John Henry Newman’s liturgical memorial is October 9, the day of his conversion from the Anglican Church to the Catholic Church. In just a few days, on October 13, Pope Francis will declare him a saint of the Catholic Church. This is a time of rejoicing for both Catholics and Anglicans and for all men of good will. It is the formal recognition of holiness in life and service to mankind. It is a sign of a man made in the image and likeness of God, and redeemed by the same God who fashioned him.
Conversion, a turning towards God, is primarily the work of God who communicates His grace to men and women.
But Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Church was not his only conversion. He described various conversions in his life. The first one began as a young man of fifteen when he discovered the one “luminous Being” who is the source of all and present to all: God. He realized the presence of a personal and living God who makes claims on his creatures and children. In the Apologia pro vita sua, his spiritual autobiography, he wrote that he rested “in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”
The next conversion came when he was in college and just a little older. He was aspiring to honors at Oxford and did poorly on exams due to mental exhaustion. The young Newman realized that he had fallen into this situation out of pride which included a growing spiritual liberalism. He turned away from this situation and turned back to God.
Another conversion was during an 1833 trip to Sicily, during which he fell gravely ill and as a result came to discover a deeper meaning for his life. “I will not die …” he kept saying to himself, “God has a mission for me.” Newman was leading an upright life but the near-death experience led him to see in a convincing way the deeper meaning of his life. Shortly afterwards aboard ship on the return trip to England, he penned the famous lines: Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom. Lead thou me on.
Each conversion was marked by a personal spiritual awareness of God, of God’s love and goodness, and of God’s expectations. God was leading Newman to greater faith and trust. Newman took the step each time, turning towards God.
The last major or defining conversion for Newman was on October 9, 1845, when he asked to be received in the Catholic Church, and was received by now Blessed Domenic Barbieri at Littlemore, just outside Oxford. For over five years, Newman had been considering the claims of the Catholic Church, and whether he could continue in the Anglican Church or whether he should become Roman Catholic.
Through his study of doctrine, reflection and, in particular, personal prayer, he became convinced that in conscience he must take this step. Often people say that Newman read himself into the Church. He had indeed read a lot of the Church Fathers and Church history. But, in fact, Newman prayed himself into the Church. During these five years he prayed a lot and fasted (something which he found very hard to do).
It was God’s grace that gave him the necessary light to see things clearly, and to take such a momentous step. After all he was the leader of a movement, and a well-known figure in England. Man must respond to the lights and desires that God places in his mind and heart (the turning, or conversion), but God is the One who initiates, moves, and sustains these changes.
In some meditation notes many years later Newman wrote the following prayer:
“O my God, let me never forget this truth—that not only art Thou my Life, but my only Life! Thou art the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Thou art my Life, and the Life of all who live. All men, all I know, all I meet, all I see and hear of, live not unless they live by Thee. They live in Thee, or else they live not at all. No one can be saved out of Thee. Let me never forget this in the business of the day. O give me a true love of souls, of those souls for whom Thou didst die. Teach me to pray for their conversion, to do my part towards effecting it. However able they are, however amiable, however high and distinguished, they cannot be saved unless they have Thee.”
When a person notes that God is asking him for a change of life, whether it is leaving behind some personal fault, embracing some path, or something else, he must pray to the Holy Spirit for light, and discern what he perceives. Often a person must wait for more light, waiting patiently for God to show the way. In due season He will do so, renewing us in His image and likeness, and guiding us on the path to Him.
Newman reminds us not to lose faith or to become discouraged; conversion is above all the work of God in our souls. We must trust Him and persevere along the way as best we can see it. Often we must, like Newman, make several decisions throughout life to take the path of conversion, of turning again towards God, who is the “Kindly Light” for all mankind.