October 11 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Cardinal Newman: a real man of the Catholic Faith

Giuseppe Pezzini maps John Henry Newman’s journey from Anglican scholar to Catholic Cardinal and sainthood, and finds in his ‘three conversions’ a lesson about the conflict of belief and modernity.

The journey of St John Henry Newman is the journey of a man who got to know and trusted the meaning of reality, and accepted to follow it. This is no easy task, especially in the modern age.

Author David Foster Wallace relays a story that illustrates how, for many people, very different meanings can be attributed to the same lived reality, as if they were merely depending on people’s different ‘belief templates.’ He wrote:

“There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing.

“‘Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this

blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’  

“And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. ‘Well then you must believe now,’ he says, ‘After all, here you are, alive.’

The atheist just rolls his eyes. ‘No, man, all that happened was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.’”


Different meanings

Foster Wallace added: “The exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere… do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad.”

His little story sums up the whole drama of modernity, that is our drama: the meaning of reality cannot be known with certainty. Things, great and small, happen in life, we gaze at the natural world and the mystery of the universe, we meet people, different and yet also similar to us, we experience strong feelings and desires, beauty and pain, but the inner meaning of all this remains always elusive, as if we were locked, alone, in a glass chamber.

We are left with our opinions, our interpretations of reality, our ‘belief templates.’


‘real’ knowledge

All these are ultimately valid and thus they are all false, and therefore are not able to move our centre of affection, what we really esteem and love in life. Even Christians are exposed to the same challenge. It is not simply a matter of orthodoxy, of thinking in the right way: it is not enough to have studied all the speeches against relativism and the articles of the catechism.

As St John Henry Newman taught, it is not the ‘notional,’ the ‘intellectual’ knowledge that matters, but the ‘real’ one, that is the one which is grounded in experience and not in mere reasoning, the one that concerns the whole dimension of man, his blood and heart, not only his convictions.

The whole human and intellectual adventure of Newman is a great help in this respect, because it is the adventure of a man ‘who lived the whole problem of modernity,’ as Benedict XVI declared during his trip to the UK in 2010.

In particular, Benedict talked about three conversions of Newman, saying that ‘all of us have a lot to learn’ from them.

On the occasion of the canonisation, it can be useful to recall this threefold journey of conversion, a journey of great sacrifice.

The words Newman wanted to be inscribed on his grave sum up this journey: ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, ‘out of shadows and images into the truth,’ or, as paraphrased by the great Newman scholar Ian Ker, ‘out of unreality into reality.’


The first conversion

Newman’s first conversion happened when he was only 15 years old, through a dramatic experience, as always in his life. Until that time, Newman had lived peacefully at home but in 1816 his world was turned upside down.

Because of a financial crisis, his father’s bank was forced to close, creating huge upheaval in the family and the loss of wealth and status. Moreover, during this troublesome period Newman fell ill. Left alone at school, sick, and with his family and the security he had known in ruins, Newman experienced the fragility of reality and the solitude of man. It was a painful and sad experience, which yet became for Newman an opportunity to understand something important about himself and reality.

At the depth of his solitude and pain, Newman experienced the evidence of the presence of Someone else, of an original companionship, as he says in his Apologia: “[I rested] in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”



Later Newman would recall this experience through the words of Callista, the protagonist of his beautiful novel of the same name: “I feel that God within my heart. I feel myself in His presence… it is the echo of a person speaking to me… It carries with it its proof of its divine origin. My nature feels towards it as towards a person. An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear.”

Newman’s first conversion is thus a conversion to an evidence of reality, as Pope Benedict said: “[His] first conversion [is] to Faith in the living God. Until that moment, what appeared genuinely real to him, as to the men of his and our day, is the empirical, matter that can be grasped… In his conversion, Newman recognised that it is exactly the other way round: that God and the soul, man’s spiritual identity, constitute what is genuinely real, what counts. These are much more real than objects that can be grasped. This conversion was a Copernican revolution.”


The second conversion

The second step in Newman’s journey concerned his relation to the ‘material’ reality, i.e. the everyday, concrete reality we all live in. In his first conversion Newman discovered his personal relationship with God, lived within his own conscience, but maintained a sort of negative attitude towards everyday reality: he talked of a ‘mistrust of the reality of material phenomena’ or ‘of a separation from the visible world,’ a position perhaps related to his shyness and the ‘spiritual loneliness’ of his youth.

Newman’s second conversion was essentially an overcoming of this subjectivist position, and again happened during another grave illness, which he had in Sicily in 1833.

At that time Newman was working in Oxford as a brilliant tutor and Anglican parish priest. By the end of 1832, Newman was exhausted and went on a journey to Italy. In Rome, he was impressed by the piety of the people, but disgusted by what he called the superstition of Catholics; moreover, soon news arrived from home which made him perceive that his own Church was under attack.


‘spiritual solitariness’

Instead of returning, however, Newman decided to visit Sicily, alone.

Newman fell back into the ‘spiritual solitariness’ of his youth and travelled across Sicily in search of picturesque landscapes and the beauty of nature, living his relationship with God in solitude. God, however, had other plans: in Sicily Newman fell seriously ill and nearly died. In his delirium, he was struck by a recurring thought: “I was sure that God had some work for me to do in England.”

It was a turning point in his life: Newman understood that his relationship with God was meant to be played out within reality. Through real signs, God was calling him to a work, which would require from Newman a full participation in the reality of his time, in close relation with companions. Like the first conversion, the second was therefore an act of ‘realism’.

Newman understood that reality was the place where God acts and speaks, and where he had to look for the signs of His will.

A Faith that did not give a real knowledge of reality, a Faith that consists only of maintaining ‘a state of consciousness’ was, in Newman’s words, ‘unreal.’ On the way back to England, a refreshed Newman summed up his new position in a beautiful, well-known prayer, Lead Kindly Light.

A few days after his return, the great adventure of the Oxford movement began, through which Newman strived to propose an intermediate path between the errors of Protestantism and the corruption of Rome. This leads us to the final stage of conversion in his life, the most painful, that is his conversion to the Catholic Church.


The third conversion

As Pope Benedict said, Newman’s final conversion ‘required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties and many friends.’ Again, this conversion was related to Newman’s need for ‘reality.’

From the summer of 1839 onwards, Newman started to look at the words ‘reality’ vs ‘unreality’ in reference to the Anglican Church.

He began to question whether or not the Anglican Church had a reality in itself or was, instead, ‘unreal,’ that is a mere human construction, a ‘sham,’ a theory. The first blow to his confidence in the Anglican way came from a sentence of St Augustine, according to whom the certainty of the Catholic Church rested on its being the real, cohesive Body of Christ.

Other events soon happened which led him to understand that his Anglicanism was a good idea, but without substance in reality. On the other hand, the reality of the Roman Church, shining especially through the witness of its saints, was becoming more and more convincing, despite all his efforts, to ‘pinch himself to be sure that [he] was not asleep and dreaming.’


Relationship with God

What led Newman to make the final step was again his personal relationship with God, as in the other conversions. As he later recalled, for more than five years he had not stopped asking God for ‘light and guidance.’ Through reality, God had responded and now Newman had to trust in Him, despite his doubts and fears. God had indeed never deserted him since his first conversion at 15, least of all when he had nearly died in Sicily, but had ‘led’ him on—step by step—until he had reached his present situation.

On October 7, 1845, Newman asked Fr Dominic Barberi to receive him into the Catholic Church. It was a dramatic event: his conversion caused a shock inside the Anglican Church and most of his friends and relatives broke off relations with him.

His first years in the Catholic Church were also not exactly an easy ride. And yet in the Catholic Church Newman found something which made his journey worthwhile: “In the Catholic Church… I recognised at once a reality which was quite a new thing with me. I was sensible that I was not making for myself a Church by an effort of thought… but my mind fell back upon itself in relaxation and peace, and I gazed at her almost passively as a great objective fact.”



Newman’s third conversion was therefore another conversion to reality. It was the discovery that God decided to ‘interfere in human affairs,’ creating a real place of His presence in the Catholic Church. Despite or rather through its fragility and corruptness, in the living body of the Church the person of Christ becomes tangible: He is present in the communion between brothers of the Faith, He shines in the sanctity of their lives, He lets Himself be touched in the Sacraments.

Newman’s drama, in the words of Pope Benedict, is thus an invitation to examine our own lives, to see them against the vast horizon of God’s plan, and to grow in communion with the Church of every time and place.

Going back to the story of the two men in Alaska: it is not reality that is missing, God is acting in reality and always comes to rescue us: what is often missing is our desire and availability to recognise and follow His presence, wherever this may lead us, in the footsteps of great saints.


Spiritual will

In conclusion, I can quote a short passage from Newman’s spiritual will, the speech he gave when he was made cardinal in 1879. This sums up well Newman’s journey, and can be of great help also for the Christians of the 21st century:

“Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now.

“On the other hand what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.”

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