Fr Nick King’s Homily for the Feast of St John Henry Newman
Let me start with two pictures:
The first is on Sunday afternoons in the 19th Century here in Oxford; you see large numbers of undergraduates making their way up St Aldates, or across the Broad or Cornmarket, then down the Turl and the High, to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where Newman, one of the patron saints of this chaplaincy, was the Rector. These crowds were drawn by that magical voice (which no one who heard him ever forgot), speaking as a good pastor, in words they could understand. And they kept coming, even when hostile College authorities changed the times of meals to prevent them attending!
The second is that of the poor who at his funeral in their thousands lined the streets of Birmingham as his hearse was driven past. They knew he was their priest.
Today we are celebrating this mass in honour of our great patron, on the very date, October 9th, when in 1845, after a confession that had gone on all the previous night, Dominic Barberi received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church, at Littlemore, just down the road from here, where indeed some of our number walked last night, in honour of the saint. But for him it was only one point on a journey that he had been engaged upon since his evangelical conversion to God in 1816 as a boy of 15, and that would continue until his death in August 1890 (his life, you see, spanned the entire 19th Century).
What was Newman’s secret? The late Nicholas Lash, Cambridge Professor, who died not very long ago expressed it like this: ‘the very closeness of speech to speaker, of text to thinker’. By this he meant, I think, that the real Newman leaps out of the page at you. We may call this the work of the Spirit, and it can be expressed under five important points. (And for these I am happy to thank Mgr. Rod Strange, who was for many years Chaplain here and wrote his doctoral thesis on Newman).
First, there is Newman’s devotion to revealed religion. This was a very important idea for Newman, that our God is one who reveals himself. The Spirit is the one who makes this possible.
Secondly, there is the role of the Church, which is first the reception and then the handing-on, of revelation. This is something that the Spirit helps us to do.
Thirdly, Newman’s was, like so many of you who attend this university, a brilliant mind; and for a time he was beguiled by this, until he came to realise that what was important was not just the excitement of intellectual excellence; there has to be more to life than just being clever. We need the Holy Spirit.
Fourthly, there is dogma, which sounds like a bad word. Newman however was fond of remarking that “in a perfect world the Church would simply have received the Scriptures”. But the world is not perfect, and Scripture is unsystematic, and so disputes arise; so the Church needs to think its way through the mess. That is what we call dogma, and it is the work of the Spirit.
Finally, and to make all this possible, there is education, of which Newman said, “it is my line”. It is how we pursue our all-important task of communicating God’s revelation; and the Spirit is required for this.
To that end, John Henry Newman was always eminently pastoral, attentive to the needs of human beings; and that is why the poor lined the streets for his funeral and that was why the Oxford undergraduates could not be prevented from attending his sermons. He was, above all, a man of the Spirit, and is an example to us of how to preach the gospel.