The Feast of John Henry Newman

Sophie Scholl might not be a familiar name to many. She is, however, a legend in Germany. About 200 schools are named after her and was voted ‘woman of the twentieth century’ by one German magazine. A television series crowned her the greatest German woman of all time. Sophie was a philosophy student and would be guillotined along with her brother Hans in 1943. She was 21 at the time. Hans was the founder of the White Rose movement, which worked to passively resist the Nazi regime. She would work with him to distribute tracts condemning the persecution of the Jews and urging fellow students at Munich university and young Germans to fulfil their moral duty in resisting this evil. It would lead to her death.

Sophie Scholl

Sophie and Hans were both part of the Hitler Youth movement but soon were disillusioned by its ideology. They would become fierce critics of all forms of Nazism. Part of the process of their conversion were Christian writings ancient and newer, like Augustine’s Confessions, Pascal’s Pensees and the writings of Newman. These had been newly translated into German. Sophie was particularly touched by Newman’s Oxford sermon on Conscience. Her conscience, Sophie would say, is what made her take the path that she knew would lead to her death. And those translations would deeply influence another young German seminarian, Joseph Ratzinger in his early studies, who would beatify Newman much later.

Newman was born in 1801 to a middle-class family. His life was one continual intellectual conversion to Truth. At fifteen, he had a first experience of deep conversion as an evangelical, feeling a call to personal holiness and to a celibate life. He was academically brilliant and would go on to study and then tutor at Oxford. It which would be a huge part of his life. If you’ve studied at Oxford, its tutorial system was effectively setup by Newman. At Oxford, he would slowly break off from evangelicalism and embrace Anglicanism, eventually becoming an Anglican priest. Newman’s preaching in Oxford was legendary. Apparently, he used to read out, in a droning voice, without deviation from a script and without looking up for an hour or so long. And the place used to be packed. Some came because of the beauty of his prose, others for the substance of his teaching. Funnily enough, this great preacher, when he became Catholic realised, we weren’t used to long sermons, so resigned himself to giving some off the cuff remarks for ten minutes for his homily. His published sermons from Oxford are well worth reading. 

Hans Scholl

If his writings influenced many, an equal number were influenced by his friendship. One recognisable name who would become Catholic through his relationship with Newman was Henry Wilberforce, son of the great crusader against slavery and a personal friend of Newman. Newman had very good friends, both men and women and they mattered deeply to him. He was not some isolated genius who was cold, shut up by himself. He was friends with the great and poor alike. Apparently, in his small private chapel, on the walls, he had pictures of his closest friends; when he stretched out his hands – in the Mass, he was embracing all of them in his prayer. 

While Newman’s life was one continual intellectual search for Truth, he believed that being Christian was really about falling in love. His motto was “heart speaks to heart”. His conversion came from a deep study of the Church Fathers. For a long time, he remained opposed to Rome, calling the Pope the ‘anti-Christ’ at one point. He believed the Anglican Church was the ‘via media’, the middle way between the Protestant churches and the Catholic church and faithful to the understanding of the Fathers. He would be a key player in the Oxford Movement which would and influence people like Chesterton, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis and eventually become Anglo-Catholicism. 

But at thirty-eight years old, at the height of his career at Oxford, his Anglican convictions would be shattered and he would feel himself drawn to Rome. He would however take another six years to work out all the complexities of theology, of faith and reason, conscience and an external authority, to determine the reasons of his heart were sound. It had to be both spiritual and intellectual. If he wrote such influential works on conscience and faith and reason and others, it was not something written in a cold, analytic way; it was lived out in his life, and he would pay a very heavy price for it. Becoming Catholic would mean having to give up Oxford which he dearly loved. The next forty years he would serve as an ordinary parish priest in Birmingham.

            Newman was by nature a shy, retiring academic and disliked controversy – but it followed him most of his life. All the above might seem like he was going from success to success but in reality, most of the time, he felt like a failure, once remarking that he felt like Sisyphus. Every conversion of his caused more controversy and each time, he lost friends, which caused him great pain, though others followed him more closely. He was considered a traitor for becoming Catholic by Anglicans and vilified in the media; his own sister stopped speaking to him. And equally, for a long time, he was regarded with suspicion by English Catholics that he might still be a secret Anglican, importing strange teachings. His writings on the role of the laity in particular, would earn him the reprimand of even the Pope – that same teaching would be vindicated in Vatican II. All this caused him great distress and sorrow. He was given to frequent depression. When he was finally made a cardinal several years later, by the succeeding Pope, for Newman, it was the great vindication of his teaching, being released from the limbo in which he had been left. When he died, aged 90, the streets of Birmingham were filled with people, whose lives he had touched.

“God has created me to do Him some definite service… some work which He has not committed to another…I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons…Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.”

– J.H.Newman

How do you measure a life? What is the criteria of a life well lived? Is it success? Wealth? Fame? Happiness?  Of course, God doesn’t desire your misery. He takes no pleasure in your suffering. But what God wants is primarily our good, more than our happiness. For Newman this was simply holiness before all else. Because that is where we fully become ourselves, we can be truly happy. That journey to wholeness, would hopefully involve a lot of happiness, but can also have a lot of suffering and pain and trials. But within that God is there with us. He speaks to us through our conscience, if we allow it to be formed rightly. And if we let him, like Sophie Scholl in her short life, like Newman and all the other greats influenced by him, we can make our unique mark on the world. 

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