Friday, April 26, 2019

Preview: Blessed John Henry Newman and Conversion

Since we are still in the Easter Season--Easter is not just a day, it is a Liturgical Season lasting 50 days until Pentecost--Anna Mitchell and I thought the next appropriate topic to discuss in our Newman series would be conversion. By that we mean specifically becoming a Catholic Christian. Many people have joined the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil: either being initiated as a Christian, receiving Baptism, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion in one night; or being confirmed and receiving their First Holy Communion (because they'd already been baptized). So Matt Swaim and I will talk about Newman and Conversion on the Son Rise Morning Show on Monday, April 29 at the usual time: about 7:50 a.m. Eastern DST/6:50 a.m. Central DST. Listen live here.

That Newman was a convert to Catholicism is well-known: his feast day on October 9 celebrates his conversion.

He also instructed and helped prospective converts from the Church of England to become Catholic, preparing them for the challenges they'd face and working with the Church to be prepared for a special group of Anglican ministers and families, some of them representing the power of the English Establishment. They were educated people, bringing talents and leadership skills the Church should be aware of and make use of.

The Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, Father Julian Large, wrote in November 2018 about how converts to Catholicism sometimes feel underappreciated and reminded them that Blessed John Henry Newman had to work through those feelings too:

Latecomers to the Faith who are made to feel that their convert status makes them second class citizens in the eyes of some of those who make a profession out of religious commentary can take comfort in the knowledge that Blessed John Henry experienced all of this before them. The sincerity of Newman’s conversion is beyond question to anyone of good faith. As an Anglican he had increased in his sympathy for doctrines such as Transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, having considered them individually in the light of their antiquity and of their compatibility with Holy Scripture. When he made his profession of Faith in front of Father Dominic Barberi, however, he was declaring that from now on he would embrace these truths, and every other Catholic doctrine, on the grounds that they were taught by Christ’s Church. He was assenting to his firm belief that the Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord as the pillar and the foundation of saving truth, with divinely invested authority to teach on faith and morals. He brought himself to his knees before an authority which he firmly believed to be at the service of Truth, but he also fell to his knees in the knowledge that in the Church on earth that divinely invested authority is always liable to be abused by fallen men who are prone to sin, and whose intellects are often too dim to appreciate the truths they have been commissioned to teach. But he accepted this. He accepted it because he was willing to suffer for and with the Church, because he loved Her as the Mystical Body of Christ on earth, and He believed Her to be true. Newman is an example to all of us of patience and genuine piety. Suffering with and for the Church is one of the ways we show our love for Christ, and one of the signs that our faith is alive.

For those of us who are converts to the Faith, Newman shows us how to be good converts. We must be docile, and obedient to lawful authority. But we should also be dogged in our pursuit of all truth, and we must be willing to suffer for our insistence on it. The religious submission of mind and will which we owe to the teaching authority of the Church never obliges us to submit ourselves to humbug, bluster and spin, but only to Catholic Truth in its soul-saving fullness.

Newman's correspondence with prospective and neophyte converts would fill "six to seven hundred pages" according to the late Father Stanley Jaki.  Fr. Peter Willi wrote an article for the International Centre of Newman Friends on "Newman as a Convert and Counsellor of Converts" in which he describes some of the advice Newman offered those thinking about becoming Catholic:
Newman often talks about this absolutely necessary condition. “Be convinced in your reason that the Catholic Church is a teacher sent to you from God, and it is enough. I do not wish you to join her, till you are. If you are half convinced, pray for a full conviction, and wait till you have it. It is better indeed to come quickly, but better slowly than carelessly….”[40]

Nobody should join the Roman Catholic Church while unable to accept the fullness of her doctrine. Whoever has not reached the personal certainty that the Roman Catholic Church contains the fulness of truth, should remain in his own ecclesial communion. This applied to Newman’s highly appreciated and saintly friend John Keble.[41] Although on the threshold of the Roman Catholic Church, he died with a good conscience, even though, objectively, it was erroneous. Throughout his life he had sincerely and honestly searched for the truth and had lived according to his insight. He accepted practically all of the Catholic doctrines, but never recognized the necessity of unity with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter. Therefore his conscience obliged him to remain in the Anglican Communion.

The beauty of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that someone is drawn to it, are not, for example, reasons sufficient to justify the step of conversion. It is, however, possible for someone to hear the call to become a Roman Catholic, and to gain the certainty that the Roman Church is the true Church, while participating in her liturgy.

On the way to conversion the would-be convert accumulates one argument after another in favour of entering the Catholic Church and accepting her doctrine. It may also happen that, without any initiative on his/her part, the Holy Spirit awakens motives and insights in the future convert which point to conversion. The reasons are cumulative and mutually supportive, urging the free will towards conversion. The will is urged to act not only by reason, but also by conscience. According to Newman, religious processes and decisions necessarily include the action of reason and in no way should they exclude it. On the other hand, such processes and decisions should not be limited to reason alone.

My experience here in the United States has been that converts are sought and welcomed. The Diocese of Wichita has a strong RCIA program (of course it varies from parish to parish) and highlights the celebrations of the Rite of Election each Lent and publishes the list of those becoming Catholic in the diocesan newspaper after the Easter Vigil too--by parish! Some of my best friends are converts. With the attention given to converts by the Coming Home Network and all the conversion stories that are published (for example), perhaps it's different here in the USA.
More on Monday about how Newman thought the Church should be prepared for converts and how Pope Benedict XVI's Anglicanorum Coetibus in some ways fulfilled his hopes.

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