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John Henry Newman’s Influence on my Catholic Conversion

– By Robert Kirkendall

G.K. Chesterton, in the opening of his essay “Why I Am a Catholic,” says the question “Why are you Catholic?” is difficult because “there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”[1] In our age, this is all the more difficult because people demand immediate answers and direct explanations one minute, but forget them the next. The unity of the Catholic faith is difficult to communicate for this reason; therefore, communicating the reasons for one’s conversion to it, through all the twists and turns of time, emotions, and rationale, is all the more difficult. It means apprehending something as a whole that, while its parts may be in some ways explained, in its entirety eludes full comprehensibility and expression in words. Chesterton describes this phenomenon from an intellectual point of view; John Henry Newman’s famous account of his conversion to Catholicism, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, describes the same phenomenon from the perspective of the will:

All the logic in the world would not have made me move faster towards Rome than I did; as well might you say that I have arrived at the end of my journey, because I see the village church before me, as venture to assert that the miles, over which my soul had to pass before it got to Rome, could be annihilated, even though I had been in possession of some far clearer view than I then had, that Rome was my ultimate destination. Great acts take time.[2]

Newman’s metaphor for acts of the will is that of a journey—at each point along the way, there is a limited kind of knowledge that is made complete at the destination. There is a territory that must be trod, which cannot be hurried or isolated from the larger trek, and on which one must tread cautiously, constantly discerning the way and the goal. This is, of course, the perpetual journey of all men who are called to communion with Christ. But I became more and more aware of Rome as my destination around 2011, when I met Newman through his poetry.He proved a reliable travel companion.

I was raised an evangelical Protestant, and was taught by my loving family to love Christ, love others, be devoted to Scripture, and to study theology. I also developed a keen love for poetry, especially that of T.S. Eliot, Dante, Hopkins, John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton. I slowly discovered that all of my favorite poets were either Catholic or Anglicans (ignoring Milton’s sectarianism). While attending a Protestant Bible college, and studying poetry, I came across Newman’s Dream of Gerontius. Looking back, I can see that this first pricked my heart in a Catholic direction. I was moved and inspired by what I did not know at the time were depictions of Catholic dogma: the intercession of saints, Last Rites and Extreme Unction, purgatory, man’s cooperation with Christ’s grace for salvation, penance, and on and on. I was particularly struck by the structure of heaven, which the soul of Gerontius passes through on his way to God after his death: it was a palace made up of choirs of angels. The very architecture of heaven was praise, and the end and goal was an individual soul’s union with God, his marriage to God. I had never felt so moved by the idea that each soul is destined to eternal communion with the Father in such a real way.

Over the course of the next five years, as my heart and mind were stirred by Catholic teaching, Catholic friends, and Catholic churches, I felt the need to, as Newman did, bring my will into alignment with my emotions and my intellect—to act. My wife and I were Anglican for three years, during which time I was encouraged to study for Anglican Holy Orders (the Anglican Church permits non-celibate clergy). While in seminary, I saw Newman’s name on a bookstall, and remembered how moved I had been by his poem in college. I had also heard his name in connection with his (?)Anglican conversion to Catholicism, which I knew deep down would be my path as well some day. I picked up the book, and found myself reading An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which depicts all aspects of the Catholic Church and her teachings as containing their seed and vital growth from Christ, to the Apostles, through the Church Fathers and Medieval doctors, and to the present day. With Newman, I saw clearly that the Catholic Church is indeed the same Church that Jesus Christ instituted over 2,000 years ago, and that I, as an Anglican, was a part of a schismatic sect that, while retaining much of the grace of God mediated to us by the Scriptures, the commandments, ecclesial forms and worship, ultimately owed these things to the Catholic Church made manifest under the See of St. Peter.

Reading Newman was like watching dominos fall toward Rome—the further I read, the less and less I could help not being Catholic. I read the Grammar of Assent, which helped explain my own experience of assenting to Catholic dogma; I read his novels, poems, and sermons, which warmed my heart to Catholic truths, as well as the person of Blessed John Henry Newman. I read the Idea of a University, which showed me the Catholic roots of the university and education, as well as the fundamental primacy of theology behind all academic and epistemological enterprise. And, of course, I read the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which deepened my love for Newman and gratitude for all the graces held out by God through the Catholic Church. By my second reading of Newman’s Apologia, I realized that I could no longer in good conscience take vows to Anglican holy orders, and that I had to convert to Catholicism. Glory be to God, around this same time my wife was ready to convert with me, but that is a different story.

“Great acts take time.” Reading Newman was and is like being accompanied by a good friend along a journey, a testimony to his probable canonization. His books brought out of me what I already, somewhere deep down, knew. They induced a “real assent” of my mind, heart, and will to the truth of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as the body and bride of Christ awaiting the full communion of the Resurrection. While there are many other dimensions to my conversion, Newman’s companionship remains vital. Reading Newman was like getting to know a friend, a friend with whom I was gradually knit together with, in the bond of charity with all the saints. Through Newman, I discovered that it is friendship with the saints, with holy men and women, that opens one to the grace of God. And what is this grace to which we are called, and which we gradually open ourselves to through holy friendships? It is the highest form of friendship we can imagine: union with God, incorporation into his Son. Newman is most apt in describing this:

The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. A conclusion is but an opinion; it is not a thing which is.[3]

Newman’s insight illustrates the practicality of the communion of the saints, and to the Divine end toward which Christians strive. Holy people buoy us up and goad us on, and the three Holy Persons of the Blessed Trinity is our goal. The grace God offers us is the gift of his very Self, his very Person; or, as Newman puts it in his hymn “Praise to the Holiest:” “God’s Presence and his very Self / And Essence all divine.” Saintly friendships incline us to this grace because, in a blessed host of saints and angels, the love of God that is “poured into our hearts through the holiest Spirit” (cf. Rom. 5:5) is the common bond that unites those friendships. John Henry Newman was a gift to me in his own self, and because he introduced me to other holy persons, to a whole new landscape of possibilities in my journey toward life everlasting.

 

[1] G.K. Chesterton, “Why I Am a Catholic,” in G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works, Vol. III (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 125.

[2] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: Penguin, 1994), 158-9.

[3] Newman, “Secular Knowledge Not a Principle of Action,” The Tamworth Reading Room in Discussions and Arguments (Pittsburgh, PA: Newman Reader, The National Institute for Newman Studies, 2007), www.newmanreader.org/works/arguments/tamworth/section6.html.

 

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What is the doctrine of the Trinity? The Athanasian Creed, in common use around the sixth century, formulates it this way: "We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son's is another, the Holy Spirit's another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal."

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What is the doctrine of the Trinity? The Athanasian Creed, in common use around the sixth century, formulates it this way: "We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son's is another, the Holy Spirit's another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal."

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A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

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(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

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Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.
 

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Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

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What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

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A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

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Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

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Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
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