By Bishop James Conley
As many readers of this column know, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. I was raised a Presbyterian with only a vague sense of Christian doctrine or its meaning in my life. I converted to Catholicism at the University of Kansas at the age of 20, during my junior year. I was a student in the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) —a program of classical formation in literature, art, and the history of Western culture.
The program’s motto was nascantur in admiratione – “let them be born in wonder.” It was a classical “great books” program, but it was not an honors program. The professors sought to form ordinary college students by exposing them to the richness of the great treasures of western culture. Through music, and poetry, and waltzes, and stargazing, the IHP spurred the imagination of young hearts, moving them to wonder at the magnitude of the universe, and the profundity of life’s great questions.
In the midst of that program at KU, I selected a reading by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman as the topic of a paper for a literature class I was taking on major British authors after 1800. The text was a selection of chapters from Newman’s “Idea of a University.” The topic was knowledge—learning itself—and Newman’s point, in those chapters, was to underscore the unity of truth and the transformative power of education. Ultimately, the point of those selections was to reveal the potential of the intellect, the imagination, and the heart to draw men into deeper relationship with God himself.
I still remember the impression his work left on me. He was a clear and honest thinker. He did not shy away from difficulty. But he was confident that men were capable of knowing and loving God—and that the whole of their human endeavors could be ordered to knowing, loving, and serving God. Newman wrote with certitude from a Christian worldview, and I was struck as much by his arguments as by his confidence.
That paper played a critical role in my “religious awakening,” and in my eventual conversion to Catholicism. In Blessed John Henry Newman I found a mentor, an ally, and sometimes a challenge to my own worldviews. In Newman, I found a lover of truth, beauty, and goodness; a man willing to follow his own conclusions with very difficult choices; and a fervent believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and he died in 1890. He spent the first 45 years of his life in the Anglican Church and the last 45 years of his life as a Roman Catholic. John Henry was the son of a banker and the oldest of six children. Born into a century of skepticism, John Henry questioned the Bible and doubted the immortality of the soul.
The young Newman had a yearning for truth—but this passion was tainted with pride. His pride led him into serious doubts and even the “deliberate rejection of God’s voice.”
But at age 15 he underwent a dramatic Christian conversion, in which he felt overcome by the transformative love of God. The young Newman became a fervent evangelical Christian. But he had not yet found the fullness of faith and truth. As he said, “In course of time, slowly but infallibly did your grace bring me on into your Church . . .”
Newman became a clergyman in the Anglican Church, choosing to remain celibate—focusing on his reading, studying, and writing. He became a student at Oriel college at Oxford University, and became a fellow at Oriel at age 21.
Newman was a great scholar of the Church Fathers, and he considered them to be a source of revival in the Anglican Church. While at Oxford, he encountered those who wanted to “Catholicize” Anglicanism, which led to The Oxford Movement, which he founded.
The Oxford Movement set out to renew the Anglican Church in its doctrinal principles, including the nature of the Church, Episcopal authority, the sacraments, and Sacred Tradition.
By 1841, Newman was no longer sure that Anglicanism, with its 16th-century Protestant roots, was really “the Church.” He had begun, quite suddenly, to examine Anglican ecclesiology, and he had found it lacking.
After all, Christ’s Church was no human invention. Its teachings were not a matter of personal interpretation. As Newman reflected in a later meditation: “The Church is your work, your establishment, your instrument … We are under your rule, your laws and your eye … When the Church speaks you do speak.” Newman entered the Church because the Church was true, and that was enough for him.
In 1845, after writing his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” Newman left Anglicanism and became a Catholic. It was on October 9th when he asked Blessed Dominica Barberi to hear his confession and receive him into the “one true fold of the Redeemer.”
Newman’s Catholic conversion was the fruit of much thought and prayer. But it was also—like his youthful Christian conversion—an unmerited gift of God’s grace.
He asked God to make him worthy of this gift: “Now then give me this further grace, Lord, to use all this grace well, and to turn it to my salvation … Give me a love of your sacraments and ordinances … Without you I can do nothing, and you are there where your Church is and your sacraments.”
Newman was ordained as a Catholic priest May 30, 1846 in the city of Rome. After contemplating becoming a Jesuit, he fell in love with the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and established this Congregation in England. Over the next four decades, he undertook various pastoral and intellectual works.
Blessed John Henry Newman was beatified Sept. 19, 2010. He will be canonized a saint Oct. 13 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Over the next few weeks leading up to the canonization, I will write a series of columns about the life and writings of this holy, brilliant, and courageous man who had a profound impact on the Church over the last two centuries.