for his future — for many of us a lifetime is not enough.

Newman wanted certitude that what he was doing was not the result of his own private judgement, but was God's will. He was surrounded by a world, political and scientific, that was increasingly positioning private judgement over God's truths. But this certitude for Newman — a highly skilled mathematician — would not come from his logical reasoning about Church history and development — it could, for Newman, only come from God — and it led him to the Catholic Church.

He was not like so many Catholic converts, now and then, introduced to the Catholic Church by a friend; he had little or no interest in the rituals, per se,of Catholicism, in fact knew nothing of them in any real detail until after his reception; he was not at all interested in what we might call the "vestments and vestures" drama of Catholicism as many were; nor indeed, in Gothic revivalism, which brought so many into the Church at that time. Newman's conversion resulted from engagement with, and acceptance of, what he considered to be undeniable and non-negotiable, absolute, objective,revealed truths about the supernatural not the natural world.

Put simply, and the power of this simplicity I find overwhelming, his interest lay in being sure that the one true Church would be the Church where he could have the certitude of knowing that within that Church, he could save his soul.

Simple as that? Surely not? After all, we are talking about one of the leading intellects of his day; a serious and significant scholar; a major theologian and Oxford Don — the leader of a major movement to reinject Catholicism back into the Anglican Church; the writer of numerous books and tracts and famous to the point that rarely a day would go by without something in the newspapers about him. Surely, his conversion has to be more complicated that this?

At its very heart — I would reply no! Salvation is the key to understanding Newman's conversion because he had come to the certain belief that the Anglican Church was in schism and so therefore unable to be the vehicle of Christ's salvific grace. "The simple question is", he wrote, "Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? Am I in safety, were I to die tonight?". What would your answer be?

Newman's was clear. He believed he was not in safety where he was, and so turned his back on the establishment Church in England; a well-paid job; an Oxford Fellowship; status and standing; family and friends. This was no lifestyle choice; no modern day sea-change or tree-change; no new age seeking after material well-being. This was supernatural conversion — not to the accidents of Catholic ritual to suit life here on earth — but to the substance of what Newman was to call the "awful reality" of the Catholic Church.

The Emperor's New Clothes

What Newman did in becoming a Catholic in a mid-19th Century world where the privileging of man and the natural world was taking over in all spheres of activity and thinking (as it is doing so even more today); where unbelief was growing exponentially; where science and engineering were the new gods. What Newman did made him stand out from the world of Imperial privilege and status. He stood out not because he became a Catholic as such — but because he stood out for the salvation of his soul over and above everything else in the world of Anglican religious indifference and the unbelief that surrounded him. His becoming a Catholic to save his soul (and not because he liked the "bells and smells") was a total indictment of, and embarrassment to, not only Erastian Anglicanism, but also to the State itself. It was a very public celebration of the religious over the secular.

He wrote, many years before his conversion that, "The Church of Christ... is not an institution of man, not a mere political establishment, not a creature of the state, depending on the state's breath, made and unmade at its will, but it is a Divine society, a great work of God". Sixteen years later, by the act of his conversion as a salvific move made possible only supernaturally, he revealed the unthinkable at this time of British Victorian supremacy of the world, that neither of the prime English institutions, the Anglican Church or the British Empire —both growing in influence and importance around the whole world — that neither of these bastions of 19th century Victorian security and prosperity, was capable of saving a man's soul.

In doing what he did, at the time he did it, Newman broke all the rules of a Victorian England, gloriously self-confident in its abilities to control the entire world. He ran up to the palace gates and shouted out loudly the truth about the Emperor's new clothes. This is not the hyper-sensitive, timid, "souffre-douleur", as Newman is so often thought to have been. This is the act of a very brave man — brave not because of his own Victorian self-assuredness — but because of his certitude that Catholicism, and not England and its Church, knew how to save his soul.

Heart and Soul

At a time when Empire was becoming the be-all and end-all of what it meant to be British; when buildings —whole towns and cities — were being built on such a scale and solidity to scream out to everyone who saw them, "this building and all it stands for politically, socially, culturally and economically will last 1,000 years", Newman stuck a pin into the balloon and blew apart the myth, in a way no one had really done before him, that the State and its Church, were simply a chimera and could never offer real and lasting salvation to their people, despite all the appearances and their tub-thumping, that they could.

And he did this — privileging the supernatural over the natural — not by writing a book about it, though reflections emerged later; not by preaching sermons at the time; but by a simple action, taken thoughtfully and carefully, of actually becoming a Catholic. He did this, in the end, quickly and without fanfare. He didn't seek instruction; he didn't call on his high status contacts like the then Bishop Wiseman to receive him with pomp and ceremony in glorious Gothic splendour, or map out a career path for himself as Anglican Archdeacon, later Cardinal, Manning was to do immediately after his own conversion. He was received by (the now Blessed) Fr Dominic Barberi, following a cold, wet and windy night at Littlemore, on 9 October 1845 in a converted farm shed for a Chapel.

A month later he wrote in a letter, "Pray be quite assured that I would not have left the English church had I thought it possible for me to remain in God's favour and remain a member of it. To my own mind it is as clear as light that it is a church which the Fathers would not have acknowledged. I had no alternative but to leave it unless I gave up the Fathers, nay all revealed religion". This is totally uncompromising. And we do Newman a very grave disservice, and indeed the enormous power of the supernatural action involved in his conversion, if we temper such uncompromising statements (as many now do) to make them suit more ecumenical times.

The rite of reception in the Rituale Romanum asks of the convert, and Fr Dominic would have asked this of Newman, "Quid petis ab Ecclesia?" (What do you seek from the Church?) and Newman would have answered "Fides" (Faith). And then Fr Dominic from that same Rituale would have asked, "Fides quid tibi praestet?" (What might that faith offer you?). Two little words — that's all — was Newman's answer —"Vitam Aeternam" (Eternal Life). Nothing more. Nothing less.

Faith and Eternal Life. As we contemplate John Henry Newman's future Beatification do we need any more than these three simple words — the very heart and soul of his conversion — to hold as his most powerful legacy before us?

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 September 2009, page 4

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