Go to Littlemore

I don’t know how many of you have ever made the pilgrimage to Littlemore. No trip to Oxford should be complete without making your way along the ring road past the empty car factory, the mean streets, ugly houses and modern developments of Cowley before you turn down what is left of the main street of the hamlet of Littlemore. There, on a corner plot you see the crude buildings which had been a stable and grain store, that Newman had converted to house his little community of prayer. Newman went to Littlemore.

Littlemore was the humble daughter parish of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin–where Newman was Vicar. Bl. John Henry Newman had risen through his brilliance to the pinnacle of the Anglican establishment: Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the University Church, a published author and poet, a scholar of national reputation, a fellow of Oriel College. Leader of the Oxford Movement, he had a national position of prominence, with wealthy and influential friends. He had everything the world could offer, but he went to Littlemore.

What was Littlemore? It was little. A collection of outbuildings–a stable block in the bad part of town. A little collection of old farm buildings on the wrong side of the tracks. It was a lowly place–the sort of mean little parish where you sent an uneducated curate to labor for pitiful wages among the poor.

Littlemore was little, but it was also more. What do I mean? Do you see how symbolic this man’s life was. He went down from the highest and most glorious position  his society had to offer–down to the little place. A stable block sufficed, and it was because Littlemore was little– that it was more.

In going to Littlemore Newman was obedient to the pattern of the incarnation. He stooped down and become little, and so he became more. At Littlemore Newman became a new man. He stepped away from the establishment, wealth and privilege of the Anglican Church and went to live in a humble, converted stable. Finally, after two years of a monastic existence, one dark night he received a humble itinerant Italian missionary–Blessed Dominic Barberi–a holy man who could hardly speak English, yet had the crazy idea that he would be able to convert all of England to the Catholic faith. There, in a room that was once a stable the great Newman was received into the Catholic Church.

What a fool Bl. Barberi was to think that he could convert the English. What a fool Bl. Newman was. How blessed now both blesseds are for both of them were fools for Christ, and what did their foolish act of obedience and faith and love teach us?

First of all, in choosing Littlemore Newman chose reality over illusion. After he became a Catholic he wrote of a new sense of concreteness and solidity to his faith…

I recognized at once a new reality which was quite a new thing to me. Then I was sensible that I was not making for myself a church by an effort of thought…I had not to force myself into a position, but my mind fell back upon itself in relaxation and  peace and I gazed on her almost passively, as a great objective fact. I looked at her and I said…This is a religion.

How long in Anglicanism we struggled to make our own religion. How long I fought–thinking myself a modern Athanasius–defending the truth faith when I was not myself yet a member of the true faith.  I thought I was being true to the Catholic faith but all I was doing was carefully devising a counterfeit of the Catholic faith. I  had to go to Littlemore.

My own Littlemore was Lancashire. I was safely ensconced in the Church of England. We lived in a large Victorian vicarage on the Isle of Wight. My dream had come true. I had become an Anglican country vicar. In charge of two beautiful old Norman churches–with job security and a wife and a family and all was well. Then in 1995 I was called to leave it all and move to  Lancashire, in the North of England, to a little house, and a job with a company that soon went bust and ten years with a part time job, waiting to be ordained as a Catholic priest.

I won’t go into details of my own Littlemore, but I believe that all converts to the Catholic faith will have to go to Littlemore one way or another. They will be humbled. They will see that the Catholic Church makes them, they do not make the Catholic Church. They will know frustration and fear and despondency and loss. But as they do, they will know something they could not have known in any other way: a new reality in religion–something concrete–something hard–and hard means both tough and real, but also it means “difficult”.

As you go to your own Littlemore and come to know this concrete reality of the Catholic faith, we also see the illusion that was Anglicanism. So Newman reflects in Difficulties of Anglicans on how he now views the Anglican religion:

as in fairy tales, the magic castle vanishes when the spell is broken, and nothing is seen but the wild heath, the barren rock, and the forlorn sheep walk, so it is with us as regards the Church of England, when we look in amazement on that we thought so unearthly and find so commonplace or worthless.

It fades. The dreaming spires of Oxford, the glow of the common room, the sophistication of the academics and the wit and bonhomie of the establishment men with their investments and their riches and their knowledge of the way of the world. All of it is seen for the plastic trophies and shimmering, but shallow prizes of the world. We need to go to Littlemore where little is more.

The second thing the Newman’s move to Littlemore teaches us is that the way of faith is a strange and mysterious way. Just when we thought we knew it all and had it all, the loving father calls us on to something else–some new adventure–some new call–some new attempt to walk on the waves in the dark and stormy night.

When he calls us to take this step of faith we are reminded that we walk by faith, not by sight. Newman could not see what was next when he went to Littlemore. All he could see is that he had to leave the glittering world of Oxford and go to Littlemore where little is more. He had to become a Catholic. Nothing else mattered.

That step into the dark is costly. It is a risk. It is scary. The light only shines as far as you can see for as far as you need to go. It is a kindly light that is gentle and often dim, but it is a light that is enough for me.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

The third point of Newman’s going to Littlemore is that in that single act of obedience he could never see what fruit would come. When I left the Anglican Church I could never see what would come. I never knew I was going to write books and articles and be ordained as a Catholic priest and move to the United States. I just did what I could do and responded to God’s call and took a little step. I couldn’t see the distant scene. One step enough for me.

And one step enough for you. You, and the other little band of pilgrims here and in England and around the world who are pioneers of the Ordinariate–you who have stepped from the worldly apostasy of the Episcopal Church and the petty quarreling of the continuing church–you have taken a small step. The Ordinariate is small. We don’t know what its future will be. It may be that you will be poor. You will be misunderstood. Like Newman you will be vilified by the Anglicans and suspected and misunderstood by your fellow Catholics.

But, like Newman at Littlemore, you cannot see what fruit will come from your obedience. He simply went to Littlemore where little was more.

We can’t see what God is doing with our little act of obedience, but he will do much, much more than we can ever ask or think. This is because our obedience aligns our will with his will, and when that happens all things are possible.

Remember that God’s work is not done until the end of time. Then the judgment will also weigh up, not just our choices, but all the results, for both good and ill of all our choices. Then the reckoning will be taken.

Now as you come into the church do you see? I wept this morning, for here I saw some of the fruit of the seeming foolishness of little Blessed Barbieri and now Blessed John Henry Newman. (Do you think they sit together in heaven at the same table?–All the Blesseds over here please…)

On that dark night in Littlemore they had no idea what great things would come from their act of obedience.  Who knows what results will come from your own obedience–your own step to Littlemore–as you move into the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter?

Perhaps through the little obedience of you and me in coming into full communion with Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church Barbieri’s dream will one day come true. Perhaps through more sacrifice and suffering and joy and sorrow Mary’s dowry–dear England and all the parts of the world affected by her religion will also one day come back to the true faith.

We can’t see what God will do. We have no idea. All there is for us is to obey. The rest is silence. All there is for us to do is to kneel and pray here where prayer has been valid.

We can’t see what God is doing, but we know that he will take our obedience and make something great and beautiful and eternal out of it. He knows what he’s about.

And finally we are reminded of these words of John Henry Newman…

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

Welcome to the Catholic Church. Welcome to Littlemore. Welcome home.


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