After the intolerance, bigotry and hatred on the part of xenophobic groups at demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia (August 2017), we must turn to the lives of the saints who teach us that it is possible to overcome such egregious behavior. Despite very different circumstances, the life of John Henry Newman offers us some lessons on respect for human beings and Christian charity. An Anglican convert to Catholicism, he spent the second half of his life in Birmingham, England, where many Irish immigrants settled.
Who was Cardinal Newman? In the United States some who have heard of Newman think he is Saint John Newman, the German-born fourth bishop of Philadelphia, whose last name was actually Neumann. In fact, Cardinal Newman was an Englishman (1801-1890), who studied and taught at Oxford University where he converted from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church on October 9, 1845.
Before his conversion, he had to overcome some biases he held against Catholics but later criticized such anti-Catholic bigotry in one of his books, Present Difficulties of Catholics in England. He showed how people can grow up with falsehoods and stereotypes concerning others. The same happens today not only in matters of religion but of culture and politics. It is easy to regard others who are different as inferior or as enemies.
Once a Catholic, he had to learn to understand and dialogue with his former Anglican co-religionists who often attacked or severed relationships with him. To the credit of both sides, however, his friendships with Anglicans revived many years later.
Newman explained that personal contact with people of different backgrounds is often the best way to remove prejudices. He pointed out to the priests and brothers with whom he lived in Birmingham that, although they might be objects of discrimination in London, their neighbors in Birmingham would see what they truly were by their genuine Christian lives.
Newman himself set an example of respect and patience with persons of different religious convictions, and acted not only with civility but charity, and was remembered by all after his death. At the same time, he cared for fellow Catholics in Birmingham who were among the poor working-class immigrant Irish families. His relationship with these persons, who came from a very different social and cultural background, is a lesson for all in respect and Christian charity.
Newman was an educator at heart and the quintessential university man. He is fittingly the one for whom Newman Centers throughout U.S. colleges and universities are named. The first such center was opened at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1890’s. After studying and teaching at Oxford University, he started the Catholic University of Ireland in response to the request of the Irish bishops. During his years as first rector of this university, he delivered lectures on university education, which later became the famous “Idea of a University”. He also developed a system of small college houses for the students, and other practical means for “making men” out of them. When he resigned his office as rector of the university and returned to Birmingham where he was the head of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, he began a school for boys that continues to this day.
My recently released book, Holiness in a Secular Age, the Witness of Cardinal Newman (Scepter Publishers, 2017), explains in various chapters what Newman thought a university education, as well as the grammar education preceding it, should be. He believed it is about forming the minds and characters of students; teaching them the truth about God, the world and man. The big questions concerning these truths are seldom asked or addressed comprehensively in our schools and universities, or in people’s homes. As a result, many young people grow up with bigotry and a superficial view of things and people.
But knowledge and understanding are insufficient for dealing with racial and social differences. In addition to these, humans need to practice charity and aspire to holiness. In the same book, I present Newman’s teaching on Christian holiness. Upon hearing the term ‘holiness,’ we often think of the few men and women who are the canonized saints. Newman explains that holiness is a life of prayer and virtue, and above all of charity, to which men and women in all walks of life should aspire. This is a teaching more familiar to us today following the preaching of St. Josemaría Escrivá, and, later, the Vatican II Council promulgations; but many years earlier Newman helped the faithful to see that the Holy Spirit carries out this work in the believer, especially through the sacraments. One of the principal fruits of charity is respect for others, and another is forgiveness – both are necessary for living peacefully with others, especially if they differ from us.
Religious and moral differences also call for mutual respect and the safeguard of religious freedom. In a world in which there are so many religions and Christian denominations, people are often apt to think that all religions are basically the same or have only minor differences, and that religion should be relegated to the private sphere for the sake of peaceful coexistence. Newman shows us, instead, that respect and tolerance of others, which are the conditions for justice, peace and happiness, are compatible with the obligation to seek and to teach religious truth. Years later Vatican II would teach that “without Creator, the creature vanishes.” A world without belief in God leads to a world of hatred and injustice.
There are many other lessons that we can learn from Cardinal Newman, and which I present in Holiness in a Secular Age, the Witness of Cardinal Newman, such as the proper understanding of the moral conscience and true development of doctrine, but I have wished to highlight here one aspect which is increasingly more important in our diverse society: respect and understanding for those who are different.
Cardinal Newman speaks to our times, to materialism and the concomitant loss of faith, to moral relativism and mistaken religious indifference. In the long tradition of the Church’s saints he invites us to holiness of life, characterized by respect and charity for all, regardless of race or creed. The reading of a good biography of this modern-day saint and some of his works, especially his sermons, will revitalize and deepen the faith of many. College students in particular will benefit from the teaching of Cardinal Newman as they face the challenges of university life, and intolerance and prejudice in society.
Fr. Juan R. Vélez, a priest of the prelature of Opus Dei, residing in Chicago, is the author of Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman (TAN/St. Benedict, 2012) and Holiness in a Secular Age, the Witness of Cardinal Newman (Scepter Publishers, 2017).
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