Rorate Caeli

Sermon: Saint John Henry Newman, at the Heart of Tradition

Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of John Henry Newman
October 9, 2019
Church of St. Catherine of Siena, New York City
Sponsored by the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny

 Newman's Altar in his rooms at the Birmingham Oratory

From the Gospel of the Mass from St. Luke:
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)

To be able to celebrate this Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of John Henry Newman for me is a singular event in my life, my life as a man, my life as a Catholic, my life as a priest. Newman has played a most important role in my life and is in many ways the one person, although with so many others in their own way, that led me to the Catholic Church.  His prayers and his intellectual and spiritual guidance brought me, against all odds, to the Catholic priesthood over 35 years ago. His presence in my life has been real—not virtual or mental—but real.  It is Newman who prepared me for the so very deep relationship between the priesthood and the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Newman’s life as a Catholic priest and Oratorian was never free from attacks and misunderstandings from both leaders of the society in which he lived and from the Church. He always sought truth within the Catholic Church but without false security of that reactionary spirit that fears the world and that sees the Church as a fortress against the world.  Newman took seriously Christ’s missionary demand to bring His message, the Gospel, to the whole world, without fear, without doubt, using his God-given intellectual power and his pastoral gifts, always trusting that the truth of the Gospel would prevail over ignorance and hostility.  His treasure was the Jesus Christ and His Church, and there in the deepest sense was also his heart. 

I have given many talks about John Henry Newman. This is not one of them. This is a sermon, and so at the heart of everything I say is the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Head of the Church, the Word made flesh whose presence permeates the entire created order, bringing it in His own time to its fruition when He will come again to judge the living and the dead and when He will usher in his Kingdom of truth and light.  What binds me to Newman, and what binds us all to Him here, is his love of Christ and the Catholic Church.  He understood so well the joy of being a Catholic and he understood so well the cost of discipleship within a fallen world and within a Church that is always tempted to become part of that fallen world. 

Newman’s world was the world of the nineteenth century in England where he lived for his whole life, but when he became a Catholic his world expanded to the whole Western world in which the Catholic Church was a powerful force and yet a force under siege, under siege of the formidable power of the forces of liberalism, but liberalism not as we understand it. We think of liberalism in terms of politics and think that the opposite of liberalism is conservatism. This is certainly how the New York Times understands the divisions within the Church right now.  To understand what Newman meant by liberalism, listen to his words that he spoke when he was made a Cardinal in Rome. It is known as his Bigletto speech. 

I rejoice to say, to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth; and on this great occasion, when it is natural for one who is in my place to look out upon the world, and upon Holy Church as in it, and upon her future, it will not, I hope, be considered out of place, if I renew the protest against it which I have made so often. Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any revealed religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

When we hear these words, we must remind ourselves that the opposite of religious liberalism is not conservatism but Traditional. The faithful Catholic is loyal not to a political party nor to a particular political theory nor to any “ism”, but rather is loyal to the Tradition handed down from the Apostles to our own time.  This confusion is a real part of the difficult and sad situation we find ourselves in within the Catholic Church. 

What Newman warned of in his own time and what he foresaw would happen in the future is surely what has come to pass in our own time both in the world and even in the Church. The claim of Jesus Christ to be the only Savior of the World, “only” not in an exclusionary sense but in an embracing sense, is dismissed by the world of secularism and radical individualism and relativism.  The radical claim of Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, is not based on some myth or sentimentality. It is based on the suffering of the Cross as the key to not only understanding of what is real but also the key to understanding in Dante’s words l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle,the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.   

In the age in which we live, where the self and the desires of the self trounce any sense of objective reality or morality, the claim of Jesus Christ and his Church are seen as illiberal. In an age in which the naked self is the center of the universe and the self is understood as defined by one’s own desires and self-definition, the love of Jesus Christ and His cross is at best irrelevant, at worst something to be destroyed. In an age in which sin has been relegated to a category of a rigid past, redemption and the Cross mean nothing. What Newman foresaw more than a century and a quarter ago has indeed become a reality in our own time.

But it is Newman who is also the champion of the laity in the Church.  The Document on the Role of the Laity of the Second Vatican Council, Apostolicam Actuositatem takes its inspiration from John Henry Newman.  It is this document that insists on the positive role of the laity in the Catholic Church, not merely as bystanders who swallow the directives of the clergy, but rather as real participants both in the divine commission to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth and also to be actual participants in the development of doctrine, the unfolding of the mystery of God’s presence in Jesus Christ in this world and the unfolding of this mystery in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

One of the first problems that Newman encountered after he became a Catholic was the reaction to his small book called “ On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” Newman’s thesis was that the faithful, that is you who sit in these pews and who live your life in the world of family, friends, work, ordinary life, are a real and important part of that unfolding of truth that we call the development of doctrine in the Church. To say such a thing in the mid 18thcentury in the Catholic Church invited a reaction.   And that invitation was met by one Msgr. Talbot, who said in response to Newman’s claim for the laity:  “"What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain." When Newman’s own bishop asked him: “Who are the laity?”, Newman responded that the Church would look foolish without them.

Listen to what the Document on the Laity of the Second Vatican Council says about the role of the laity in the Church:

The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere…. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that, without detriment to its own proper laws, it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles of the Christian life and adapted to the shifting circumstances of time, place, and peoples.

It is obvious that the vision of the Council for the apostolate of the laity is mainly within the world in which the laity live: in their homes, at work, among their friends, in their many encounters with the world in their lives as laity.  They must be witnesses in their marriage, to their children, to their friends, to the many and varied people they meet, in their political life, in their intellectual life.  They must take their proper role not only in witnessing to the Catholic faith but also in combatting those real forces in contemporary culture that are contrary to the Christian faith.  But notice this there is no mention of the laity taking specific roles in the liturgy that Sacred Tradition never afforded them, Tradition here understood not as a song from Fiddler on the Roof but rather as what was passed down from the Apostles themselves to the Church and down to the Church of our own time.   So what happened practically is that the laity after the Council became clericalized, they became in a wonderful Italian word for altar boys, chierechetti, little clerics, as lectors, eucharistic ministers, members of liturgical committees, and so forth.  The clericalization of the laity after the Council has been a disaster for the laity and the Church in general. And this is because their clericalization has prevented them from fulfilling their mission to the world as laity.  What happened after Vatican II to the laity has nothing to do with what the Council said and hoped for.  And that is also true about what much of the Council said.  The results have little to do with the hope for the laity as expressed in the Council.

But there is a second and most important reason for an educated laity, especially educated in the Catholic faith.  We live in a time in which the very nature of Tradition, what has been handed down to us from Jesus and the Apostles, in Scripture and through the Church Fathers and the ancient Creeds, is under attack.  It is under attack not by the world of the New York Times, which is quite happy that there is dissension within the Church, for that makes the Church a much less formidable threat to the world of strident secularity.  The attack is coming from those who are ordained by God to be true to the Tradition of the Church and to guide their flock during these times of tempests in the world.  These men, mostly clerics, claim the right to change Tradition, including the witness of Scripture.  They have taken the secular attitude that Tradition is relative and conditioned by its history. They do so in the name of mercy, but this understanding of mercy has little to do with the mercy of God. And it is here and now that an educated laity, educated both in the Faith and intellectually, must be a witness to the Faith handed down to the Church from the Apostles in Scripture and Tradition. Just as the laity were faithful to the Catholic faith at the terrible time of the Arian apostasy in the fourth century and beyond, when most bishops became heretics, so at this time the laity must be faithful to the Catholic faith in a way that is humble, firm and full of joy 

How wonderful it is that we come here to offer this Mass of Thanksgiving as a celebration that the Church has recognized that John Henry Newman is a saint.  He will not become a saint next Sunday.  His canonization on Sunday is the Church’s declaration on earth of what is already true in eternity.   This man of brilliant mind, this man who suffered first at the hands of the Church of England, then who suffered within the Catholic Church for most of his life, this man whose love for Jesus Christ and His Church informed his whole life, this man who understood friendship so deeply, whose motto was “cor ad cor loquitur”, heart speaks to heart, this man whose love for the Traditional Roman Mass was at the heart of the beauty of the celebrations of Solemn Mass at the Birmingham  Oratory founded by Newman and then later at the Brompton Oratory in London.  How wonderful it is that we come here to thank God for his Catholic witness within the Church and within the world.  And how wonderful it is that we do so within this liturgical celebration of that same Traditional Roman Mass that he celebrated, knew and loved, this Mass that is the antidote to the poison of secularism and relativism that surrounds us, this Mass that is the heart of Tradition and  that is the future of the Catholic Church.

Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla