Homily from the Feast of St John Henry Newman
9 October 2020
What to make of the feast of John Henry Newman during a COVID pandemic and as we are plunged into a never-ending recession? We come to celebrate his feast strangely on 9 October. As Fr Uren, our scholar in residence, pointed out this morning: usually we would celebrate the feast of a saint on the date of their death. But 9 October was not the date of Newman’s death. Rather 9 October 1845 was the day of the conversion of John Henry Newman – the day of his entry to the Church of Rome. It was the day on which the Passionist priest Dominic Barberi, an itinerant preacher, came to the small hamlet of Littlemore a few kilometres outside Oxford to hear the confession of one John Henry Newman. Newman announced to his family and friends that he was now a Catholic and no longer an Anglican priest.
His sister Jemima was very upset that he had decided to stay on at Littlemore. But he thought he had no option as a layman but to stay on there in Littlemore to study, to pray and to reflect. He did a lot of watching and waiting. For us during the pandemic, particularly here in Victoria during the lockdown, we too have been doing a lot of watching and waiting.
As an Anglican priest, Newman preached a homily on ‘waiting for Christ’ in which he reflected on watching and waiting. 19 years later he preached an almost identical homily as the Rector of the Catholic University in Dublin. He asked many questions and provided one simple answer:
“Do you know the feeling in matters of this life, of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays? Do you know what it is to be in unpleasant company, and to wish for the time to pass away, and the hour to strike when you may be at liberty? Do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something which should happen or may not, or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when you are reminded of it, and of which your think the first thing in the morning? Do you know what it is to have a friend in a distant country, to expect news of him, and to wonder from day to day what he is now doing, and whether he is well? Do you know what it is to live upon a person who is present with you, that your eyes follow his, that you read his soul, that you see all its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wishes, that you smile in his smile, and are sad in his sadness, and are downcast when he is vexed, and rejoice in his successes? To watch for Christ is a feeling such as all these; as far as feelings of this world are fit to shadow out those of another.”
We are doing a lot of watching and waiting at this time, aren’t we? As we wait and watch on friends and those around us, we also wait and watch on Christ. As we are plunged into recession, contemplating the future particularly for young people in our society, and most especially those who are students in our midst, we know that there is a lot of turbulence, but also the quest for peace and equanimity. In 1839, once again in his Anglican phase, Newman preached a Christmas sermon on equanimity. He asked, “Did you ever look at an expanse of water, and observe the ripples on the surface? Do you think that disturbance penetrates below it?” He answered No, and continued:
“You have seen or heard of fearful tempests on the sea; scenes of horror and distress…Yet even these violent commotions do not reach into the depths. The foundations of the ocean, the vast depths of water which girdle the earth, are as tranquil and as silent in the storm as in a calm.”
He went on to observe that it was the same with the souls of holy people: “They have a well of peace springing up within them unfathomable; and though the accidents of the hour may make them seem agitated, yet in their hearts they are not so.”
Monsignor Roderick Strange who was the long-time Catholic chaplain at Oxford recalls in his book Newman: The Heart of Holiness that a short time after delivering this sermon, Newman wrote:
‘The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not, – like some well in a retired and shady place, difficult of access. He is the greatest part of his time by himself, and when he is in solitude, that is his real state. What he is when left to himself and to his God, that is his true life.’
We have time for much reflection during this pandemic and as we stare down the barrel of a long-running recession. We have time to ponder that scene on 16 June 1833 when Newman had been quite sick for a few weeks in Italy. He was anxious to return home to England, to get back to work, to return to his friends and to all those labours and contacts which could bear great fruit. When he managed to board a boat, he was further frustrated when the boat was becalmed on the waters for a full week. It was then that he sat down that evening and penned his poem/hymn Lead Kindly Light. Here we are becalmed, anxious to get back to work and to our regular routines and social rounds. In the midst of a pandemic and on the verge of a deep recession we pray:
LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Happy Feast Day!
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).