World news in today’s age travels with such speed that we are aware at once of wars, cruelty, famine and other human disasters. We must pay attention, pray, and in our own measure do what we can to alleviate human sufferings, but we must first look to ourselves. We should not forget our own personal shortcomings and sins, and more importantly God’s forgiveness and blessings. Blessed John Henry Newman helps us through his sermons to do precisely just that.
Faced with our human weaknesses and failings it is easy to be discouraged and at times even to doubt God’s plan for mankind and the possibility of living in a state of grace. Considering this apprehension of our human condition Blessed Newman highlights as St. Paul’s characteristic gift his understanding for fallen human nature.
In a sermon titled “St. Paul’s Characteristic Gift” Newman writes:
I think his characteristic is this;—that, as I have said, in him the fulness of divine gifts does not tend to destroy what is human in him, but to spiritualize and perfect it. According to his own words, used on another subject, but laying down, as it were, the principle on which his own character was formed,—”We would not be unclothed,” he says, but “clothed upon, that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
St. Paul does not deny human infirmity and rebelliousness against God but he insists on God’s grace always raising us to a new life in Christ. The Apostle teaches that the Holy Spirit makes children of God and leads us to a gradual identification with Christ, the Only Begotten Son.
According to the Apostle human nature is not totally depraved. A Christian must fight against disordered passions and self-will but he does so acknowledging the body, good sentiments and desires granted him by God. Newman explains:
A heathen poet has said, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. “I am a man; nothing human is without interest to me:” and the sentiment has been widely and deservedly praised. Now this, in a fulness of meaning which a heathen could not understand, is, I conceive, the characteristic of this great Apostle. He is ever speaking, to use his own words, “human things,” and “as a man,” and “according to man,” and “foolishly”:—that is, human nature, the common nature of the whole race of Adam, spoke in him, acted in him, with an energetical presence, with a sort of bodily fulness, always under the sovereign command of divine grace, but losing none of its real freedom and power because of its subordination.
Newman notes St. Paul’s teaching that God has given to all mankind a law written in their hearts and, so to speak, a ‘natural revelation’ of himself. He then gives us the reason why St. Paul on three occasions cites heathen writers:
Some of the ancient Fathers consider that the Greeks were under a special dispensation of Providence, preparatory to the Gospel, though not directly from heaven as the Jewish was. Now St. Paul seems, if I may say it, to partake of this feeling; distinctly as he teaches that the heathen are in darkness, and in sin, and under the power of the Evil One, he will not allow that they are beyond the eye of Divine Mercy. On the contrary, he speaks of God as “determining their times and the limits of their habitation,” that is, going along with the revolutions of history and the migrations of races, “in order that they should seek Him, if haply they may feel after Him and find Him,” since, he continues, “He is not far from every one of us.”
Addressing the students at the Catholic University of Ireland from the pulpit of the university church he was showing them that, like St. Paul, they could learn to see the traces of God’s providence among pagans, and thus devote time to the study of history, literature and culture. At the same time Newman was presenting them with St. Paul’s understanding for the human tendencies towards self-love and idolatry. He went on to beautifully describe St. Paul’s love for the Jewish people to whom belong the promises, the prophets and the covenant.
By way of summary, Newman tells us that St. Paul’s characteristic gift was his understanding of human nature and his affection for human beings. He made human nature “his own to the very full, instead of annihilating it; he sympathized with it, while he mortified it by penance, while he sanctified it by the grace given him.” Newman wanted the university students to learn to die to their passions and whims, and thus become leaders in the service of others.
For us today, in a world that is often riddled with violence and injustice, Blessed Newman’s homily is an invitation to place our hope in Christ. It is a call to strive through prayer and penance to respond to God’s grace and mercy, thus becoming signs of his love among men.