Mass in Honour of Blessed John Henry Newman, 20th September 2010
Catholic University Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2
Preacher: The V. Rev. Gerard Deighan, Adm.
There are 14 steps leading up to this pulpit, and I assure you that with every one of them the preacher’s sense of unworthiness increases. Because this is Blessed John Henry Newman’s pulpit, designed by him, and built by him, and from which he preached – he who was – who is – one of the greatest teachers and preachers of the faith who ever lived. But my sense of inadequacy is matched by a sense of privilege to be here this evening, in Newman’s own church, the day after his beatification.
It is well known that there are very few first class relics of our new Blessed. How appropriate, considering the self-effacing man he was, that practically all trace of his remains has vanished from this world! Now it can, of course, be said that the best relic of Newman we have is the large body of writings which he left us, writings of such lasting worth that one day they will surely make him a Doctor of the Church. But I consider that this building we are in is itself a precious relic. It is so much Newman’s church. Not only because he bought the ground on which it is built, and paid for its construction out of his own money; but because he designed it himself, albeit in close collaboration with the architect John Hungerford Pollen.
At the time there were two fashions in church architecture, the neo-Classical, which was going out of vogue, and the neo-Gothic, which was all the rage. Neither would do Newman. His independent and original taste wanted a small basilica, in the style of early Christian Rome. And that is what we have, a modest building, but one which seemed to him, and to many since, “the most beautiful one in the three Kingdoms”. As we enter here we are transported at once back in time, and out of time. We are reminded of an age when the faith of the Church was strong, despite, or perhaps because of, persecutions; an age long before the great divisions which were to rend Christendom between East and West, Protestant and Catholic. Newman here was doing architecturally what he had done intellectually in his quest for the true faith; he was going back to an earlier age, the age of the fathers, to seek for truth nearer the source. I like to think he would have some sympathy with us this evening as we celebrate here the Holy Mass in its more ancient form; especially with those of us who did not grow up with the Latin Mass, but discovered it later on in life. We found it strange, and at first confusing; but also, how beautiful and alluring! We did not understand the words, but somehow we better grasped the mystery which all words strain to express. It is interesting to think how part of Mr Newman’s conversion involved his abandoning the vernacular liturgy with which he had grown up in favour of – well, exactly this form of the Mass which we are celebrating now. But I am told it would not be wise to insist too much on this analogy!
Cor ad cor loquitur – Heart speaks to heart. Newman’s motto was always quite well known, but now, after Pope Benedict’s triumphal visit to Britain, there can be few Catholics unfamiliar with it. Where does it come from, and what does it really mean?
When he was made Cardinal, Newman found that he needed a coat of arms. Humble priest that he was, he had never used arms before, so he simply adopted his father’s arms, which comprised three red hearts. Now what motto would he put to it? What spontaneously came to his mind at the sight of those little hearts was the phrase cor ad cor loquitur, but where had he first heard those words? On his way to Rome to receive the red hat he actually wrote to a friend to ask him to find out, suggesting it was from the Bible or from the Imitation of Christ.
In fact the words are from St Francis de Sales, and Newman had quoted them during his time in Dublin, in an article for the Catholic University Gazette on the subject of preaching. Newman’s point there was that a preacher will only touch hearts if he is speaking from the heart; only if he really believes and means what he says will his message touch people at their innermost core. That was Newman’s greatness as a preacher, and indeed as a writer. He grappled with live topics; he faced them honestly, and avoided no aspect of their difficulty; he probed into every facet of a subject; and so when he spoke, or wrote, anyone who likewise was a seeker after truth recognised the truth of what he had to say. Newman thought about essential questions in an essential way; it is this which gives his writings perennial value. I wish this evening to exhort you concretely to do two things; and here is the first: read Cardinal Newman! His beautiful English may seem difficult at first; but behind those elegant words you will find a remarkable source of wisdom, and guidance, and inspiration.
Cor ad cor loquitur. One human heart speaks to another human heart. But there are three hearts in Newman’s coat of arms, not two; whose can the third heart be? It is, we may imagine, the very heart of God. God’s heart speaks to the heart of every man, and speaks to him in the depths of his heart. Newman will be remembered for many teachings, but for none more than his teaching about conscience. Of course this word is greatly misunderstood nowadays, as it was in Newman’s time. It is taken to mean a person’s own opinion. To follow your conscience is to do what you want. How different, and more profound, is Newman’s idea. For him, conscience is not the voice of man, but rather the voice of God which speaks in man’s heart. To be a man of conscience is to be someone who has learnt to recognise that voice, and listen to it, and to follow its promptings. It was by following his conscience in this sense that Newman was led to abandon his native Anglicanism and become a Catholic, despite the huge personal sacrifices this involved. How he stands as a model and inspiration for us in this regard! We must learn to be more quiet, to hush our own inner voice, our noisy thoughts, and to listen to God’s voice within us. We must seek to find the truth to which that voice directs us, setting aside all falsehoods we may have listened to before, and all mere shadows of the truth: ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. And we must do this no matter what the personal cost.
At the same time, for Newman the God who speaks privately within us has also spoken in public revelation, and there can be no contradiction between these two voices, for they are one. All his life long, Newman was the implacable foe of liberalism in religion, the idea that religion was a purely subjective matter, that one religion was as good as another. In a speech on the day he was raised to the rank of Cardinal he portrays the liberal attitude as follows: Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither… If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. How modern that sounds! And how much we need Blessed John Henry today as the champion of revealed religion. There is religious truth, and it is one, and it is objective, and it does not change, though our understanding of it may develop; this religious truth has been revealed by God, it is necessary for our salvation, and its fullness is to be found only in one true Fold of the Redeem, the Catholic Church.
Cor ad cor loquitur. As one man’s heart may speak to another’s, and as the heart of God speaks daily to the heart of man, so may the heart of man speak to the heart of God. What I mean is prayer. But in particular I have in mind that prayer for which Newman is best remembered: his prayer of intercession. As a man of prayer he had no pretensions. He was no St Teresa or St John of the Cross. When he prayed, it generally involved poring over long lists which he made out, and kept scrupulously up to date, of the people he wished to pray for. In this he is a model to us. Firstly, a model of caring for others so much as to keep them in our thoughts, and in our hearts; but also a model of bringing our loving thoughts of others before God, and asking Him to care for them, and bless them, and heal them, or forgive them, or grant them eternal rest. Newman was a faithful intercessor while here on earth; and now that he is in heaven we can be sure his power of intercession is even greater. So here is my second concrete exhortation to you this evening: Pray to Blessed John Henry! Pray for all your needs, and for those of your friends and foes! Come to his church here on St Stephen’s Green, where it is so easy to feel his presence, and pray! And pray for miracles! He has already granted one, and must grant at least one more if he is to be declared a saint. Pray with faith, and with hope. And pray with love. For when heart speaks to heart, the language spoken must needs be love; that love which has its infinite source in the very heart of God.
In one of his short meditations Newman writes:
O my God, shall I one day see Thee? What sight can compare to that great sight! Shall I see the source of that grace which enlightens me, strengthens me, and consoles me? As I came from Thee, as I am made through Thee, as I live in Thee, so, O my God, may I at last return to Thee, and be with Thee for ever and ever.
He is with Him. May we one day be with Him too. Blessed John Henry, pray for us. Amen.