“Who am I? I am the beloved. That’s the voice Jesus heard when he came out of the Jordan River: ‘You are my beloved; on you my favor rests.’ And Jesus says to you and to me that we are loved as he is loved. That same voice is there for you. When you are not claiming that voice, you cannot walk freely in this world.” These words from Henri Nouwen are a call to deeper intimacy with our Lord. But they are also a description of His followers, especially those who follow Him so closely they are recognized as saints. Within the heart of his closest disciples, as we see in their writings, observe in their behavior or hear through the witness of their contemporaries, they have a profound sense of unity with our Lord. It is a sense of unity that gives birth to confidence, to interior peace that shines forth as kindness towards others. It’s no wonder then that In the lives and writings of St. John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI we can see, practically, the link between holiness and kindness that we also are called to demonstrate.
It’s axiomatic that a dogmatic person must also be a rigid person, unbending, inflexible, stubborn. Yet Newman, an Oxford scholar, and Benedict, also a distinguished professor, scholar, and eventual head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, were both ardent defenders of divine revelation and ranked highly among the most generous and thoughtful interlocutors. They submitted faithfully to the dogmas of the Church, but this made them less rigid, not more. By faith they held onto truth, and so they didn’t fear lively debates, conflicting opinions or difficult questions that brought them to the limit of human knowledge.
Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz, prelate of Opus Dei, recently reflected on his personal experience of Pope Benedict’s kindness, especially in relation to his love of truth: “In those encounters, he was never the one to end the conversation or to point out that he had other issues to attend to. It was edifying to see his consideration for others’ opinions, even when they differed from his. Contrary opinions could be put to him with ease; they did not bother him, even when they came from someone younger or with less training or experience. The truth was what really mattered to him, so he took his episcopal motto from some words of St. John: Cooperatores veritatis.”
Likewise, the whole of Newman’s life can be characterized as a pursuit of truth. From Anglican scholar to founder of the Oxford Movement to Catholic convert and ordained priest to university founder and Cardinal, Newman never ceased to follow the truth where it led him. His writings therefore reflect a childlike curiosity even when confronting difficult, painful or perplexing moral or theological obstacles. He had great joy in asking questions and he strove, as a good teacher, to gently address legitimate objections to his understanding of particular questions. He did not see himself as above his parishioners in any way, but addressed his homilies as a man sharing what he had found with his fellow men and women. Listen to his very human reaction to the parable of the man thrown out of the wedding feast because he didn’t have a garment: “Surely, there is something very awful and startling in the doctrine thus contained in the Parable. It would seem from thence that we are compelled to accept religious advantages, for the use of which we are answerable, for the misuse of which we shall be condemned. We are compelled to become Christians, yet this compulsion is not taken into account when the day of reckoning comes.” Newman read the words of Scripture for what they were, allowing them to poke and prod, to challenge and to affirm, as they were designed to do. At times they shocked him, like this parable, but he always humbled himself before them.
Newman forgave friends and co-workers with whom over the years there was a parting of ways. His gentle spirit in correspondence and their chance meetings led to the renewal of various friendships after years of separation. A touching example of his kindness was his endearing attempt to win back Fr. Nicholas Darnell who resigned as headmaster of the Oratory School in Birmingham and, despite Newman’s entreaties, left the Oratorians.
If today we find pride, bitterness and malice in theological, social or political conversations in our news outlets, our offices or our homes, God is not their source. Belief is not their source. Conviction in the truth is not their source. Instead, their source is a profound insecurity and fear, which imprisons man and turns him in upon himself. In contrast, in both Benedict and Newman we have models of kindness, a kindness rooted in commitment to truth, to reality. Secure in the knowledge that they were loved by God and in the truth that had set them free, they were at liberty to love others. We, also wanting to be kind, must seek God as they did, with the same willingness to allow the truth to shape us and mold us each into a little Christ. How do we do this? By beginning as we began this reflection: pausing and listening to His voice as it tells us that we are His beloved.