We can admire so many attributes in the life of a saint that virtually every person, regardless of age, gender, or background, can find wisdom for their lives in hagiographies. And why shouldn’t this be the case, for the saint reflects Christ who draws every individual to Himself? In the life of soon-to-be-canonized Blessed John Henry Newman, while there are lessons for everyone, young professionals can reflect on three hallmarks: his magnanimity, his pursuit of truth, and his unity of life.
Greatness of soul
The closest common meaning for magnanimity is “ambition,” but the two meanings are separated by a great distance. Ambition is the desire to achieve success, and while this a fine trait, it does not aspire to magnanimity’s “greatness of soul” as St. Thomas Aquinas described it. Magnanimity stands out from ambition somewhat like love stands out from lust – there may be passion in both, but the former is directed out toward others, while the latter is directed in toward self. Newman dared greatly and accomplished widely, but always with a spirit of enriching the lives of others. As a priest, Oxford University professor, leader of the Oxford Movement, rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, poet, homilist, cardinal, and author of several seminal doctrinal and spiritual works, including An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman had plenty to boast about. Yet his personal writings testify not to an appetite for accomplishment, but reservation and humility about the value of his contributions.
Today it is fashionable to be a lifelong learner, but Newman was a lifelong seeker of truth. He did not care for an impressive resume; he wanted to know the truth, which alone could satisfy him. In founding the Oxford Movement – the Anglican movement created to return the Anglican church to core ancient Catholic practices that had been purged – Newman wanted to live and teach the one faith of Christ delivered by his disciples and the Church Fathers. Not long after, he converted to the Catholic faith, declaring, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” He suffered greatly in converting, losing friends – although regaining many later – and receiving harsh criticism from fellow Anglicans.
One might argue that for Newman vocation and occupation were inherently harmonious. A priest has to be holy – it’s his job! But holiness cannot be put on like a suit and taken off at the end of the day. It is nothing less than to be full of the love of God which overflows into every area of one’s life. Newman preached and lived unity of life, as his canonization will celebrate in just a few short weeks. He urged others not to neglect their earthly duties, but to do them with Christian passion and love: “[Many] are apt to spend the time of their sojourning her in a positive separation from active and social duties: yet it should be recollected that the employments of this world, though not themselves heavenly, are, after all, the way to heaven – though not the fruit, are the seed of immortality – and are valuable, though not in themselves, yet for that to which they lead: but it is difficult to realize this.”
Young professional men and women have many concerns. They want to know what path to choose, how to develop their careers, how to understand their careers in light of their vocation. Newman’s life speaks clearly: goodness, truth, unity. These should be our occupations, and after reflecting on them we can ask ourselves three questions: Do we boldly dare to seek the good of others? Do we passionately seek the truth that will set us and our neighbors free? Do our personal and professional lives clash, or do we seek unity of life?
If we take these questions to heart, when our earthly pilgrimage is done, we will leave nothing to regret. Blessed Newman, pray for us, that we might seek these heavenly goods just as you modeled for us.