In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI remarked that the lives of the saints are the greatest commentary on the truths of the Gospel. This Sunday, as the Church gathers with the Holy Father for the beatification of John Henry Newman, we shall rejoice in Newman’s exemplary response to the Word of God. We should not forget that Newman’s first serious engagement with the Christian faith, as a schoolboy, was as an evangelical within the Church of England. Here, he first encountered the love of Christ revealed in the scriptures, a love that was to become the guiding light of his life.
As we listen to the scriptures proclaimed at the beatification Mass, they might, at first sight, seem far removed from an eminent churchman whose life was lived in Oxford and Birmingham during the Victorian era.
The words of the prophet Amos, the Old Testament reading at the beatification Mass, are a fierce diatribe against the exploitation that was the dark side of Israel’s prosperity in the eighth century before Christ. Amos condemned those who trampled on the needy and suppressed the poor people of the country. During his life Newman witnessed the rapid industrialisation of our country. He lived through the wonders of industrial progress and witnessed the degradation of its poverty. Throughout his life, both as an Anglican in Oxford and as a Catholic in Birmingham, his ministry always reached out to those most in need. Newman lived the concern for the poor proclaimed by Amos. The Oratory that he established in Birmingham was dedicated to St Philip Neri, a Roman saint who rejoiced to live among the poor. In like manner Newman lived his life in Birmingham at the service of the poor who came daily to the doors of the Oratory.
The parable of the dishonest steward, dismissed from his master’s service, is, to say the least, confusing. Unfolding events brought the steward to a crisis that demanded he use the goods at his disposal in a radically different way. What the steward had previously enjoyed for his own use was now surrendered to assist his master’s debtors. The parable praised the steward for his choice. Jesus went on to exhort his disciples to use money, and indeed the many gifts entrusted to us in this life, to win friends that will welcome us into eternity.
John Henry Newman, scholar, poet, theologian and philosopher, was among the most gifted minds of his generation. The development of his faith and theology brought him to a painful choice.
Like the steward who could no longer remain in the employ of the rich man, Newman could no longer remain in the world that had formed him and brought him to prominence. We should not underestimate the human cost of Newman’s decision to be received into the Catholic Church. Like the steward in the parable he was forced to abandon all that had been the ground of his security. He was willing to make the sacrifice that God’s truth demands of us. This painful crossroads was for Newman, as it was for the steward in the parable, a further step in the purification of the heart.
The Gospel concludes that no servant can be the slave of two masters. On Sunday we shall hear Newman declared Blessed. John Henry Newman’s life, in the complexity of the established Church and Oxford academic life, was a struggle to discern where his Master was to be found. It is a journey that we cannot escape.