The Legacy of Bl. John Henry Newman
“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 never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I have a part in a great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling” (Newman).
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman is possibly the most famous convert to the Catholic Church since St Augustine; and he was also as prolific in the writings he left. A true witness to Christ’s call to leave everything and ‘follow me’, he did in fact leave virtually everything to follow Christ all the way to the goal he came to see was inevitable – his academic career, his glittering prospects in the Anglican Church, his growing reputation in Anglican scholarship, even his friends, most of whom could neither understand nor accept his decision, taken after years of study and often painful reflection – to follow the path to Rome.
A determined advocate of truth, he continued to risk controversy and scorn in following Christ’s path. His was a voice raised, in particular, on behalf of the laity, urging that they be permitted and helped to reclaim their dignity as Christians, as members of that universal priesthood, that holy nation of believers.
“The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine … their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church … in that very day [the 4th century, referring to the Arian heresy] the divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the Episcopate … the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism” (On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine).
His views were not met with universal approval, although he never suggested that the laity should take over! His point was that if the laity could show such faith and loyalty in the fourth century, why not in the nineteenth? His visionary ideas continued to echo down through the years, leading to him being widely regarded as “the father of the Second Vatican Council”. Consider, for example, the following reflection from Lumen Gentium (12) on how the lay faithful share in Christ’s prophetic mission:
“The holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office: it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by a life of faith and love and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips praising his name. The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”
Over forty years before the Council, however, Newman’s suggestion about the vocation of the laity was taken up by the establishment of the University Catholic Societies’ Federation, open also to graduates. In 1942, graduates set up a separate “Newman Association”. In the 1970s, membership was opened up to all Catholics and in 1993 non-Catholic Christians were invited to become associate members.
Tth ethos of the Newman Association calls on all its members to use their God-given gifts for the building-up of His Kingdom on earth. God gave us our reason that we might seek Him and strive always to know Him better and to love Him and neighbour more dearly. One way of doing this is within a Newman Circle: exploring, discussing and deepening our faith together with our brothers and sisters in Christ; sometimes challenging, questioning and reaching out to others. Catholics and Non-Catholics alike are also welcome as guests and the scope of programmes has widened to embrace ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue.
“The laymen, what are they?” an angry bishop once grumbled to Newman. And the great cardinal answered, “Well, without them the Church would look rather foolish!”
The Aberdeen Circle was established in the early 1960s and alone in Scotland has continued without interruption. Recently, Circles have been resurrected in Edinburgh and Glasgow and if we sometimes heave an envious sigh at the larger pools of speakers and participants from whom they are able to draw, we are confident that we always manage to arrange an interesting and varied programme each year, with speakers who have a passion and deep commitment in their particular field. Above all, we continue to do our utmost to follow Newman’s aspirations for us:
“I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity” (Present Position of Catholics in England).
Our greatest concern is how to attract people to swell our modest audiences. It can be a source of mild embarrassment when a good busy speaker gives of his or her time and expertise only to be met by an audience of a dozen or so faithful souls. We’re always at pains to stress (and it’s true) that we can provide quality, if not quantity! We do feel strongly, however, that the Newman Association is an invaluable vehicle for ongoing Adult Faith Development; all of us should always be ready to learn, to deepen our understanding and to reach out to others. We try to ensure that each year’s programme is as varied as possible and we have included sessions on outreach, race issues, social teaching; youth; Christian marriage and family issues; pilgrimage; ecumenism and representations from other Christian communities and other faiths; cultural aspects: art, poetry, music etc; political issues, vocation, Church history…
We are conscious also of the need to nourish all these other activities by an ongoing life of prayer, which is especially enriched by our annual Day of Recollection in Lent, led by our dear chaplain, Canon Bill Anderson, who never fails to delight us. And we don’t neglect the social aspect of Church either: in May each year we hold a brief Annual General Meeting to which anyone interested is invited to submit suggestions for the next year’s programme; this is followed by our annual Cheese and Wine which offers an opportunity for more informal chat and a chance to meet new friends.
So then, don’t be faint-hearted; don’t be a stranger! A veritable feast of spiritual, cultural and even intellectual goodies awaits you on the first Thursday of each month for seven months of the year in the Bishop’s House. Information is regularly circulated and through distribution of fliers and the national website (www.newman.org.uk) we hope to be able to reach more people and gradually swell our ranks. We can promise you an enthusiastic welcome and an interesting evening, either as a visitor or as a new member.
You might well ask – what’s in it for me to join the Association? Especially when I can come to all the meetings for a modest donation for my cup of tea? Of course, you are very welcome, whether you wish to become a fully paid-up member of the national Newman Association. By becoming a member, however, you would be helping our Circle to keep going as each year we receive an allocation of funds from Headquarters according to the number of members we have. Circles have unfortunately fallen by the wayside from time to time, often because older members gradually fade from the scene and are not replaced by younger folk. We do need some younger blood! So you would be providing valuable support to us. You would also receive an excellent quarterly magazine from HQ with a variety of articles, book reviews, news from other Circles and of forthcoming events.
We are, of course, conscious that for many people throughout our far-flung diocese it is simply not possible to attend regular meetings in Aberdeen. The Newman HQ are very keen that further Circles should be established throughout the UK and it has been mentioned in dispatches that it would be really good to be able to set up new Circles in Moray and the Highlands, as “that is where the faith was kept very much alive” (even down South they know this!). If there are people in, for instance, the Elgin or Inverness area who would like to find out more about the Association and who might be interested in helping to establish a Circle in their area, please get in touch with Eileen Grant at the email address below. We have a PPT presentation on “Newman and the Newman”, giving a basic introduction to the life and works of Blessed John Henry Newman and the Association founded in his name, and would be glad to show it to any interested group.