Fixing our eyes on God


Reflections on Christian hope – Blessed John Henry Newman

Christians are called to have an answer ready for anyone who asks the reason for the hope that they have (cfr. 1 Pt 3:15). Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) can serve as both helper and counsellor in this task of ours. After his conversion to the Catholic Church (1845), priestly ordination and his foundation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England, in 1849 the famous English theologian gave a number of discourses addressed to Catholics and other Christians (cf. Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, Christian Classics, Westminister 1966) whose object was to offer them a fundamental perspective on the great hope of Christian life. These discourses even today have lost none of their freshness, relevance or power to attract. We shall, therefore, trace three separate fundamental lines of thought which are strictly linked to the theme of Christian hope.

In the first of these discourses, entitled The Salvation of the Hearer and the Motive of the Preacher, Newman attempts to immerse himself in the thoughts of the inhabitants of Birmingham, who at that time knew neither him nor his Oratorian brothers, and to respond to the questions that he imagined they might bear in their hearts: what motivates them (the members of this new community) to come here? What do they want? What are they preaching? What are they promising? (cfr. Mix 1).

Newman knows that it is no simple matter to respond to these fundamental questions. He values the progress and the means of the world, but he is wary of the spirit of the world. What does the spirit of the world seek? According to Newman it seeks name, influence, power, wealth, station; sometimes by relieving the ills of human life such as ignorance, sickness, poverty or vice (cfr. Mix 2). A soul born into this world and educated according to its principles may learn various things, acquire good habits and form his own judgements. But already at a young age he falls easily into the temptation of adapting himself entirely to the spirit of the world and cultivating purely worldly interests. And when this person becomes an adult, he takes up a profession or a trade and plays his part in the scene of mortal life; his connections extend as he gets older; he gains a reputation and influence: the reputation and the influence of being a sensible, prudent, and shrewd man in the eyes of his peers (cfr. Mix 13). The world acknowledges and praises this person.

The problem with such a person is that he will never think either of God or eternity. But, asks Newman, “What about his soul?—about his soul? Ah, his soul; he had forgotten that; he had forgotten he had a soul” (Mix 13). And he has forgotten that his earthly life will come to an end and then eternity waits for him. This, according to Newman, is the history of a man for whom the Gospel has not become real, in whom the good seed has not put down roots (cfr. Mix 15-16). This is the history of a worldly man who is in grave danger of losing his true life because he tries to live without God and, therefore, without hope. A this point Newman reveals to his listeners the real motive for his preaching: “is it a thing to be marvelled at, that we begin to preach to such a population as this, for which Christ died, and try to convert it to Him and to His Church? … What is so powerful an incentive to preaching as the sure belief that it is the preaching of the truth? What so constrains to the conversion of souls, as the consciousness that they are at present in guilt and in peril? … we come among you as ministers of that extraordinary grace of God, which you need; we come among you because we have received a great gift from God ourselves, and wish you to be partakers of our joy; because it is written, ‘Freely ye have received, freely give’ (Mt 10:8)” (Mix 18).

John Henry Newman, who as a young man experienced the fascination of God’s reality and was guided by the kindly light of His providence, could not remain silent about the grace he had received. He had to give witness to the invisible love of God, which in his eyes was more real than visible realities; he had to bear witness to the great hope that filled his heart. He experienced the power of the truth that Benedict XVI so marvellously expressed in the following words: “Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God—God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end,’ until all ‘is accomplished’ (cf. Jn 13:1 and 19:30). Whoever is moved by love begins to perceive what “life” really is. He begins to perceive the meaning of the word of hope that we encountered in the Baptismal Rite: from faith I await ‘eternal life’—the true life which, whole and unthreatened, in all its fullness, is simply life” (Encyclical Spe salvi, n. 27).

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