A Model Priest

I’m sure you agree that we are all still feeling the glow resulting from the beatification of the great John Henry Cardinal Newman. The memory of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to England for this event is still fresh in our minds, as are thoughts of one of the greatest priests produced by the English-speaking world — Cardinal Newman, himself. I believe this event offers us an important occasion to reflect on Newman and to acknowledge his unique contribution to the priesthood. When I was a teenager I came across Newman’s writings almost by accident. I remember particularly a wonderful book called The Newman Synthesis, which contained excerpts from many of his most important and characteristic works. I have been a great Newman admirer ever since the first day I read him. 

A priest of Newman’s talents, depth of faith, and integrity can and should be a model for us all. Yet — as usual — at least some are eager to tarnish his image, even at the very moment of his beatification. Like many people, I was saddened and appalled at the gaggle of anti-Catholic and anti-religious writers, particularly in England, who seemed bent on defaming this great man. No one should recognize them as representative of either the English in general or even of a particular class of educated English people. They are just the usual toxic critics who can’t tolerate anything good or virtuous — especially if it’s related to the Catholic Church. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised that they decided to extend their customary outrageous attacks on the Church and the Pope to include Newman, as well.  

The problems they claim to find with him are absolutely non-existent — as anyone who has ever taken a course in Victorian literature can tell you. Newman wrote in a style that may seem strange, slightly difficult, and even a little affected to us today. It was, however, the style of his period. Anyone who is familiar with English literature and who looks at a passage from Newman would immediately recognize it as having been written during the Victorian period (even though Newman actually began writing before Victoria ascended the throne). His writing shares the precision, gentility, and erudition of the period. It also shares in the overstatement common during the 19th century. Newman would often write and speak of human relationships as “love.” So did many others during his era. His current detractors have discovered this, lifted it totally out of context, and interpreted his use of this word in a sexual way (which apparently is the only way our sad time can understand it). Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the life of Newman, his values, his ideals and goals — anyone who knows anything about Victorian prose style — would recognize this as pure nonsense.  

Some years ago I visited the house which Newman began in Littlemore. He intended it as a place of prayer and study for himself and other members of the Oxford Movement. There, I met a woman named Mrs. Clark, whose husband actually knew Newman. With a marvelous Cockney accent she told me, “There never was a better man around this place than Mr. Newman.” This was also the conviction of the vicar of local Anglican church, which Newman had built (with the help of contributions from other members of the Oxford Movement, such as Pusey and Froude) and where he worshiped until his conversion. This church contains a beautiful monument to Newman’s mother. It is interesting to note that Newman’s departure from this church and from Anglicanism in general was not at all rancorous on his part. His final sermon as an Anglican clergyman was entitled “The Parting of Friends.”  

Long ago I read this beautiful passage from Newman. It concerns the love of neighbor and speaks eloquently of Newman’s own ideals and his lofty attitudes toward human life and love. I urge you to read it and reflect on it and I urge you to read and reflect on the life and works of this great priest as we pray for his canonization.  

By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth.  

— Parochial and Plain Sermons , ii, Nos. 54, 55 TP

FATHER GROESCHEL is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.