When describing my upbringing, I like to say that I did not know as a child that there was a difference between being Italian and Catholic; to me they were one in the same.
I remember praying grace before Sunday dinner and my grandparents making the sign of the cross while mumbling “Madonna mia,” mid-conversation. Our homes were filled with statues, rosaries, and scapulars strewn on tables.
First Communion celebrations were equally focused on the heavenly meal at Mass and the three-course meal that followed at someone’s home.
So, I tend to find the experience of Catholic converts who come to the Faith through their choosing rather than their rearing rather foreign yet unquestionably commendable. And after being raised in such a loud, passionate atmosphere for so long, it’s hard for me to appreciate cultures that value propriety and a more distinguished manner of behaving and conversing.
Suffice it to say for most of my life I was not naturally drawn to Cardinal John Henry Newman. A Catholic convert who lived in Victorian England, he was someone whose contributions to the Tradition I was always grateful for, but who didn’t seem like he could have much bearing on my own spiritual growth or work for the Church.
That changed when I was more formally introduced to him by none other than an Italian-American bishop. He suggested that I take a more careful look at his life and writing, starting with the poem “Lead Kindly Light.”
After my eyes made their way over the final line, I was hooked. Anyone who could describe the spiritual life and religious sense in such verse deserved my attention.
While his canonization will be meaningful to me on a personal level, I also think it will offer the universal Church some timely lessons of which we are in dire need.
Lesson one: Get back to the heart of the matter. For his episcopal motto, Newman chose “Cor ad Cor Loquitor.” He borrowed this phrase, often translated as “Heart Speaks unto Heart” from St. Francis de Sales’ “Treatise on the Love of God”:
“Truly the chief exercise in mystical theology is to speak to God and to hear God speak in the bottom of the heart … eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak.”
Why would a man known for his academic career at Oxford University, someone whose theological contributions are some of the Church’s finest, emphasize the heart and not the mind? His study of history alone is one of the reasons that he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” he said.
While Newman’s own conversion was a movement of the mind, as a priest he knew that many are moved to Christ through the heart. Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, himself a convert and devotee of Newman, has written that “the students who regularly attended his sermons … would often say that it was as if Newman was speaking directly to their heart. …”
We live in a time in which Catholic scholars and commentators, as well as bishops and cardinals, are engaging in public disputes — sometimes highly intellectual, at other times merely polemical — to preserve or reform the Church as they see fit. And yet as important as it is to get theology right, the task of evangelization is a matter of “warming hearts,” as Pope Francis has said, not of outsmarting adversaries.
In “The Grammar of Assent” Newman asserts “...next to the power and force of supernatural grace, the greatest influence over the human heart is the example of goodness and virtue in another person.” If there was ever a time to get back to an evangelical strategy based in holiness, it’s now.
Lesson two: Fidelity to gospel will make you uncomfortable. Newman’s life speaks to the fact that the choice to be Catholic, not only to convert but to live it daily, consistently, and with one’s whole being, can result in great personal loss.
When he was received into the Catholic Church, he lost significant friendships and relationships, including family members, as well as his career at Oxford, for which he had gained renown. Of this decision and its fallout he wrote, “I am going to those whom I do not know and of whom I expect very little — I am making myself an outcast, and that at my age.”
He would know very few other English Catholics in his day: Pope Pius IX would only re-establish the Catholic diocesan hierarchy in England in 1850, five years after his conversion.
Neither did Catholics readily receive him as one of their own, and those who doubted his full commitment parsed his writing looking for trouble. “O how forlorn and dreary has been my life ever since I have been a Catholic!” he wrote.
His nuanced approach to the timing of the declaration on papal infallibility made many in Rome skeptical. Even today, his writings on conscience, assent to Church teaching, and the development of doctrine make him a confounding figure to both progressive and conservative wings of the Church.
Following Jesus may bring division, not peace; one’s cross might be measured in miles walked alone, rather than with friends; living the fullness of the gospel and accepting the “both/and” of Catholicism will mean not fitting in easily to political or ecclesial camps.
Yet Newman’s life testifies to the fact that one can still live joyfully while enduring such trials. It is significant that his feast day will fall on Oct. 9, that of his conversion, rather than the date of his death. Becoming Catholic was a type of death and resurrection for Newman, one from which we should draw inspiration.
Lesson three: Put the laity to work. While much of his thinking on this had to do with his historical situation — an England in which Catholicism was unwelcome — his writing speaks to other periods in Church history in which the laity played a pivotal role in the Church’s renewal and to theological truths about the baptismal call of all Christians.
Given our own historical situation, a time in which the laity are overwhelmingly under- or un-catechized, and one in which clericalism has undermined transparent governance and accountability, his words and example serve as a roadmap for the Church’s work ahead.
Newman was passionate about the education of the laity. In his famous lecture on “The Present Position of Catholics in England,” he drives home the potential of a properly catechized and equipped laity:
“I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but [men] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it … in all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit. ...”
Almost a century before the Second Vatican Council, Newman was articulating how critical the laity are for evangelization. In our own time, when so many have lost confidence in the moral authority of the clergy, the Church needs to make the formation of laypeople a priority.
In light of today’s ecclesial crises, we might also follow his example in trying to determine what roles must be done by the clergy, and which can be done by competent laypersons.
Though his efforts to hire a lay rector and for a lay finance committee at the University of Dublin were foiled, the case he laid out is one that should be embraced in chanceries and Catholic organizations today.
This soon-to-be saint’s greatest gift to me has been very personal. Two years ago I met the man who would become my husband: a Catholic convert with Anglo-Saxon heritage whose faith was edified by the life and writings of Newman.
No one was more surprised than me at this turn of events, given how I was raised. Newman has since become a fixture in our home, someone we look to for encouragement in living the Christian life.
The more I get to know him, the more I hope for the chance to sit next to him someday at the heavenly banquet. As I’ve since discovered, we’d have plenty to talk about.