Homily by Fr Daniel Seward (Cong Orat)
for the Newman Society’s termly Mass, 8th February 2011
Oriel College
Our Cardinal has now been beatified. So it’s important for us to ask: what is a saint, and why should we want Newman to be raised to the altars of the Church? To have a saint of our own is not just a feather in our cap, or even an excuse to promote the different causes to which Newman devoted his life. It is about much more that that: the Church beatifies and canonizes men and women from among her number in order to glorify their sanctity. Holiness – that is what it is all about. The saints show us that heroic sanctity is possible and necessary for us as Christians. They remind us of that call to holiness which is addressed to each of us, and they encourage us on our journey towards that perfection for which God has created us. Whatever the value of Newman’s theology, or his prose, or the interest of his many letters; all this is as nothing in comparison with the importance of his holiness – the extent to which he imitated Christ in his earthly life.
St Philip used to say that we should never marvel at what the saints do, but rather at what God does in His saints. So here is the first qualification for holiness. If a person is merely a human marvel, that is no doubt a good thing, but it is not enough. He must point us beyond Himself to the God who is the source of all holiness. So to make someone a saint is not the equivalent of giving them the Nobel Prize or a kind of celestial knighthood, it is done for the glory of God alone.
The deep wish to do God’s will and to pursue holiness marked out John Henry Newman from a young age, in a way that he saw very clearly to be a mark of Divine Providence. The Calvinist religion in which the young Newman began his spiritual journey attached great importance to God’s grace but very little to personal holiness. Yet his inner conversion at the age of fifteen was accompanied by an unusual conviction that God was calling him to a celibate life. St Paul said, “The world as we know it is passing away. I should like you to be free of all worries. The unmarried man is busy with the Lord’s affairs, concerned with pleasing the Lord”. So the young Newman, while still a Protestant, made that sacrifice of himself in witness to the transience of this world and the endurance of the kingdom of heaven. Celibacy is certainly not the only route to holiness of course, but for Newman, it was part of his conviction that God had a mission for him, a definite service, a work committed to him not given to any other.