What does the beatification of John Henry Newman have to do with the conversion of England today?
Yesterday afternoon I was a guest on Steve Wood’s radio show. It’s pretty easy to do since Steve is living here in Greenville, and his Family Life Center is right there on Wade Hampton Blvd. He asked me to talk about Newman a bit in the run up to Newman’s beatification in England later this month.
I’m not a Newman scholar by any stretch, but he has had a great influence on me and on so many other converts from Anglicanism. What interests me about Newman’s beatification, however, is not so much his theological writings and his tender and beautiful life, but the inter action of the whole church within the greater providence of God.
See, when we beatify or canonize a saint it is not the ecclesiastical equivalent of giving them a star on Hollywood’s Hall of Fame. What is happening is that the church on earth is recognizing and co operating with the church in heaven. Something supernatural is taking place. When the Church on earth holds hands with the church in heaven the goodness of heaven affects the events on earth. The beatification or canonization of a saint magnifies and exalts their life and work. It helps their work to make a spiritual quantum leap forward. All that they were and all that they are becomes, through this action, more real and alive and vital here on earth.
This happens in practical ways–so that when someone is beatified or canonized their life and writings become more well known and therefore affect more people. More books are written about them and their life. They get publicity and so their wonderful life affects more and more people. That’s the way it should be. But there is more to it than that.
I’m convinced that there is a supernatural activity of grace associated with the beatification or canonization of a person as well. So that their prayers in heaven are stronger and more active here on earth. St Therese understood this when she said that she would spend her time in heaven doing good on earth. Wow! Can this be true? It must be. If this is so, then all the saints in heaven are busy doing good on earth.
The ramifications of this are stupendous. We must pray and believe therefore, that John Henry Newman’s beatification and eventual canonization will help to magnify and complete and amplify the work that he lived to do here. He is a kind of patron saint already of converts from Anglicanism, but there’s more: his journey from a sincere, Evangelical Calvinism through Anglicanism to Catholicism and eventually to Catholic ordination was a pioneering journey and he charted the path for so many who were to come after.
Those who came after were not only converts from Anglicanism, but many, like myself, started in the same place as Newman–not from Anglo Catholicism, but from Protestant Evangelicalism. We made the journey and followed in his footsteps. I believe that his beatification will enable many more to make that same journey.
Now here’s where the mystery of providence comes in: Newman will be beatified by a Pope who is just about as like John Henry Newman as possible. Both are gentle souls. Both had deep and private friendships and loyalties to family. Both are intense and brilliant theologians. Both have reputations for being controversialists, while both are essentially non combative, sensitive theologians. Both are regarded by the liberals as conservatives and by the conservatives as liberals. So this Newman-like Pope comes to England to beatify the great convert Cardinal.
A year earlier he established the Anglican Ordinariate–a way for Anglicans to retain the riches of their patrimony while coming into full communion with the Holy See. The way is opened up for great things to happen and for many conversions to the Catholic Faith. We simply need to be faithful and make sacrifices and pray for the spirit of obedience and courage and good humor to be with all those who are considering the move.
Finally, the other thing I love about the Catholic faith is that we take the long view. We don’t regard 19th century Newman as a dead duck and an irrelevance. No. The truths he taught so brilliantly are just as true today. They are timeless. Likewise, he is not dead. He is alive in Christ. The work he began did not end with his death. His writings and his witness go on. It may be that they will only really reach their ripeness and fulfillment over the next 100 years. God’s story does not end in any one epoch or any one decade. It goes on, and little seeds of goodness, truth and beauty planted today may only flower centuries later.
If this is the case, then there is a marvelous hope for all of us as well. Any small seeds of goodness, truth and beauty that we plant here by our prayers, our good works, our faith and our reliance on grace will one day most definitely flower into an eternal dimension. It’s just that we cannot see exactly how or where.
And that is where faith and hope come in.