John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman (1801- 1890)


– Brother John Samaha, S.M.

Among the religious and cultural factors that influence converts to enter into full communion with the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary holds particular prominence. Yet she is not the possession of the Catholic Church solely, for many Protestant Churches are rediscovering the presence and role of Mary in life's pilgrimage of faith.

Before embracing Catholicism, John Henry Newman, probably the most famous convert in the last two centuries, formulated an explanation of the development of doctrines in the Catholic Church, especially the Marian doctrines. He explained that the saving truths of revelation were not given by God in timeless and static expression, but dynamic and life-giving truths which continue to unfold and develop. In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman wrote, "Growth is the only evidence of Life." Ideas live in our minds and continually enlarge into fuller development. "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."

To believe in the ongoing prayer and care of Mary for the faithful is to find the Virgin Mother's assistance in time of transitions, of new beginnings, of wandering and searching. Sacred Scripture shows us that Mary is the Virgin of Beginnings and Transitions (Annunciation, Cana, Pentecost), and the Virgin of Spiritual Searching (Presentation, Finding in the Temple, Cana, Calvary). It is quite natural then to experience her motherly presence in the struggles which accompany conversion, according to Father Rene Laurentin in A Year of Grace With Mary.

Conversions to Catholicism develop from a complex of various factors. They result from conviction and personal experience. But also at play are conditions and developments in the Church and society that often help or hinder conversions. An instance of the latter scenario is nineteenth century England in which that time's theological ferment and liberalism and the decision of the British government to suppress a number of Anglican bishoprics gave rise to the Oxford Movement, which questioned the Anglican Church's legitimacy. The consequence was a number of conversions by prominent intellectuals from 1840 to 1920, the most noteworthy being John Henry Newman. These converts were usually imbued with an understanding of the Virgin Mary and their devotion to her often preceded their entry into the Catholic Church.

Following his conversion in 1845, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) journeyed to Rome. Upon his return as a Catholic priest he wrote that he "went round by Loreto." As a pilgrim to the Holy House he wanted "to get the Blessed Virgin's blessing." Then he commented about Mary's presence in his life. "I have ever been in her shadow, if I may say it. My college was St. Mary's, and my church, and when I went to Littlemore, there, by my own previous disposition, our Blessed Lady was waiting for me. Nor did she do nothing for me in that low habitation, of which I always think with pleasure."

As an Anglican, Newman thought that the Catholic Church's Marian doctrine and devotion was exaggerated. But in his study of the development of doctrine, he discovered that it was consistent with the early Church. "I was convinced by the Fathers," he explained. The early Fathers and ancient Christian writers viewed Mary as the New Eve. Newman came to understand Mary in patristic terms. He understood the Immaculate Conception was based on Mary's holiness, a concept present in the Fathers, and the Assumption was rooted in her dignity as Mother of God, another concept from the early Christian writers.

Although Newman had reservations about some teachings of the Catholic Church while an Anglican, he nevertheless was devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In his Apologia pro Vita Sua he proclaimed, "In spite of my ingrained fears of Rome, and the decision of my reason and conscience against her usages, in spite of my affection for Oxford and Oriel, yet I had a secret longing love of Rome, the Mother of Christianity, and I had a true devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in whose college I lived, whose altar I served, and whose immaculate purity I had in one of my earliest printed sermons made much of."

Newman's reluctance concerning the Virgin Mary, his "great crux" regarding Catholicism was the "expressions of popular feelings toward the Blessed Virgin" and the intemperate statements of some Catholic authors concerning Mary. Later, when responding to Dr. Pusey's Eirenicon, which contained numerous examples of exaggerated practices and devotions to Mary, Newman made a clear distinction between the Church's doctrines and officially sanctioned prayers and practices, and the many expressions of popular devotion, sometimes questionable in taste and in theology. "Belief is separate from devotion; belief is the same everywhere, whereas expressions of devotion differ from place to place." Newman also noted that cultural differences become manifest in expressions of devotion, indicating that there exists a legitimate "English style" in the expression of devotion. These distinctions between officially approved doctrine and devotion, and the many practices of popular devotion, which frequently reflect a cultural bias, have helped many along the journey of conversion.

Such was the experience of one famous convert and devotee of the Mother of the Redeemer.

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