Card. J.H. Newman’s ‘hard message’ for Our Times

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The following appeared in The Hebrew Catholic #64, pp. 21-22. All Rights Reserved. This article was submitted by Andrew Sholl. It first appeared in AD 2000, June 1997 and was specially prepared for AD 2000 by Bishop Basil Meeking, Bishop Emeritus of Christ Church, New Zealand.

Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “hard message” For Our Times

Bishop Basil Meeking

Today there are many self-styled prophets in the Catholic Church. I want to turn rather to a Catholic of last century whom we can accept as a prophet with a message for today. This person has been recognized by the Church as a “venerable servant of God” and Pope John Paul II has said of him; “His was a truly spiritual vision.”

Perhaps we do not think of John Henry Newman as a prophet because he speaks so gently, indeed, the gentle measured voice of Cardinal Newman upsets no-one. It suits modern tastes.

Yet if you look at some of what he said and wrote you find he has a hard message for our times. It is a message he first preached as a young Anglican while still in his thirties. He kept coming back to it at various times till the end of his life.

This was his theme: the Church faces a time of great testing; Christians everywhere will be under great pressure; the numbers of those in God’s Church will in a not too distant future be greatly reduced; many will give up the faith.

Desertion

New man foresaw that the idea of universal tolerance would become a cloak for this desertion. It would begin with a flaunting indifference towards every form of Christianity. It would be a tolerance having nothing to do with the true spirit of charity. Its aim would be to undermine the Christian faith. Atheism would be encouraged. As a result Christianity will be practically reduced to a small number of those who worship the Father in spirit and truth and whose doctrine, worship and behavior are grounded in the Word of God.

As the years passed the premonition remained with him. Much later, when he was a Catholic and a priest, Newman said something similar to the students of a new seminary. He warned them of the apostasy that, under cover of religious liberalism and openness to the world, was already devastating the churches of the Reformation. He went on to tell them that the Catholic Church would not be exempt.

“ The trials to come will be such as would have terrified even St. Athanasius, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Gregory VII and made them lose their footing. Dark though the prospect was in their time ours will be a time of black darkness different from all previous times. Dear brothers you are entering a world such as Christians have not known before.”

Towards the end of his life, in a letter to a friend he said:

“The future of the Church? My views about that go back fifty years. During all that time I have expected to see a period of general unfaithfulness. In fact during all that time, like the beginnings of a flood, the waters have not stopped rising. I foresee the moment, after my time, when you will see only the tops of the mountains, like solitary little islands in an expanse of water.

“Here I speak of the Protestant world. But the Catholic leaders will have to do great things and they will need wisdom from on high as well as courage from the Holy Spirit if the Church is to escape the terrible calamity. The trial it will have to undergo will be only for a while but it will be intense.”

Does this sound familiar? It ought to. The time which Cardinal Newman feared, the “time of apostasy”, seems to have come. In the words of a modern writer: “We have entered the time of the passion of the Church.”

In New Zealand, as in Australia, as in Britain, as in a lot of Europe, to be a Christian today is to be unusual, to be odd, to be on the margin. The prevailing religion of much of the Western world today is a new paganism.

In its own way it is as much of a religion as Christianity. But it is a different religion, it is another gospel, one that expresses the spirit of the times.

It tells us we find salvation by turning inward, by getting in touch with ourselves, by awakening some kind of divine spark within. It does not know the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob; it has no place for the God of Jesus Christ. But it is ready to invoke the ancestral spirits in aboriginal religions, to consult astrologers and mediums, to pray to goddesses of the ancient mystery cults, and to propose an Earth-based spirituality.

This new paganism has many followers. Because it is easy, it has no church and no creed. It makes no demands, it equates moral conduct with what feels good. Its highest goal is self-fulfillment for each individual. It makes people comfortable with the spirit of the world.

Evil Power

And it is a powerful rival to faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed it cannot tolerate the Lord Jesus or His Church. Its followers, everywhere in public life and in the communications media, keep up a continual assault on the Christian faith.

Yet this evil power, however seductive, will not finally prevail because Jesus has overcome sin and error and death. So we can watch and wait and work with hope, looking for his coming to establish his kingdom, the definitive order of justice, peace and love.

But right now is a time of particular trial and difficulty for the Church and for Christians as Cardinal Newman’s foreboding appears to be realized.

Let our prayer be:

Come Lord Jesus, deliver your Church. Keep us faithful to you, our Saviour. Renew our hope, deepen our courage, make us steadfast to pray and work for the coming of your kingdom.

  • You are my witnesses (Is. 43:10)  •  You shall be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)