We know not what is before us - Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) Canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > We know not what is before us - Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) Canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman

Today many in England will celebrate the canonisation of one of the most influential churchmen of the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman. He was a prominent figure who shaped the Anglicanism of his day as well as contributing greatly to a resurgence of Catholicism in the England of his time. He was an articulate and deep thinker whose preaching and writings captivated many. He was theologically ahead of his time, with a number of his teachings being ratified in the Second Vatican Council.

And he was a holy man, totally given over to God. He lived a disciplined Christian life, attracting many disciples to his profound understanding of being a Christian. He was a saint. Many recognised this in his own time and now the Church has confirmed this belief.

He lived in Victorian England which inherited the Anglican Christian tradition from Reformation times. Newman lived in a period when the penal laws concerning Catholics were relaxed, though much prejudice towards them remained.

However, the Church of England was struggling to contend with a rising secularism and opposition to revealed religion. Science was being proposed as an alternative to religious faith which some considered mere sentiment and lacking a sound basis.

Newman inherited a Calvinist faith from his mother but at the age of fifteen he went through a personal conversion. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua he wrote:

When I was fifteen, in the autumn of 1816, a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influence of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.

He embraced the Anglican tradition of his day. He embraced this faith with a personal seriousness and later while studying at Oxford chose to become an Anglican priest. He entered into a lifetime of study of Christianity. It was his study of the ancient Fathers of the Faith that eventually led him to realise that the Catholic Church possessed the fullness of Christian faith. He was baptised and later ordained a Catholic priest.

In seeking how he should live out his priestly vocation he was attracted to the Oratory founded by St Phillip Neri in the sixteenth century. He received permission from the Pope to establish an Oratory in England, and he spent the rest of his long life as a member of the Oratorians in Birmingham.

Newman’s lifetime quest was to challenge the threats to religion from rising liberal tendencies. He identified the danger of the erosion of belief in revealed truth. He understood that should this be allowed to grow then religion would become simply a matter of opinion or taste. It would lose its vitality and indeed its attraction. He identified this in the Church of England prior to his conversion and his active concern for this made him the leading figure in the Oxford Movement.

In the final years of his life he was made a Cardinal priest.

He commented, looking back on his life:

I rejoice to say, to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now.

He added:

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

His words have a remarkably contemporary ring about them. What Newman saw in nineteenth century Britain is what we contest today, particularly under the guise of relativism.

Newman is fittingly raised as a canonized saint. He is a saint for England but also a saint for our time. At the end of the gospel today the Lord says to the Samaritan leper who returned to say thanks, “Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.”

John Henry Newman would say to us that our faith, our Catholic faith, will save us. He would urge us to have confidence in the Apostolic faith passed down to us in the Church. This is the faith expressed in the Creeds and Catechisms. This is the faith of the martyrs and saints across Christian history. This is the faith lived and expressed in the Sacred Liturgy. This is the Catholic faith which Newman embraced.

Speaking to the priests of Diocese of Westminster in 1852, at the time when the government lifted its penalties against Catholics, Newman said,

We know not what is before us, ere we win our own; we are engaged in a great, a joyful work, but in proportion to God's grace is the fury of His enemies. They have welcomed us as the lion greets his prey. Perhaps they may be familiarized in time with our appearance, but perhaps they may be irritated the more. To set up the Church again in England is too great an act to be done in a corner. We have had reason to expect that such a boon would not be given to us without a cross. It is not God's way that great blessings should descend without the sacrifice first of great sufferings. If the truth is to be spread to any wide extent among this people, how can we dream, how can we hope, that trial and trouble shall not accompany its going forth?

We invoke the intercession of St John Henry Newman for the Church here in Australia, in Tasmania, as it faces its own share of challenges and trials.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday, October 13, 2019