Every century has a few great men or women who shine as light for their contemporaries: an Augustine in the 4th century, a Charlemagne in the 9th century, a Catherine of Siena in the 14th century. In the 20th century John Paul II stands out as one of these along with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and St. Josemaría Escrivá to name a few. Men do not become saints; God makes saints with men’s cooperation. And the saints teach us how to use our intellect and freedom to love God and to love men for his sake.
In his long pontificate John Paul II advanced an understanding of all the great subjects of Vatican II through his encyclicals and other papal pronouncements and addresses. He taught men and women about the dignity of human life and man’s highest calling: love for God. He is the Pope who has articulated best a Christian anthropology for a proper understanding of human sexuality according to God’s plan for marriage and family.
St. John Paul II shared some important traits with Blessed John Henry Newman. They both had a high regard for the role of human reasoning in the work of theology; both had a very good knowledge and appreciation for world and Church history; both fostered the education and holiness of laity; and both were men of deep prayer and faith.
In a century characterized not only by war and violent class struggles but also by a growing skepticism of the power of reason, Pope John Paul II shared Newman’s confidence in reason aided by faith and passion for truth. On various occasions during his pontificate he praised the example of the Anglican convert.
In 1990, on the centenary of Newman’s death, he wrote letter to the Archbishop of Birmingham: “Newman’s long life shows him to have been an ardent disciple of truth. The unfolding of his career confirms the single-heartedness of his aims as expressed in the following words which he made his own: “My desire hath been to have Truth for my chiefest friend, and no enemy but error” (J. H. Newman The Via Media, London 1911, vol. 1, pp. XII-XIII). In periods of trial and suffering he persevered with confidence, knowing that time was on the side of truth.”
In the same letter he lauded Newman’s vision of conscience as the voice of God in the soul. And explained that, “the inner light of conscience puts a person in contact with the reality of a personal God.” Obedience to this light leads from one truth to another and ultimately to the Christian faith.
On January 20, 1991, John Paul II signed the decree acknowledging the heroic virtues of the servant of God John Henry Newman thus declaring him venerable. In the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), he spoke of the man’s grave moral obligation to seek and adhere to the truth, citing Newman as an example: “As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” One day Newman may indeed be called the Doctor of Conscience for his writings on the subject and his adherence to it.
Later in the encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998), John Paul II listed John Henry Newman first among a list of thinkers in the West who like the Medieval Doctors sought the “same fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God” in the courageous research which they pursued.
After the death of John Paul II, the Pope who succeeded him was another admirer and student of Newman. Benedict XVI shared Newman’s vision of reason and conscience, and after the recognition of a miraculous cure attributed to the intercession of Newman decreed his beatification. With special joy, and departing from custom, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to England where he beatified John Henry Newman on September 19, 2010.
In the course of history saints bring before us the life and teaching of saints who preceded them and through whom God wished to reveal special insights to men. This is clearly the case in the pontificate of John Paul II who shed light on John Henry Newman and his teaching. We rejoice in the light these great men shine for us and the world.