Pope Francis named John Henry Cardinal Newman a Catholic saint last month. Newman was a contemporary of our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, and probably knew our early communities in England. He grew up and was educated in the Church of England, and for many years flourished as a prominent Anglican preacher and intellectual before converting to Catholicism in 1845.
As a Catholic, John Henry Newman became a priest, founded the London Oratory and wrote many scholarly texts. He was named to the College of Cardinals by Pope Leo XIII, who called him “my Cardinal.” Contemporary writer and speaker Bishop Robert Barron calls Newman “the greatest Catholic theologian since Aquinas.”
Cardinal Newman was not only known for his intellect, or even his exemplary piety. His letters and diaries reveal that he was a warm, gentle and thoughtful man devoted to family, friends and those he served. He possessed a great capacity for love along with his extraordinary mind, even choosing as his episcopal motto, “heart speaks unto heart.”
What intrigues me about John Henry Newman and his canonization is this blending of intellect and heart. From all the writings that the Pope could have quoted in his canonization homily, Francis chose the following description of holiness penned by the new Saint: “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not … The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretense … with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man.”
Newman’s conviction that there was nothing “ordinary” about being a Christian is striking. I suspect that many of us tend to take the extraordinariness of our Christian vocation for granted.
I find it equally striking that Cardinal Newman described the qualities of a Christian in such ordinary, unremarkable terms. To be easygoing, cheerful, kind or courteous does not seem particularly remarkable – but to be so in season and out of season, with friends and enemies alike, does require heroic virtue.
Such was the life of our foundress and our early Little Sisters. They did not study or write about their Christian faith. They lived it – simply but uncompromisingly – striving to love Jesus Christ with their whole heart and to continue his life and virtues on earth through their humble mission of hospitality to the elderly.
In a sermon given while he was still an Anglican, Newman asserted that personal influence is the only real means of propagating the faith. He said that it is impossible to underestimate the moral power of a single individual who practices the Gospel within his own circle over the course of years. The “inspired Word” would be nothing but a dead letter, he asserted, unless transmitted from one person to another through personal influence.
Though a Christian may be unknown to the world, “within the range of those who see him, he will become the object of feelings different in kind from those which mere intellectual excellence excites,” he preached.
“In each age … we shall read of tumult and heresy, and hear the complaint of good men marveling at what they conceive to be the especial wickedness of their own times,” he continued, suggesting that we should be satisfied with our humble place in life, so long as we are instruments of good to those who know us personally.
Those “commonly held in popular estimation are greatest at a distance,” he said with wry insight. “They become small as they are approached. But the attraction, exerted by unconscious holiness, is of an urgent and irresistible nature; it persuades the weak, the timid, the wavering, and the inquiring; it draws forth the affection and loyalty of all who are in a measure like-minded; and over the thoughtless or perverse multitude it exercises a sovereign compulsory sway …”
How consoling these words are! We don’t have to be famous to make a difference in our world – we have only to live the Gospel wherever God has placed us! This was the “unconscious” yet effective holiness of Saint Jeanne Jugan and our first Little Sisters.
Referring to Newman’s famous poem, Lead Kindly Light, Pope Francis concluded his canonization homily with these words: “Let us ask God to be ‘kindly lights’ amid the encircling gloom.” What a beautiful admonition for us as the dark days of winter approach – let’s strive to be kindly lights in our own circle of family, friends and neighbors!
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.