Newman Anniversary - homily by Archbishop Vincent Nichols

 The Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham, gave this homily yesterday at the anniversary Mass for Cardinal Newman, at the Birmingham Oratory. The cause of Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose birthday anniversary we celebrate today, 21 February, is dear to the hearts of many. But it is not universally so. Many admire his intellectual clarity and achievements, his personal courage, his enduring loyalty in friendship. Many are moved by the depth and eloquence of his sermons. But for some, the immediate appeal of holiness is not what first springs to mind at the mention of his name. Lest I offend, let me explain what I mean. Throughout his life-long search for truth, 'out of shadows and images', Newman struggled to hold together the timeless faithfulness of God and his own experience of change. As a young man he wrote that 'growth is the only evidence of life'. Indeed, one of his most well-known sayings is: 'To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often' (*Essay on Development, p. 40). Yet it is a phrase open to a variety of meanings and, I believe, misunderstanding. For some it is used to suggest that as we get older we see the errors of our youthful enthusiasms. Early commitments have to be reassessed and, perhaps, abandoned. Life moves on and so must we. Now even though Newman underwent remarkable changes in his own life, I doubt if this is quite what he meant. Others use the saying to support the call for change and adaptation in the Church, often in response to changing social and cultural circumstances. I am sure that this too is not what the Cardinal had in mind, even though his vision of the Church was so ahead of his time, much of it coming to the fore only in recent decades. No, Cardinal Newman's understanding of change was much more profound than that. To find it we have to search more deeply. Only then will we find the clear traces of his true holiness: that disposition before God which frees the human spirit from all other attachments. When first in Oxford, as a young man, he wrote that a particular verse of the psalms 'was most in my heart and on my lips, and it has brought tears into my eyes to think of it: "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel".' For Newman, true change is always a response to the mystery of God and never simply a response to changing circumstances, intellectual enquiry or social pressure. He explored in great depth the experience of continuity and change, both in himself and in the life of the Church. To do so required remarkable faith: a trusting faith in God whom he saw to be sole author both of the mystery of his own person and of the mystery of the Church. Today's Gospel reading speaks of gaining and losing one's life, 'one's very self'. Newman developed a very clear understanding of 'one's very self'. Writing in the *Apologia he recalled how, as a young man, the first steps of his journey had created in him the conviction that he could 'rest in the thought of two, and two only, supreme and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my creator' (*Apologia pro Vita Sua, p. 59). In fact, his understanding of himself, and of his journey, always depended upon the tension, the relationship, between these two. He accepted the vision of human beings as the pinnacle of the created order, capable of rational thought, penetrating insight and scientific wonder, a vision so dear to his time. But he also knew that in the face of the immensity of God the person is less than nothing. Faith, then, was about understanding his whole being, his humanity, and his high destiny. By faith he was able to see himself as but a part of the universal plan of God, and as one who is drawn into the most intimate relationship with the creator, demanding every effort of mind and will. Only in this context is it possible to understand Newman's appreciation of continuity and change. He travelled this 'brief trial-ground' of life on earth as a path of purification, growth and change while never wavering from the absolute reality of God as the only basis on which he could make sense of his life. Only this explains why he was able to allow spiritual and intellectual understanding to change his own life in such dramatic and costly ways. The source of change is God, and fidelity to God must be its only motivation. Of course, such fidelity is easier to state than to achieve. It requires considerable discernment. In this context, Newman fashioned his lucid understanding of both conscience and the Church. Both have stood the test of time and serve us still today. For Newman, the truth of change can only be reliably discerned, and conscience truly formed, in the context of the Church. For him the description of the Church given by St Paul to Timothy had particular appeal: 'The Church of the living God which upholds truth and keeps it safe' (1 Timothy 3:15). It is the Church which discerns what is authentic. The Church protects, enables and nurtures true development. The Church is the arbiter of true change, for such change is never random or purposeless but already inherent in the very nature of the Church. Of course, Newman did not mean this is some mechanistic sense. Rather, it is the work of the Holy Spirit operating within that complex of relationships and realities which constitutes the life of the Church today and across the ages. In Newman's eyes, the Church is a divine mystery: God at work in the world. We are all drawn into this mystery. As he wrote: 'If we have any portion of an enlightened faith, we shall understand that our state as members of the Church is full of mystery'. It was this vision of the Church that enabled Newman to move from the Church of England to the fullness of Catholicity. In terms which are so strikingly contemporary, he was able to state that in full communion with the See of Peter he found the fullness of historicity, continuity, Catholicity and truth. The pathway he followed, like many others in recent times, was a pathway of both change and continuity, unfolding in the mystery of God, the mystery of the Church and the mystery of the person. His experience of change purified him, laying him more and more open to God. In the *Apologia he speaks of his wrestling with this experience: 'No good can come of a change which is not a development of feelings springing up calmly and freely within the bosom of the whole body itself; every change in religion must be attended by deep repentance; changes can be nurtured in mutual love; we cannot agree without a supernatural influence; we must come together in God for him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves' (p. 263). In this profoundly spiritual conviction, lived at great cost, lies the roots of the influence that many see him having had on the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. Here, too, lies a great gift for the Church of today. For we, too, must be deeply rooted in God if we are to receive from God, as from no other source, the gifts of new life, new forms, new insights needed for our fidelity today to the mystery of God. Like Newman we too can look to the future of the Church with calmness and confidence, echoing his words: 'Be light-hearted and contented because you are called to be a member of Christ's pilgrim Church'. The petition from England to the Holy See requesting Newman's appointment as a cardinal spoke of his 'singular and unequalled services to the Catholic religion and to the Catholic Church in England'. I doubt if the authors of that text really appreciated the lasting influence he would have. Yet when Newman chose as his motto, 'Cor ad cor loquitur', I suspect he was deliberately pointing us to the deeper recesses of his spiritual pathway and struggle. The motto highlights for us his spiritual greatness. The relationship, the intimacy, between the two 'luminously self-evident beings, myself and my creator' lie at the heart of his story. From there sprang the sincerity, clarity of purpose and purity of intent which illuminate his writings. There too we must go if we are to find the holiness of the man whose birthday we recall and for whose gracefulness we give thanks to God today. Let us pray that the Church will soon be able to formally proclaim that holiness to be exemplary so that we may rejoice in his presence among the acclaimed saints of the Church and confidently seek his intercession before the throne of God.

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