One gray afternoon while visiting Dublin, Ireland, Alice and I were driven by rain into the chilly confines of the chapel of the Catholic University. In the buildings entryway, a plaque on the wall, barely legible in the dim light, explained that the edifice had been erected in 1856 by the school’s first rector, John Henry Cardinal Newman. It was a name I knew.
John Newman, one of the most influential figures of 19th century Anglicanism, was born of English parents in 1801. After attending Oxford, and being ordained an Anglican priest, he visited Rome where he found the city “polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous.” But after a prolonged spiritual journey he converted to Roman Catholicism and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847, returning to England the following Christmas Eve. Seven years later, he was appointed rector of the Catholic University of Dublin, and later Newman worked among the poor in the industrial city of Birmingham, England, while maintaining a wide following through his theological writings. Though never a bishop, he was a raised to the rank of cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879.
When still an Anglican priest, Newman was disturbed by England’s increasingly secular attitude toward the celebration of Christ’s birth, a trend he condemned in his 1833 poem “Christmas Without Christ.”
How can I keep my Christmas feast
In it’s due festive show,
[Be]reft of the sight of the High Priest
From whom its glories flow?
I hear the tuneful bells around,
The blessed towers I see;
A stranger on a foreign ground,
They peal a fast for me.
O Britons! now so brave and high,
How will ye weep the day
When Christ in judgment passes by,
And calls the Bride away!
Your Christmas then will lose its mirth,
Your Easter lose its bloom:
Abroad, a scene of strife and dearth;
Within, a cheerless home!
Though trained as a theologian, Newman was able to speak to the common person. In the following excerpts from an1851 sermon, “The Special Charm of Christmas,” he described the meaning of Christ’s coming to a Christian family.
In Christmas, Christ comes to us as our guest. And coming, He brightens everything. He does not take away… He adds grace to Nature….He makes the world our home, for he deigns to be the light of it. He sanctifies families with the image of Mary and Jesus. And where there is no home in a family, then He brings us all together in one family in Church.
Newman firmly believed that secular values could never satisfy the needs of the human heart apart from the light of Christ. This theme appears in his December 25, 1855 homily titled “The Joy of Christmas.”
If we consult the writings of historians, philosophers and poets of this world, we shall be led …to fix our minds and hearts upon high or conspicuous stations, strange adventures, powerful talents to cope with them, memorable struggles, and great destinies. We shall consider that the highest course of life is the mere pursuit, not the enjoyment, of good.
[Yet] when we think of this day’s Festival, and what we commemorate upon it, a new and very different scene opens upon us…. We are reminded that though this life must ever be a life of toil and effort, yet that, properly speaking, we have not to seek our highest good. It is found; it is brought near us, in the descent of the Son of God from His Father’s bosom to this world. It is stored up among us on earth.
Let us [therefore] seek the grace of a cheerful heart, an even temper, sweetness, gentleness, and brightness of mind, as walking in His light, and by His grace. Let us pray Him to give us the spirit of ever-abundant, ever-springing love, which overpowers and sweeps away the vexations of life by its own richness and strength, and which above all things unites us to Him Who is the fountain and the center of all mercy, loving-kindness and joy.
John Henry Cardinal Newman celebrated Mass for the last time on Christmas Day, 1889. After a long confinement, he died on August 11, 1890. Fifteen thousand people lined the streets as his body was borne to its final resting place, and today many university Catholic student centers carry his name. More than one hundred years after his death, Newman’s Christmas messages continue to inspire.
Larry Mullaly, November 30, 2006