A sermon preached by Mgr Andrew Burnham at Blessed Dominic Barberi Church, Littlemore, at the Newman Pilgrimage Mass, 8 October 2011.
For myself, it was not logic that carried me on; as well might one say that the quicksilver in the barometer changes the weather…. All the logic in the world would not have made me move faster towards Rome than I did….Great acts take time.
Newman, Apologia, pp.155-56
A YEAR AGO, at the Newman Pilgrimage, I was here in the congregation, still an Anglican. Fr John Hancock, the parish priest came over and joked that I should be presiding. Clearly I could not do then but, because of his courtesy, and the courtesy of the Family The Work, and of the Fathers of the Oratory, I am doing so today. They were momentous times: we had just celebrated the beatification of John Henry Newman and were keeping his feast for the first time. Personally, I shall never forget those weeks, partly because, at Cofton Park I slipped and fell on the way back from the loos, breaking my wrist. When I was not falling over, I was conscious of following in Blessed John Henry’s footsteps. I was a bit like the page in Good King Wenceslas: at the side of a great saint, anonymous and of lesser stature. Coming to Littlemore was the beginning of a short, enjoyable life as a Catholic catechumen. I had one more piece of bishopping to do: 30 November was my tenth anniversary and I kept it as a finale and a farewell to those I was leaving behind. I was received as a Catholic on 1 January, ordained deacon on 13 January, and priest on 15 January.
That process of leaving folk behind was something that Blessed John Henry did particularly well. I am just reading Newman and his Contemporaries, by Edward Short, and have been struck again by the relationship between Newman – who went – and Keble – who stayed behind. There was little difference of opinion between them, except the crucial one that Newman had to go and Keble had to stay. Was it having a wife that kept Keble back? No special arrangements for married clergy then! If it was his marriage, then we cannot help but be sympathetic. Or was it his country parish? It is certainly hard to let go of the parish but, over fifteen years later (1862), we hear Keble writing to Coleridge and saying ‘I cannot give a good account of my parish, people are sadly disappointing and neither “true religion, nor useful learning appears to me to flourish’ This was nearly 30 years after Keble’s stirring sermon on National Apostasy in the University Church, the sermon which, Newman said, inaugurated the Oxford Movement.
‘The Parting of Friends’ was the inevitable playing out of the Oxford Movement but what is striking – whether in 1845 or in 2010 – is that some of those whom one might have thought most likely to go stayed put and some of those whom one might have expected to stay put got up and went. Keble and Pusey stayed. Newman, Wilberforce and Manning went. 160 years later and we had over a dozen Anglican bishops in post talking about becoming Catholics, but, in the event, only three have done so, and three retired bishops. There have been sixty priests who have become Catholics and about 1,000 lay people. This is a small fraction of the number of priests and people who have long talked about becoming reunited with ‘the rock from which we were hewn’ but, given that leaving means leaving behind vicarage, handsome stipend, church and community, it is small wonder that the numbers so far have been modest.
Historians will no doubt look back and see all this as part of Newman’s Second Spring, first spoken about in 1852, and coming to flower over a couple of centuries. All the logic in the world would not have made me move faster towards Rome than I did….Great acts take time – is how he put it. To make the move to Rome was social death, and open to much criticism and wilful misunderstanding. Newman gave up not only being Vicar of St Mary’s and parish priest of Littlemore, but also his fellowship at Oriel, and all future association with the University of Oxford. It was a very daring step that he took, all the more daring because he was the leader of the group. Others were following in his steps, emboldened by his example. Not only is Newman greater than any of us who come after, but, compared with him, we have got it easy. But, then as now, it was a trickle and not a flood.
I don’t think the ‘great acts’ of which we are speaking are merely convert journeys. I think, in a more important sense, the ‘great act’ nowadays is the Catholic Faith becoming centre stage again in what is now a secular society. The challenge in Newman’s time was how the Catholic Faith could flourish in Protestant England, an England in which Catholics, barely emancipated, were not allowed a voice in the public square. The challenge now is how to make the Catholic voice heard in secular England, where religion is increasingly seen as the enemy of reason. As Pope Benedict asked in Westminster Hall, can we Catholics play our part in a reasonable public debate?
I want to suggest that the answer to this – how to make the Catholic voice heard – how to achieve the ‘great act’ of the Catholic Faith becoming centre stage again – lies in building on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity and pressing on with the New Evangelisation. Since becoming a Catholic, I have discovered how many Catholics are embedded in the life of the caring community. There are teachers, doctors, social workers, of course, but many in less obvious roles, nonetheless motivated by their Catholic Faith. Sometimes these Catholics are severely lapsed, but – somehow – they still know that they are meant to leave the world a better place than they found it, or, in the notion of Cardinal Newman, that each of us has a special task allotted to us by God in his great plan.
‘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 am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall do God’s work’.
In all of this we can see the virtue of Faith. The Catholic Faith, devoutly practised, is the motive power of many purposeful lives. We can see too the virtue of Hope. There is a world of difference between despair and drudgery and the belief that something can be accomplished, things can be changed. Praying for the coming of the Kingdom. Believing that God’s Kingdom will come, God’s Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. But the greatest of the theological virtues, as St Paul reminds us, is Charity. Here, I think, the Catholic Faith has a particular selling point. We are very strong on Charity. Doing good deeds. Doing good by others. Little acts of love which change everything. This is the point of contact with the secular world: broadly speaking, everybody thinks ‘doing good’ is worthwhile. What Catholics have to teach is how people find it in themselves to do good. Where does ‘good’ come from? Why do we want to do it?
The ‘great act’ ahead of us is no less than what Pope John Paul II called the task of the ‘New Evangelisation’. Just as he was building on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, so the present Holy Father has built on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio by establishing a separate dicastery – or department – for the New Evangelisation. But, for this New Evangelisation, we need to do more than simply do ‘good deeds’ and hope that people will ask why we are motivated to act in this way. Without a keen sense of sin, and a proper hatred of evil, ‘good’ itself can be uncostly, sentimental, little more than decent behaviour. Catholics need to recover the devotional rigour of understanding our sinfulness. As St Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans (7:19f)
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
The Friday penance of publically abstaining from meat is a reminder of our sinfulness and a reminder that Catholics are prepared to inconvenience themselves because of what we believe.
The New Evangelisation is founded on Christ. We need to help others to encounter the Person of Christ. It is the responsibility of each one of us. Each of us deals with individuals: there is no one else to do it. Meanwhile the Church addresses its message to whole cultures. And, as we deal with individuals, each one of us, it isn’t simply the business of presenting the basic message – ‘God so loved the world’ (Jn 3:16) or ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom 10:9) – but a complete Christianisation, showing how the Faith affects every part of our lives, every part of society. In short, we need to learn a missionary spirituality. Are we up to this a community? ‘Great acts take time’: can we play our part?