On October 13, Pope Francis presided at the canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman, an Anglican priest and theologian who championed the Oxford Movement with an eye to the reunification of the Church of England and Rome. Newman famously astonished his colleagues by embracing Catholicism in October of 1845, only a few short years after the practice of Catholicism in England had been legalized, and only a few short years before the Catholic hierarchy was restored in Britain. In doing so, he paid the price (personally and professionally) for his devotion to conscience, relinquishing his prestigious position at Oxford, and establishing Maryvale, the first English Oratory, in 1848. Bishop Barres has published a terrific pastoral letter, “Heart Speaks to Heart,” on the life and contributions of Cardinal Newman that is available in the Church. Please take a copy and enjoy it.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that a significant factor in Cardinal Newman’s attraction to Roman Catholicism was his personal devotion to the Blessed Mother. Even as a young boy, he was drawn to the Rosary; and as a cleric in the Church of England, he was assigned to St. Mary’s Hall in Oxford (the seat of the Oxford Movement), where he wrote his masterpiece, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine (a work that inspired his conversion). It is said that he undertook the Essay with the purpose of refuting Catholicism, but after much prayer, study, and writing, came to the opposite conclusion.
One of my favorite passages from the Essay regards the importance of Marian devotion. Newman points out (Ch. XI: Section II: par. 1) the paradox that “if we take a survey at least of Europe, we shall find that it is not those religious communions which are characterized by devotion towards the Blessed Virgin that have ceased to adore her Eternal Son, but those very bodies, which have renounced devotion to her.” Indeed, those who refuse to honor her in the name of worshiping Christ more purely “have ceased to worship Him altogether.” He goes into an elegant—and eloquent—distinction between the worship of God and the veneration of saints, and it is not surprising that Newman would eventually explain and defend the dogmas of both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Mother.
Newman, who understood the cost of fidelity to the truth and was willing to pay it, realized something quite profound about God’s beneficence. On the one hand, Christians worship God alone, and the desire for goodness, beauty, and truth always leads back to Him. On the other hand, God is not “stingy”; his greatness is magnified, not diminished, by the perfection of engraced humanity, which Christian piety recognizes is embodied by the Mother of God. Would that all of us might, through divine grace, attain holy purity, holy virtue, holy excellence.