Today we celebrate the feast of our Cardinal. Most saints' feast days are kept on the day of their death, as marking their heavenly birthday and entry into glory. St John Henry actually died on 11th August 1890, so we can be thankful that we don't have to keep his feast in the middle of the summer holidays. Instead, 9th October marks the day that Newman was received into the Catholic Church - on 9th October 1845 - at LIttlemore, near Oxford, by Blessed Dominic Barberi. Our Cardinal referred to this event as entering 'the one true fold of the Redeemer', and it is the key to understanding his holiness and his relevance to us today. Newman did not become a Catholic because he found the Church more congenial; quite the opposite, for him it meant leaving behind everything that was familiar: his friends, his position, his prestige, and even his family. Years later, as a priest of the Birmingham Oratory, our Cardinal said,
"As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life - but as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion."
Whether every Father of the Oratory could say this I cannot comment, but what is clear is that St John Henry became a Catholic because he had to, because his conscience demanded it, and because he considered it necessary for his eternal salvation.
We rightly wish to respect the opinions of others and to have charitable relations with other Christians and those whose faith is different from our own. That is a proper response to the freedom with which our Creator endows us; but that is not the same as thinking that all beliefs are equally valid. In a liberal society we are able to enjoy the freedom to practise our religion and we accord others the same freedom, but we do not think, it would not be rational to think, that all beliefs are equally true. Newman wrote to Mrs William Froude in June 1848:
"We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe; if we believe lightly, or if we are hard of belief, in either case we do wrong."
We choose what we believe. If I refuse to believe the evidence of my senses that it is raining, or that the sun is shining, then I am responsible for this perverse choice. I cannot later complain of getting wet, or sunburnt, when I have deliberately refused to engage with reality. Likewise, I have certain duties which I must perform, and if I fail to fulfil them I am responsible. I know that I must love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. When I fail to do this I cannot plead ignorance. I should have done so; I am to blame, pure and simple. I know, without any possible doubt, that I should love my neighbour as myself, and when I fall short of this charity, it is my own fault.
In the same way then, we know that it is possible for every human being who hears the Gospel preached to come to faith in Jesus Christ and to realize that the teachings of the Catholic Church are infallibly those of Christ. Our beliefs are not simply a matter of temperament or personal preference: they are certainly revealed to us by a loving God. We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we believe. St John Henry shows us that the Catholic faith admits of an intelligent, rational approach. So what is it then that keeps so many outside of the Church? In the first place, we have to admit that it is a moral choice. In our Cardinal's own, well-known words:
I was not ever thus, nor prayed 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!
Faith is a gift, but it is also a virtue, a habit. If we do not pray, if we don't come to Mass, if we do not engage with the practice of our faith, then our faith will atrophy as surely as we lose any gift that we do not use. If you don't keep doing something, eventually you will not be able to do it. Yet not to practise our religion is the ultimate irrational madness. We know that one day we shall stand before the awful judgement seat fo God, and that there only our identification with Christ our Redeemer will save us.
The grass springs up in the the morning; at evening tide it shrivels up and dies.
So we fail in Thine anger: and in Thy wrath are we troubled.
Thou hast set our sins in Thy sight, and our round of days in the light of Thy countenance.
Our Cardinal's holy life shows us that there is a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that we see. St John Henry is a testament to the supernatural reality of Truth, and that the salvation of souls is the only real goal of life. In 1847 Blessed Pope Pius IX gave Newman the brief to found the Oratory in England, with the explicit aim of converting this country. How? St John Henry discovered in our Holy Father St Philip a kindred soul, who three-hundred years before had also acted through personal influence. Cor ad cor loquitur - Heart shall speak unto heart. Philip became the third Apostle of Rome in the sixteenth century by influencing one soul at a time, above all in the confessional. In the nineteenth century Newman contrasted the Jesuit and Oratorian missions within the Church. The Jesuit, he said, catches fish in a net; the Oratorian fishes with a line - one soul at a time. This was our Cardinal's method to bring about the Second Spring in England. His hours in the confessional, his work in education, his ministry among the poor in Birmingham - all of this because,
"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 may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. 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."
God has also created you and me to do Him some definite service; He has committed a work to us that nobody else can do, and He has made us links in a chain, bonds of connection between persons. Our mission in the York Oratory is very clear and simple: it is the conversion of our city. I invite you to join us in this task, because it is of this that we shall be asked before God's throne of judgement. And how do we do it? "If I do but keep His commandments," says our Cardinal.
In a Chapter Address to the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory, St John Henry gave them what he called a Short Road to Perfection:
"If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first – Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect."
So: choose what you believe, and act on what you choose. Pray well daily, be faithful to the Holy Mass and to frequent confession, witness in charity to your family, colleagues, neighbours, and friends, and you will find your own salvation and bring truth and life to others. That is the mission God has given us through the life and holiness of our Holy Father St Philip and our Cardinal St John Henry.
"Let us follow the Saints, as they follow Christ."