Imagine yourself in the 1840s, at Newman’s beloved Oxford University parish, St. Mary’s, where he regularly preached from about 1828 – 1843. It was a particularly rainy season when he preached a sermon for Whitsunday (Pentecost), ‘Connection between Personal and Public Improvement’ (1843). Newman reminded the gathered faithful that the Scriptures predicted a new flood. Not destructive as in the days of Noah, this new springtime of grace would inundate the whole world, the heavens would “drop down from above” and the skies would “pour down righteousness” (Is. 14:8) and the whole earth would be filled with the “knowledge and the glory of the Lord (Ps. 98:8, Wisd. 1:7). This new flood was Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary in tongues of flame, the tides of which continue to inundate the world. The “infinitely personal” Comforter can now come close to all believers, mediating the sacrifice of Christ and his outpouring of mercy in spirit and truth.
The title, however, given to the sermon might seem odd for the occasion: the “Connection between Personal and Public Improvement.” The “connection” is the Holy Spirit, whose presence alone reconciles the two-fold demand of the Christian: personal and corporate growth. The Holy Spirit is often spoken of, today, in exclusively private terms. But this cannot be the way of Christ, in whom the many become one Body, His Church. And his Church can never settle for disunity: our personal growth must always be inter-personal, must be corporate, communal, and visible. Further, this unity must be divine, and it must transcend, while including, all human barriers: historical, temporal, racial, geographical. The Holy Spirit is the only guarantee of such human and divine unity.
Newman articulates important signs of such unity in the Holy Spirit, and important signs of disunity indicating the lack of the true Spirit of Christ. But to understand the depth of his wisdom, keep imagining that you are listening to Newman preach on a rainy day at St. Mary’s in the 1840s. Newman’s depth of love for the Scriptures, over the years, had increasingly converged with his knowledge of and love for Church history, and he was increasingly convinced that the designation “Christian” cannot be a merely personal designation, but must also be catholic, or universal, transcending space and time—or, in another synonym Newman uses for the agency of the Holy Spirit, ubiquitous, not constrained by human limitations of history, time, race, or space. These terms connote not merely a structural quality, but also the quality by which the faith can become most truly personal, truly available to all people across all merely human boundaries. The true Chiristian is connected to the Body of Christ across history and the grave, united with the living and the dead, not in an extemporaneous or notional or vague way, but in a substantial, ordered, deliberate and objective way. Christ Himself asks for nothing less (John 17:22). In short, Newman began to see that disunity in the Body of Christ – by heresy or schism – is not a sign of the Holy Spirit, but antagonizes His presence. In 1843, Newman would resign his post at St. Mary’s, in good conscience needing to examine more closely the historic claims of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. By 1845, he would convert to Catholicism, having recognized his Anglican communion as part of a historic schism against the One fold of the Redeemer and thus in a position of disunity.
So, Newman’s characteristic signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit are important clues along his way toward full communion with the historic Church of Christ he so loved. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit’s influence is not active if Christians claim that He comes “to us alone, and not to others.” This represents a “private spirit of error,” a lack of connection to the body of the Church “at all times and places… new creeds, private opinions, self-devised practices, are but delusions.” We can also be assured that “vehemence, tumult, confusions” by heresy or schism are departures from, not privileges of, the Holy Spirit’s benignant flood over the whole world.
The signs of the Holy Spirit’s true presence are beautiful, visible, and structured by Christ’s grace, mediated historically through the Apostles: the one’s upon whom the tongues of flame descended became the living flames who passed on Christ’s teachings and sacraments to all generations. To boast of the Spirit’s presence among us, Christians must be actually, not theoretically, unified in the single tradition handed down from the Apostles. True Christianity is Apostolic. The first sign is “Divine Baptism,” in which God visits us, penetrates soul and body and “leaves no part of us uncleansed, unsanctified. It is a catholic infusion of the Spirit—the same Spirit sanctifies each baptized person in the same manner as every other. “The heart of every Christian ought to represent in miniature the Catholic Church, since one Spirit makes both the whole Church and every member of it to be His Temple” (cf. Eph. 4:4-6, 1 Cor. 10:17).
Therefore, Newman climaxes in asserting that the “apostolical benediction,” the real integration within the visible communion of the One, true Apostolic Church, is the sure sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The Church is the flood of his presence, flowing through the cataracts of each heart in which He dwells. Newman seems to be even prophetically speaking to his fellow Anglicans: “we cannot hope for peace at home, while we are at war abroad. We cannot hope for the recovery of dissenting bodies, while we are ourselves alienated from the great body of Christendom.” One schismatical part of the Church cannot presume to convert others lacking real integration with the true Catholic Church, the Church which most ubiquitously and fully integrates all Christians across space, time, life and death. Real, not merely notional, unity with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is the only sure sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence.
Let us pray, with Newman, for greater doctrinal and moral unity among Christians and for a return of all separated Christian brothers and sisters to the One true fold of Christ, especially entrusting ourselves this weekend to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was in her Immaculate Heart that Mary “kept all these things” of Jesus’ life, “pondering them” (Luke 2:19). The Blessed Virgin is thus the model of the Church’s development and discernment of true doctrine, gazing upon Christ, pondering His teachings, and authoritatively judging doctrinal and moral truths and fostering unity in that truth. Christ’s Divine Mercy and Mary’s purity of heart are our great sources of renewal by which we can truly see God and abide in the real unity of His love:
Let us try to serve God more strictly heretofore; let us pray Him to send down that influence which converted the world in the beginning, and He surely will answer our prayers far beyond what we think or hope. He will raise up for us saints and guides in this dreary time, when sanctity and wisdom seem well nigh to have failed; He will bring together the different parts of the Church, and restore peace and unity as at the first. He will give us that true and perfect faith which was once delivered to the saints, and which our sins have forfeited. ‘He will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness, because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth’ (Rom. 9:28).