What John Henry Newman’s Life Can Teach Us About Following Christ

John Kubasak

What John Henry Newman’s Life Can Teach Us About Following Christ

Whenever we look at men and women to be canonized, we should appreciate them on multiple levels. Praise should be the first instinct: God was glorified in this person during their earthly life, and canonization should bring forth renewed praise of God. We should also admire their good qualities as something to emulate.  Specific virtues, heroic witness, and redemptive suffering. The most important thing we should take from a saint are how to apply those same virtues, marks of holiness, and willingness to suffer in our own lives. This last point highlights the beauty of the communion of saints, the Incarnation, and the Mystical Body of Christ.  

John Henry Newman’s sanctity was a gift from God to him, to further along his vocation and to push him along the path to heaven.  On top of that, Newman’s sanctity was a gift to all those that he ministered to during his life. Finally, his sanctity is a gift to all of us in the Mystical Body of Christ.  Newman’s intercession and example benefit us even though we live over a century after he died. Every single one of us have the same opportunity to live a life of grace, to show the love of God to others, and to spend heaven doing good work on earth.  Almost-Saint John Henry Newman had a number of qualities that could help us in our efforts toward those very three things. In a previous post,  I noted four things in particular that would be good to model on our road to sanctity.  Here are those same points, with more attention devoted to them.  

Know and Love Christ to Know and Love Others

There are so many facets to evangelization!  It’s rather mysterious, to be honest. On one hand, it’s important to know things about the faith and be willing to witness to the work that Jesus has done in our lives.  On the other hand, we could have every answer, live as good a life as possible, and still not make a dent in someone’s willingness to consider Catholicism. Where is the line drawn between planting seeds and becoming an unwelcome conversation partner?  

John Henry Newman was a very effective evangelizer, and one of the main reasons was that it was easy for people to see him living out his vocation and a life of holiness.  He maintained regular spiritual practices and devotions. It was apparently uncommon for Anglican priests to visit the sick of their parish; Newman made every effort to do so.  He was widely known as a gifted author and homilist, but his homilies were delivered in a way that’s peculiar to us today. His beatification biography cites an account of what Newman was like as a preacher: he wasn’t terribly dynamic, in the way we envision it today.  He read his sermon sentence by sentence, with thirty second pauses in between sentences. Yet such was the quality of his personal relationship with Christ that it overflowed into his writings, his pastoral work, friendships, and endeavors.  

The same principles work for us, even though not all of us are priests or theologians.  First, evangelization hinges on the basic idea that we can’t give what we don’t have. How can we be an authentic witness of Christ if we don’t know Him?  A prayer life centered on a personal relationship with Christ is paramount. If we give it pride of place in our lives, it will overflow into our vocations, friendships, and endeavors, just like it did for Newman and all the saints.  Our relationship with Christ should share some common characteristics as the saints—meditative prayer time, form prayers like the rosary, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, etc., the sacraments—but it won’t be identical to theirs. Each person’s relationship with Christ will look slightly different depending on one’s vocation, state in life, and progress in the spiritual life.  

Be Ready to Give an Answer for Your Faith

A second quality that made Newman such an effective evangelizer was his knowledge of the faith.  We have an amazing treasure trove of knowledge about the faith available to us. Our knowledge of the faith should start with daily Scripture reading, and should be supplemented by spiritual reading.  A good place to start on the latter is with the writings of the early Church Fathers. Newman’s reading of the Fathers was a monumental turning point in his young life, shaking himself out of a complacent attitude toward the practice of his Anglican faith.  I’d recommend any Catholic to take in a sampling of the Eucharistic theology of the Fathers. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Philadelphians and St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology are two of the many writings of the Fathers available free online.   

The Church Fathers make for great spiritual reading, but they should lead us to an appreciation of the faith, just like what happened to Newman.  After studying the Fathers, John Henry was convinced that the Anglican Church needed to get back to the essentials of the apostolic faith. It’s a good question for Catholics today: how many know the essentials of our faith?  Or where to find them? I think the bare minimum that Catholics need to know today is the theology of the Nicene Creed, as well as the Church’s position on the major social issues of today.  

The Nicene Creed is said every Sunday at Mass, and it’s a convenient summary of the faith.  It contains our basic beliefs about God as one, while a Trinity of three Persons; it describes Jesus who is fully man and fully God; there’s a snapshot of the Paschal Mystery, where Jesus suffered, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and it concluded with the sending of the Holy Spirit; it contains the four marks of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  Here again, we aren’t being asked to become professional theologians. We are called into relationship with Christ, which enables us to live out our common vocation of holiness. The Church in her wisdom gathered together “a summary of the principal truths of the faith,” which then became “the first and fundamental point of catechesis” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #188).  The Catechism also instructs us that the formulas of the creeds aren’t themselves the objects of belief.  “We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch” (CCC #170).  That is, knowing the basic truths of the faith is not the same as having faith in those basic truths.  Knowing the faith is very important, but knowledge itself will not save us; we need Christ-like charity (cf. Luke 10:25-37) and faith (cf. Gal 5:6).  

Don’t Just Live a Christian Life … Talk About Why You Do It, Too

There’s a famous, mis-attributed quote: “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”  This is commonly thought to be said by St. Francis of Assisi, but there’s no evidence of him ever doing so.  Unfortunately, a common modern reaction to this quote is to believe that a Catholic need not evangelize, as long as they live a “good” life.  Emphasizing a lived, authentic Catholicism is great. Never talking about it, however? That runs contrary to the teaching of Our Lord, to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20). 

As western culture becomes more and more secular, it is becoming more and more hostile to the Catholic faith.  It’s very important that we know the Catholic response—especially to the prevalent moral issues of our day like abortion, assisted suicide, homosexual unions, and the like.  We can look to John Henry Newman for inspiration, who confronted any who tried to teach against the truth. If we’re attacked for holding to the teachings of our faith, hold fast to Christ.  It may hurt. It may cost us friends. In all that, Christ draws us deeper into His Passion where He was hurt, ridiculed, and abandoned by His friends.  

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions of the Faith

At the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), the dogma of papal infallibility was proclaimed.  The dogma itself wasn’t the issue so much as the timing. John Henry Newman held the opinion that the timing wasn’t opportune, and he expressed as much in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.  Newman’s answer brought in issues of conscience, the nature of the Church, and an in-depth look at the dogma of papal infallibility.  He closed the letter in humble fashion: “I say there is only one Oracle of God, the Holy Catholic Church and the Pope as her head. To her teaching I have ever desired all my thoughts, all my words to be conformed; to her judgment I submit what I have now written, what I have ever written, not only as regards its truth, but as to its prudence, its suitableness, and its expedience.” 

The faith has always been questioned, since Jesus first started preaching.  There are easy things to believe, and hard things to believe; some Catholics encourage us and make it easier to practice our faith, and others make us want to run away screaming.  The clerical sexual abuse scandals are a black eye on the Church, and it’s hard to know what to do or where to turn. 

Stay united with the Church and the Pope; it is better to be in humble union, than to find ourselves outside the Church.

Learn to Embrace Suffering

Suffering well is extremely difficult.  Sometimes it feels so random, and we don’t always know the reason behind it.  A helpful way to look at suffering is to cast our gaze past it: it’s wrapped up in the mysterious will of God. He knows that good can come out of this suffering.  What that good is, we may not know in our earthly life. Newman’s quote below holds fast to trusting in the Lord:

“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. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham.  Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion [sic] 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.

Therefore I will trust Him.  Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.  My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about.  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.”


(from Meditations and Devotions, part III, ch. 1)

The Church is gaining a powerful saint in heaven!  Let us turn to John Henry Newman for his intercession and his example.