The beatification of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) on September 19, 2010, will mark an important milestone in the life not only of the Church in Great Britain, but indeed of the Church around the world. Cardinal Newman remains the single most influential figure of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century. Twenty years after his death in 1890, it is calculated that one million people had entered the Catholic Church as a result of either their personal acquaintance with Newman or their reading of his works.
Newman exercised a vigorous and highly effective apostolate of the pen. His many works, such as The Idea of a University, The Development of Doctrine, The Grammar of Assent, and his intellectual autobiography Apologia pro vita sua still command attention and respect in the twenty first century, and not just in Anglophone countries. His personal correspondence, running to some 50,000 letters, takes up (along with his diaries) 32 volumes.
In addition to a daunting intellectual rigor and an indefatigable zeal for writing, Newman demonstrated a remarkable gift for friendship. Newman enjoyed many lifelong friends among a wide assortment of people, male and female, older and younger, Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor, learned and simple.
In a sermon titled “Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating Truth,” which he delivered to Oxford undergraduates during his days as an Anglican on January 22, 1832, Newman points out that Christians win people over to Jesus Christ and his Church not so much by means of argument and debate, but the authentic witness of faithful discipleship and the shared joy of friendship.
The truth proclaimed by the Gospel, he argues, “has been upheld not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men … who are at once teachers and the patterns of it” (Sermon 5. 26).
One of Newman’s favorite teachers, St. Philip Neri (1515-1595), brought the families of the city of Rome back to the practice of prayer and the fervor of primitive Christianity through his delightful personality, his sincere interest in the lives of those around him, and his gentle sense of humor. We might find it odd that an introvert like Newman should have found in the ebullient, even riotously funny Philip Neri a spiritual guide and the inspiration for Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham. Yet Philip won over Newman, as he had done the people of Rome in the sixteenth century, by his joy in the Lord.
By reading St Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the gentle doctor of the Church and author of the Introduction to the Devout Life, Newman learned the art of mentoring others in the spiritual life, particularly through the apostolate of friendship. When Newman was made a cardinal in 1879, he took as his motto a phrase he adapted from De Sales: Cor cordi loquitur (heart speaks to heart).
Newman placed three hearts on his coat of arms to represent the three divine persons of the Holy Trinity. Below the shield a scroll reveals his motto: Cor ad cor loquitur: “heart speaks to heart.” The Holy Trinity, a communion of three divine persons in one God, calls us to share this communion of life and love not only with the Godhead but with our neighbor.
In the invitation into a meeting of minds and hearts Newman anticipated the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which extended the invitation to all people of good will to enter into or deepen communion with God and with one another. The German Pope Benedict XVI, an avid admirer of Newman, goes next week to Birmingham to beatify its most famous citizen, recognizing the exemplary holiness of John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Fr. Neil J. Roy, STL, PhD, a priest of the Diocese of Peterborough, Canada, teaches in the Department of Theology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.