“a never finished conversion”
CELEBRATION OF THE CANONISATION OF JOHN HENRY NEWMAN
Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin
Newman University Church, Dublin, 20 October 2019
Amid all the celebrations that have taken place in these days to mark the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman, there is something unique about our celebration here this evening.
This celebration takes place in Newman’s own Church. It is a Church which, to use a phrase of Monsignor Ciaran O’Carroll, once Rector of this Church, represents “a theological statement in stone, marble and paint” of Newman’s vision of his mission and of his university.
During his lifetime, Newman was linked with and attached to many buildings and Churches, old and newer, that he gradually adapted to his needs and aspirations. This Church was his own creation and was a forward-looking symbol of his great ambition of a university in which faith and reason would fruitfully interact.
A university is a place of universal learning and for Newman the exclusion of faith from any such forum of learning would lead to a reduction in the quality of learning. This Church is in a sense an integral chapter, written in stone and marble and paint, of Newman’s “Idea of University”.
In this house of prayer now, we turn to the God of mercy asking that he will lead us and lead our society towards the true light that is our calling and destiny.
The Gospel reading we have just heard is often called the parable of the unjust judge. Certainly the unjust judge appears as a key figure in the parable, but there is also another central figure: the poor widow.
Who is the poor woman? The poor woman represents the efforts and the determination of the poor who have to face obstacles day after day and always seem to be in a position of disadvantage, starting out from well behind the starting line of others.
The poor woman represents the great efforts of ordinary men and women to create a better life and a better future for their children and grandchildren in the face of the disinterest of the powerful, represented by the unjust judge. This judge was simply not interested in the life and the good of the community for which he had responsibility. He represents what Pope Francis constantly calls a “globalisation of indifference”.
There is however another dimension of the identity of the poor woman. She is a woman of faith and her personal struggle is a symbol of what faith means in the way we live our lives. Just like the woman of the Gospel, we can be tempted to give up easily on seeking faith, in the face of the pressures and the disinterest of life around us.
In the face of what seems impossible obstacles, the poor woman persists in her search. Faith today involves persistence in the face of our own uncertainty and in the face of a society, which finds it hard to understand faith or which becomes indifferent to faith.
This leads us back to Saint John Henry Newman whose canonisation we celebrate today. Writing many years ago, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said of Newman: “Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself”.
Ratzinger referred to “a never finished conversion”. Newman was not simply a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, but his life was a persistent seeking for the truth. Just as much as he was a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, he remained a convert within Catholicism.
Newman persisted in his search amid the gloom of evening, when the night was dark and when he was far from home, trusting in that kindly light that would lead him on. In the moments when he was tempted to seek and chose his own path, he slowly began to remember that only the kindly light of God would lead him step by step into the future and so become ever more himself. Newman’s search into faith became a never finished seeking.
Faith is always a seeking and Newman reminds us that that seeking continues, lifelong, in our own hearts and in our desire to understand the human project. The obstacles to faith arise when we somehow begin to feel that we definitively have all the answers and others are to be judged as outsiders, or on the other hand, when we fall into the temptation to indifference not even asking the questions.
In that same article I referred to earlier, Cardinal Ratzinger compares Newman’s situation with that of Saint Augustine. Ratzinger wrote:
“When Augustine was converted… he thought that his past sinful life would now be definitively cast off; from now on the convert would be someone wholly new and different, and his further journey would be a steady climb to the ever purer heights of closeness to God”.
Ratzinger however adds:
“Augustine’s actual experience was a different one. He had to learn that being a Christian is always a difficult journey with all its heights and depths”.
Faith is never definitively arriving at the heights, but always a journey.
In recent days, people have been asking the question would Newman have been a Brexiteer or a Remainer. I have my own idea as to which. My question is however a different one. Where would Newman place himself in the situation of the Church in today’s Ireland?
Irish Catholicism is marked for many as a culture of religious certainties and for others one where each one determines his or her own beliefs. Newman would belong to neither. Conversion is always the roadway of a whole lifetime. A Catholicism of self-defined certainties will lead eventually to a doubt about all certainties and thus to emptiness. A Catholicism of self-defined certainties and self-importance led to an authoritarian and harsh Irish Catholicism, with consequences we know only too well.
The Church must reach out to those who belong to its fold but also to the many who are religiously estranged or non-affiliated, not confronting them with readymade answers, but attracting them into that search for the true light and accompanying them on that life-long journey towards discovering their true selves.
The journey into faith belongs within the wider search for what is important in life. In today’s world, there are so many attractions and we are constantly under pressure to conform; we are bombarded by advertising for things that we really do not need and are not the things that will really fill the voids that are in our hearts. In that sense, the journey into faith always involves a challenging encounter and dialogue with reason. Newman however also came to realise how faith can open the door of reason to new dimensions and a deeper understating of reality.
The journey into faith is however never just self-driven. It is the kindly light of God that enlightens the path and the entire journey. Newman saw how prayer in particular is what opens our hearts to that light and this Church was to play a special role in university life.
Let me mention two warnings. This morning on World Mission Sunday, Pope Francis reminded us of the dangers of “pastoral pessimism” that would block us from seeing the joyful newness of the Gospel. There is of course no way in which we can draw the religiously alienated back to the faith of their earlier life, if we do not also identify the factors that alienated them from the faith. People will be attracted to the message of Jesus only if they encounter us believers as both people of joy at our encounter with Christ, and people who recognise where a sense of self-defined certainties led us on the wrong path.
My second warning is that the light we look towards is a kindly light. I am astonished at the content and tone of daily messages on social media by Catholic pundits on the left and the right that are anything but kindly. There are those who spend all day attacking and responding and feeling that in this they are defending the integrity of Church teaching. The kindly light will never be defended by nastiness and bitterness. Such negativity and polarisation reflects rather a pointless retreat into self-defined false certainties.
Finally, that searching for the joy of faith must never overlook the darkness of suffering and repression that many experience in our world. The poor woman of our Gospel reading is a model of faith but also a challenge to our faith to make us reach out to the many in our world who suffer exclusion. The kindly light also ruthlessly shows up the hypocrisy of indifference and disinterest towards the fate of the poor.