Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman
Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman

St. John Henry Newman, who often wrote uplifting lyrical poetry, also wrote many somber verses. Since he used verse to express his inmost thoughts and feelings, St. John Henry would naturally turn to poetry when he wished to consider spiritual matters. His poem, “Penance” is an example, short but dense; the saint’s thoughts can help us as we continue our Lenten journey.

By penance we usually think of corporal or physical acts of atonement rather than the type of mortification which we understand as small privations. In broad terms, however, penance includes other forms of mortification, those that are not deliberately sought. Giving up something for Lent, or adding something extra for Lent, are all good, tried, and true forms of lenten discipline, referred to as active mortification. But what Newman writes of in the following verses is known as “passive mortification,” those unsought difficulties we experience each day.

At the Ash Wednesday service which begins Lent, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. These familiar words are at once both stark yet hopeful. For how easy it is to count and measure our days, one day turning into the next, one month to the next, one year to the next, with the assumption that our life stretches out before us. But this should not be the way of the Christian, a pilgrim on earth, traveling to eternity. And this is why the season of Lent is so necessary. We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection.

Listen to this poem in its entirety. Notice that the first word, “Mortal” is the only word in the whole poem which is a trochee, that is, two syllables, the first stressed, the second unstressed. The rest of the poem is mainly iambic, that is, the pattern of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed. English is naturally iambic, so the initial trochee here catches our attention and begins the poem dramatically which serves to emphasize this first word: MOR -tal!


MORTAL! if e’er thy spirits faint,

By grief or pain opprest,

Seek not vain hope, or sour complaint,

To cheer or ease thy breast:


But view thy bitterest pangs as sent

A shadow of that doom,

Which is the soul’s just punishment

In its own guilt’s true home.


Be thine own judge; hate thy proud heart;

And while the sad drops flow,

E’en let thy will attend the smart,

And sanctify thy woe.


Off Pantellaria. December 23, 1832.


In this poem, one of the Mediterranean Verses, Newman is reflecting on those unsought “woes” which all humans experience. These woes need to be sanctified. In his trip to the Mediterranean, he had become ill, almost to the point of death. He was in pain and homesick, while also thinking deeply about his Anglican faith. In the lines of this poem, he admonishes us to neither complain nor to rely on false hope, but instead to see, even as tears, or ‘the sad drops” flow, to choose, by our own free will and “attend to the smart” or pain, and sanctify this pain, passive mortifiation,

A contemporary author, Fr. Francis Caraval, gives further examples of these passive mortifications which we can choose to sanctify: “These can be–when offered with love–what happens to us unexpectedly, or what does not depend on our will: cold, heat, pain, patience at having to wait longer than we expected, not reacting in kind to a brusque answer we might receive. . . . .”.

As we continue our Lenten journey we can consider these daily woes which we can, and should, sanctify. What are we willing to offer to God, united to Jesus, who bears the Cross for the salvation of man? Let us remember not only our active forms of lenten discipline, but also those minor unsought difficulties, which offered to God without complaint can help us on our way to the Easter feast.

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Newman lays down a firm rule in the light of life's abundant blessings: the Christian is not allowed to be gloomy.

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

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We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

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About Cardinal John Henry Newman

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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.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 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.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

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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