Thursday, August 10, 2006

John Henry Newman (Anniversary of Death August 11th)

Preached at the North Staffs Deanery Mass for the beatification and canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman at the Sacred Heart Church, Silverdale, on 11th August 2006.
A Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit: Readings for the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

Although we celebrate a mass of the Holy Spirit with the intention of the beatification and canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman, the readings we have heard are those for the feat of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I have chosen these for very good reason.

Back in his days as an Anglican, when he was Vicar of St Mary's, the University Church in Oxford, he delivered a series of sermons. They still make excellent and inspirational reading. There is one in particular which comes to my mind, when he takes the text which we find in this Gospel 'Mary pondered all these things in her heart'.

Mary pondered in her heart the great mystery of Christ's incarnation. She pondered in her heart the message of Simeon, that he would suffer and her own heart would suffer too. She pondered in her heart as she raised and taught her son, and as she watched him begin his ministry of teaching and and preaching and healing. She pondered in her heart as he suffered on the cross and made her the mother of all Christians. She pondered in her heart as she prayed She could not have explained or predicted all that it meant or all that was to happen, but in her heart she knew. She knew it all.

This understanding, this idea of the Heart, is central to so much of Newman's thought.

At first, this may seem a little strange. Newman might have been Victorian, but he was hardly a romantic (at least not in the modern sense of the word). He was first and foremost an academic, and by all accounts a rather dry and formal person, measured in his writing. His great homilies, many of which have been handed down to us, were not proclaimed with oratory, but written and read. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica admits that Newman was 'no speaker'. His letters, countless hundreds of which survive - for he sent not only a letter to each recipient but made a handwritten copy for himself - cover many subjects, but rarely portray warmth or enthusiasm. He certainly could become fired up with anger or bitterness or zeal: his tremendous autobiographical note, Apologia pro vita Sua, was written in a matter or days after the Revd Charles Kingsley (the author of The Waterbabies) has effectively accused him of deceit. But warmth and tenderness, those human qualities are less easy to find. There is nothing sentimental about Newman.

However, this cannot tell the whole story about Newman, and although we have so much of his writing, this does not mean we have too much of the Man. Although he was an exceptionally intelligent, well educated man with original thoughts and ideas, at the centre of his entire philosophy, his entire life, was the conviction that it is personal encounter, not argument, which makes all the difference. As a young man he underwent an evangelical conversion, and the profound sense of meeting with Christ is something which is reflected in his thought and action thoughout the rest of his life. His first Catholic home in England, after he returned from Rome, was at Old Oscott, on the outskirts of Birmingham. There he would have prayed in the oldest shrine to the Sacred Heart in the British Isles. He renamed the house Maryvale (Santa Maria in valle). Near the end of his life, when he was made a Cardinal, he chose the motto Cor ad Cor loquitur - Heart speaks to heart for his coat of arms.

For Newman, it was never the argument which convinced, however forcefully or thoroughly it may be put. It was always the heart which embraced the truth. Anticipating many ideas which only took full shape in the next century, he developed the idea that Christian truth is not a list of ideas, but first and foremost a person, Christ himself, whose heart speaks to our heart, and calls us to love him and trust him and follow him. In most aspects of our lives, he argued, we do not wait to be convinced that something is so, we simply trust that it is. So much that we easily and without difficulty accept as true what has not been proved to us and perhaps could never be - but we know that it is so, because we trust that it is. This is what he called The Grammar of Assent, the process by which we commit ourselves to accepting and acknowledging the truth.

Heart speaks to heart. So as we come together we pray that this great and holy man may be recognised for what he truly is. A saint and patron, an acknowledgement that rightly awaits the full judgement of the Church, but which is truly and certainly already known in the heart of God.

No comments: