November, which begins with the Solemnity of All Saints immediately followed by the Commemoration of All Souls, is the month in which we remember all those who have gone before us. In a special way during this month, we are reminded of the purpose of our journey in this life which is to be united for eternity in the fullness of life and joy with God in the communion of saints. We remember and are touched by our loved ones who gave us the example of good and holy living as we strive to follow in their footsteps. November reminds us that God is found not in escaping from this life but in embracing, it especially through the men and women He has given us as part of our lives and whom we encounter each day.
Last month, on October 13th, Pope Francis canonized four new saints for the Church. One of them is very well known in the life of the Church and in our Diocese, which is blessed to have a high school named after him – Cardinal John Henry Newman. St. John Newman was born in London in 1801 and spent half of his life as an Anglican and half as a Roman Catholic. He is well-known for his conversion to the faith and his ability to live and preach the faith in a manner that attracted others. He was a priest, popular preacher, significant theologian, poet and hymn composer. He wrote many profound theological works which had a great influence on education and the life of the Church. However, his deep intellect and down to earth spirituality enabled him to experience the presence of God in every aspect of life, from the most simple to the most profound. Cardinal Newman communicated not only in intellectual works, but in letters and correspondence with men and women giving deep spiritual insight. He died in 1890 at the age of 89.
In his homily for the Mass of canonization, Pope Francis did not refer to the theological works of Cardinal Newman. He did not focus on his extraordinary life and achievements nor on his contributions to ecumenism. Rather, the Pope spoke of Newman's understanding of what a Christian should be like – an unassuming person who is taken as quite ordinary. This is what the lives of the saints are all about. Certainly this is true of our loved ones who are now in heaven and gave us the example of holiness in everyday life through their everyday living of life in a manner that transformed us. Pope Francis quoted the words of St. John Newman in this regard, "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.”
It is not necessary to read the extraordinary works of Cardinal Newman to understand the insight that Pope Francis emphasized in his canonization homily. St. John Newman is known for such works as his autobiography, Apologiais Pro Vita Sua, The Grammar of Assent and The Idea of a University. In these works as well as in his correspondence, his sermons and his poems, Cardinal Newman is able to get to the heart of the matter of what life is all about. It is not surprising that his motto as a Bishop was, Cor ad cor loquitur, The Heart speaks to the heart. To understand Cardinal Newman, we simply have to look at some of his well known sayings. The following are but some of his wise sayings which help us all understand better the lives of the saints, especially the lives of the saints with whom we have lived. They also help us, during this month of November, to put things in better perspective as we continue on our journey in this life into eternal life.
1. Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather that it never shall have a beginning. Many times we fear the conclusion of our days in this world as we overlook the many opportunities and blessings of God before us. Living in a manner in which we fear the end of life causes us to overlook the joys of life in the present day. There is no question that our life will have an end, but its true beginning is not necessarily at our birth but when we embrace the gift of life and God's Presence in it each and every day. That beginning is today.
2. To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. As we go through life, we naturally experience change - the change that comes from aging and the change that comes from new experiences in life. Change is part and parcel of life, but many times we are apprehensive of it because it reminds us that our lives are moving forward. We should not be afraid to allow the opportunities of life, as given to us by God, to change us into better persons aware of His presence among us. Perfection exists not in stagnation but in accepting the growth which life offers to us. Cardinal Newman emphasized this insight again when he said, Growth is the only evidence of life.
3. I sought to hear the voice of God and climb the topmost steeple , but God declared: Go down again – I dwell among the people. This quote of Cardinal Newman certainly sums up his insight into holiness. We do not come to God by separating ourselves from life and from the people around us. We come to Him precisely in life and through those people. Likewise, it is humbling for us to realize that others come to God through us and the manner in which we live is significant in helping them to grow in their lives. Most of us are not called to live as monks in a monastery but to live in the midst of the families God has given to us and in our occupations. While we need quiet time for prayer and reflection, thinking that escaping the demands of life will make it easier to come to God only blocks our way to God.
4. Let us act on what we have, since we have not what we wish. Often we are so determined on achieving something or on obtaining something that we overlook what is before us and what we have. We can take the greatest gifts we possess for granted as we look forward to something which seems to be more. Joy comes in accepting what God has given to us today and acting upon it. A lack of joy comes in looking forward to something to the extent that we will be disappointed if we do not achieve it, taking for granted what we already have.
5. Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it. Many times the striving for perfection causes us to overlook the good that we can accomplish today. We have all heard the wisdom that the best is the enemy of the good. While we do strive to reach our potential and seek perfection, we realize that we can only do that by doing the good that is before us today. We cannot be concerned about what others think of us or of our achievements. We live each day as it comes before us and carry out the good that we can, not putting it off to another day when we think we can do better.
6. We must make up our minds to be ignorant of much, if we would know anything. Our world today needs to understand that we have a great deal to learn and are ignorant of much, especially in regard to the plan of God. In trying to know everything, the world puts itself in the place of God and makes judgments that are completely erroneous and destructive. There is much divisiveness, hatred and division in our world because others think they know everything. We must be very careful of this in our own lives. There is nothing wrong in admitting we do not know things and are open to learning more. There is a great deal of harm in giving the impression that we know something we do not, which harms not only ourselves but others as well. “I don’t know” is always the statement of a wise person.
Far many more quotes and wise sayings can be listed from St. John Newman. As we continue during this month of November to remember those who have gone before us and especially to be inspired by their living example which is still with us, let us embrace the lives which God has given to us which may seem ordinary but are not so ordinary. Pope Francis concluded his canonization homily with a simple prayer from Cardinal Newman. “Jesus, stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shines: so to shine as to be a light to others.”
During this month of November, especially as we prepare for Thanksgiving, may we realize more that God dwells among the people both in heaven and on earth.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
November 8, 2019