St. John Henry Newman

This Sunday, October 13, Pope Francis will canonize one of the luminaries of the Church in England. Cardinal John Henry Newman will be declared a saint before thousands of the faithful, and I wish I could be among them. All through my life I have admired him and he has been an inspiration to me personally. Cardinal Newman has inspired Catholics not only in Great Britain but around the globe. Because of his intellectual stature, most universities name their campus ministry after him.

The eldest of six children, John Henry Newman was born in London in 1801. He went to Trinity College in Oxford and was elected a fellow of Oriel College. In 1825 he was ordained an Anglican priest and became the vicar of the university church. A serious intellectual himself, he studied the Church Fathers to defend the Anglican Church. He became the leader of what came to be known as the “Oxford Movement.” Its members acknowledged the Anglican Church’s debt to the Fathers and challenged some of its liberal ideas, particularly its tendency to view truth as completely subjective.

Through personal study, prayer and reflection, Newman eventually came to the conclusion that he had to become a Catholic. He asserted that the Catholic Church had remained faithful to its primitive origins. On October 9, 1845 he was received into the Catholic Faith by Blessed Domenico Barberi, an Italian Passionist. He also wanted to become a Catholic priest and to that end attended the seminary run by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847.

He wrote profusely on matters of doctrine and developed many ideas that were ahead of his time. In fact he often found himself in the midst of controversy. He suffered rejection over and over again: first from his fellow Anglicans, then from other members in the Oxford Movement and finally from Catholics themselves. When Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal he felt vindicated. “The cloud is lifted,” said Newman on hearing of his appointment. The Vatican Council embraced many of his ideas (such as the importance of the laity, the relationship between faith and reason, and the role of conscience in individual moral decision-making) and Newman was declared the “absent Father.” He was hailed as a trailblazer in his approach to theology by Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) himself.

In the midst of all his struggles and questioning, he held on to the Lord. He nurtured a deep personal spirituality and an unshakable trust in the Lord. Among all his mountainous writings, the one prayer that he wrote in 1832 will always be the most remembered. After he was struck with a tropical fever while in Sicily, he spent some time on the island trying to recuperate. He received an urgent cable from his family asking him to return home immediately because his favorite sister was seriously ill. He could not find a quick mode of transportation. He rented a cabin on a sailboat carrying oranges from Sicily to Marseilles. When the boat was between Sardinia and Corsica, the wind fell and the Mediterranean became a sea of oil. The ship was unable to move. Though filled with internal turmoil and frustrated over his inability to reach home, Newman penned a profound prayer of faith entitled, “Lead, Kindly Light.”

This prayer inspired me at a very crucial time in my life. The year was 1981 and I was a few months away from my priestly ordination. My family was experiencing a lot of sorrow over a disappointing sickness that struck one of my brothers and changed his life forever. My nun sister who had just returned from her studies in the US found out that she had a brain tumor. Although the surgery was successful, it took her more than a year to recover. Even today she suffers from the effects of that tumor. In my own personal life, I did not know where God was leading me. In the midst of all this, the prayer of Newman uplifted me and gave me hope. I took two lines from his prayer as the motto of my priesthood: “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” As I look back on my life, I know that the Lord has shown me only one step at a time. And yet, the journey has been exciting and joyful.

I reproduce here below the entire prayer. I hope that all of us can pray this prayer whenever we are filled with anxiety and uncertainty. I am so happy that Cardinal Newman will now be a saint and we can pray to him.

Lead, Kindly Light

Lead Kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene;
One step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will.
Remember not past years!

So long Thy pow'r hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Cardinal John Henry Newman

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