John Paul II on Newman

Newman’s statue at the London Oratory
Today is the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman. 

Newman had a profound influence on Blessed John Paul II, whose approach to faith and reason is derived from Aquinas and Newman. On various occasions John Paul II offered his comments on Newman and we have much to glean from them. I would like to pull out a few comments for reflection.

In commemorating the centenary of Newman’s death in 1990 Blessed John Paul II took two occasions for reflection on his great witness.
In a letter to the Archbishop of Birmingham, John Paul II ed Newman’s work to the crisis of our times and the response of Vatican II:

He urges [us] to keep asking the deeper, more basic questions about the meaning of life and of all human history; not to be content with a partial response to the great mystery that is man himself; to have the intellectual honesty and moral courage to accept the light of truth, no matter what personal sacrifice it may involve. Above all, Newman is a magnificent guide for all those who perceive that the key, the focal point and the goal of all human history is to be found in Christ (Gaudium et Spes, 10) and in union with him in that community of faith, hope and charity, which is his holy Church, through which he communicates truth and grace to all (Lumen Gentium, 8).

The contemporary approaches to the human person and society tend to be reductionistic, reducing the human to the material and the external, denying freedom, and lowering the goal of human striving. We must preserve the mystery and depth of human existence, and in Newman’s work we find a deep reverence for the human person.  Indeed, the “prospects for genuine freedom” and the discovery of a solid foundation for the dignity of the person find a resonance in Newman.
Newman had a sharp eye for academic hypocrisy and sham. He was grieved by the flippant and arrogant approach the typical academic would take to the mystery of God and man; these academics and associated opinion makers would often opine about divine matters as if commenting upon cricket match or a plate of stew. Newman teaches us that a proper disposition must be cultivated to even approach the majesty of truth. Thus, John Paul II addressed a scholarly group dedicated to Newman (see address here) and spoke of the inspiration we receive from Newman as a “Pilgrim of Truth”:

I would underline the inspiration that scholars and thoughtful readers of Newman continue to receive today from this pilgrim for truth. Your Symposium and other such celebrations during this centenary year offer the occasion for a deeper appreciation of Newman’s charism. Not least among his merits, he reminds us of the need for an interior disposition of loving obedience to God if contemporary society is to be successful in its quest for the full liberating truth which it urgently needs, and indeed knows itself to need.

Finally, John Paul II was drawn to Newman’s personal holiness, so rooted in his loving abandonment to God. Newman suffered much disappointment, contradiction and pain and yet he never lost hope or  a lively charity. On the occasion of the second centenary of Newman’s birth, John Paul II wrote a letter and noted:

Newman’s search was shot through with pain. Once he had come to that unshakeable sense of the mission entrusted to him by God, he declared: “Therefore, I will trust Him… If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him… He does nothing in vain… He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me. Still, He knows what He is about” (Meditations and Devotions). All these trials he knew in his life; but rather than diminish or destroy him they paradoxically strengthened his faith in the God who had called him, and confirmed him in the conviction that God “does nothing in vain”. In the end, therefore, what shines forth in Newman is the mystery of the Lord’s Cross: this was the heart of his mission, the absolute truth which he contemplated, the “kindly light” which led him on.

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