10 thoughts from St. John Henry Newman on holiness and sainthood

The pursuit of holiness was a constant theme of the preaching of Newman; in that sense, we can see him as a precursor of Vatican II’s insistence on “the universal call to holiness.”

The original tomb of Blessed John Henry Newman is seen in Rednal, England, March 1, 2010. Blessed Newman and four others will be canonized as saints by Pope Francis at the Vatican Oct. 13. (CNS photo/Marcin Mazur, Bishops' Conference of England and Wales)

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the Solemnity of All Saints, November 1, 2019, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.

St. Paul tells us that “God is glorious in His saints” (2 Th 1:10). Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict said on many occasions: “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.” Today’s solemnity gives liturgical expression to those convictions.

As many of you know, I have just returned from Rome where we celebrated the canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman. And so, I thought it might be useful to glean some insights on sanctity from the Church’s newest saint. I do so taking serious account of the holy Cardinal’s own demurral: “I have nothing of a saint about me as every one knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one.” He repeated that assessment on the very day he was made a cardinal, albeit with a bit more willingness to admit his accomplishments wrought under the power of divine grace:

In a long course of years I have made many mistakes. I have nothing of that high perfection which belongs to the writings of Saints, viz., that error cannot be found in them; but what I trust that I may claim all through what I have written, is this,—an honest intention, an absence of private ends, a temper of obedience, a willingness to be corrected, a dread of error, a desire to serve Holy Church, and, through Divine mercy, a fair measure of success.

The Collect for the Thirtieth Sunday per annum makes this plea: “Almighty ever-living God, increase our faith, hope and charity, and make us love what you command, so that we may merit what you promise.” I am going to suggest that the theology of sanctity to which St. John Henry subscribed was precisely the desire to “love what [God] commands,” so as to “merit what [God] promises.” The pursuit of holiness was a constant theme of the preaching of Newman, with literally hundreds of sermons on this topic; in that sense, we can see him as a precursor of Vatican II’s insistence on “the universal call to holiness.” From this vast array of “Newmanian” reflection on sanctity, I am choosing but ten thoughts of his which sketch out the royal road to Heaven. I should mention that all these sermons were delivered while he was still an Anglican clergyman, thus demonstrating how truly “Catholic” he was decades before he “swam the Tiber.”

1. Why do people absent themselves from Sunday worship? He puts the response in the starkest of terms: “They do not wish to lead religious lives; they do not like to promise to lead religious lives; and they think that that Blessed Sacrament does bind them to do so, bind them to live very much more strictly and thoughtfully than they do at present.” He is not content, however, to speak of the absent; he likewise addresses those who regularly participate in Sunday worship and who regularly receive Holy Communion:

Alas! I must not quit the subject without addressing some cautions to those who are in the observance of it. I would that none of us had need of cautions; but the best of us is in warfare, and on his trial, and none of us can be the worse for them. I need not remind you, my brethren, that there is a peril attached to the unworthy reception; for this is the very excuse which many plead for not receiving; but it often happens, as in other matters also, that men have fears when they should not fear, and do not fear when they should fear. A slight consideration will show this; for what is the danger in communicating? that of coming to it, as St. Paul implies, without fear. It is evident then, that, in spite of what was just now said, when persons are in danger of receiving it unworthily, they commonly do not really feel their danger; for their very danger consists in their not fearing. If they did truly and religiously fear the Blessed Sacrament, so far they would not be in danger of an unworthy reception.

He spells this out in even greater detail:

Here, too, let me mention another sin of a similar character into which communicants are apt to fall; viz. a forgetfulness, after communicating, that they have communicated. Even when we resist the coldness which frequent Communion may occasion, and strive to possess our minds in as profound a seriousness as we felt when the rite was new to us, even then there is often a painful difference between our feelings before we have attended it, and after. (Attendance on Holy Communion)

2. Closely aligned with this is his notion of the necessity for a holy fear of “the holy”:

In Heaven, love will absorb fear; but in this world, fear and love must go together. No one can love God aright without fearing Him; though many fear Him, and yet do not love Him. Self-confident men, who do not know their own hearts, or the reasons they have for being dissatisfied with themselves, do not fear God, and they think this bold freedom is to love Him. Deliberate sinners fear but cannot love Him. But devotion to Him consists in love and fear, as we may understand from our ordinary attachment to each other. No one really loves another, who does not feel a certain reverence towards him. . . . It is mutual respect which makes friendship lasting. So again, in the feelings of inferiors towards superiors. Fear must go before love. (Christian Reverence)

3. Following on worthy receptions of the Holy Sacrament and a healthy fear of the Lord should come the response of dedicated, fearless service. Notice how contemporaneous he sounds:

. . . it will be a more simple account of Zeal, to call it the earnest desire for God’s honour, leading to strenuous and bold deeds in His behalf; and that in spite of all obstacles. . . . It is the present fashion to call Zeal by the name of intolerance, and to account intolerance the chief of sins; that is, any earnestness for one opinion above another concerning God’s nature, will, and dealings with man,—or, in other words, any earnestness for the Faith once delivered to the Saints, any earnestness for Revelation as such. Surely, in this sense, the Apostles were the most intolerant of men: what is it but intolerance in this sense of the word to declare, that “he that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life;” that “they that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord;” that “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor covetous, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God;” that we must not even “eat” with a brother who is one of such; that we may not “receive into our houses,” or “bid God speed” to any one who comes to us without the “doctrine of Christ”?

He ends that sermon with this plea: “May Almighty God, for His dear Son’s sake, lead us safely through these dangerous times; so that, while we never lay aside our Zeal for His honour, we may sanctify it by Faith and Charity, neither staining our garments by wrath or violence, nor soiling them with the dust of a turbulent world! (Christian Zeal)

4. In a Pentecost homily, he challenges his congregation to what today we would call a counter-cultural mode of living:

Christians are called upon to think little of the ordinary objects which men pursue – wealth, luxury, distinction, popularity, and power. It was this negligence about the world which brought upon them in primitive times the reproach of being indolent. Their heathen enemies spoke truly; indolent and indifferent they were about temporal matters. If the goods of this world came in their way, they were not bound to decline them; nor would they forbid others in the religious use of them; but they thought them vanities, the toys of children, which serious men let drop.

He goes on to explain why the Christian behaves as he does: “Accordingly, the self-respect of the Christian is no personal and selfish feeling, but rather a principle of loyal devotion and reverence towards that Divine Master who condescends to visit him. He acts, not hastily, but under restraint and fearfully, as understanding that God’s eye is over him, and God’s hand upon him, and God’s voice within him.”

Once more, he proffers a rousing conclusion, calling for the believer to take advantage of the Church’s liturgical cycle to live truly godly lives:

May we, one and all, set forward with this season, when the Spirit descended, that so we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour! Let those who have had seasons of seriousness, lengthen them into a life; and let those who have made good resolves in Lent, remember them in Eastertide; and let those who have hitherto lived religiously, learn devotion; and let those who have lived in good conscience, learn to live by faith; and let those who have made a good profession, aim at consistency; and let those who take pleasure in religious worship, aim at inward sanctity; and let those who have knowledge, learn to love; and let those who meditate, forget not mortification. Let not this sacred season leave us as it found us; let it leave us, not as children, but as heirs and as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. . . . Let us redeem the time while it is called today. . . . (Christian Nobleness)

5. He cautions against a smug self-assuredness in matters religious:

But I have not described the extreme state of the infirmity into which the blessing of peace leads unwary Christians. They become not only over-confident of the knowledge of God’s ways, but positive in their over-confidence. They do not like to be contradicted in their opinions, and are generally most attached to the very points which are most especially of their own devising. They forget that all men are at best but learners in the school of Divine Truth, and that they themselves ought to be ever learning, and that they may be sure of the truth of their creed, without a like assurance in the details of religious opinion. They find it a much more comfortable view, much more agreeable to the indolence of human nature, to give over seeking, and to believe they had nothing more to find. A right faith is ever eager and on the watch, with quick eyes and ears, for tokens of God’s will, whether He speak in the way of nature or of grace. (Contracted Views in Religion)

6. On yet another occasion, he dares to speak of self-denial:

And so, too, as regards this world, with all its enjoyments, yet disappointments. Let us not trust it; let us not give our hearts to it; let us not begin with it. Let us begin with faith; let us begin with Christ; let us begin with His Cross and the humiliation to which it leads. Let us first be drawn to Him who is lifted up, that so He may, with Himself, freely give us all things. Let us “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and then all those things of this world “will be added to us.” They alone are able truly to enjoy this world, who begin with the world unseen. They alone enjoy it, who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come relinquish it. (Cross of Christ the Measure of the World)

7. Vocation directors in the crazy 1960s, who rejected seminarians who had not experimented with drugs and sex and alcohol, would have done well to take to heart Newman’s admonitions in that regard, as should all prudent people:

One chief cause of the wickedness which is every where seen in the world, and in which, alas! each of us has more or less his share, is our curiosity to have some fellowship with darkness, some experience of sin, to know what the pleasures of sin are like. I believe it is even thought unmanly by many persons (though they may not like to say so in plain words), unmanly and a thing to be ashamed of, to have no knowledge of sin by experience, as if it argued a strange seclusion from the world, a childish ignorance of life, a simpleness and narrowness of mind, and a superstitious, slavish fear. (Curiosity a Temptation to Sin)

8. Preaching on this very feast, he observed: “I have not yet mentioned the peculiar benefit to be derived from the observance of Saints’ days: which obviously lies in their setting before the mind patterns of excellence for us to follow.” He ends that sermon with this fond desire:

These are thoughts suitably to be impressed on us, on ending (as we do now) the yearly festivals of the Church. Every year brings wonders. We know not any year, what wonders shall have happened before the circle of festivals has run out again, from St. Andrew’s to All Saints’. Our duty then is, to wait for the Lord’s coming, to prepare His way before Him, to pray that when He comes we may be found watching. . . .(Use of Saints’ Days)

9. He also tackles a very current and neuralgic topic, namely, one’s conduct in the House of God:

What I have said has been enough to suggest what it is to serve God acceptably, viz. “with reverence and godly fear,” as St. Paul says. We must not aim at forms for their own sake, but we must keep in mind where we are, and then forms will come into our service naturally. We must in all respects act as if we saw God; that is, if we believe that God is here, we shall keep silence; we shall not laugh, or talk, or whisper during the Service, as many young persons do; we shall not gaze about us. We shall follow the example set us by the Church itself. I mean, as the words in which we pray in Church are not our own, neither will our looks, or our postures, or our thoughts, be our own.

And, then, to those “turned off” by proper conduct in church, with no small amount of droll British humor, he gives a blistering response, which each of us can adopt to answer similar questioners today:

Thus all we do in Church is done on a principle of reverence; it is done with the thought that we are in God’s presence. But irreverent persons, not understanding this, when they come into Church, and find nothing there of a striking kind, when they find every thing is read from a book, and in a calm, quiet way, and still more, when they come a second and a third time, and find every thing just the same, over and over again, they are offended and tired. “There is nothing,” they say, “to rouse or interest them.” They think God’s service dull and tiresome, if I may use such words; for they do not come to Church to honour God, but to please themselves. They want something new. They think the prayers are long, and wish that there was more preaching, and that in a striking oratorical way, with loud voice and florid style. And when they observe that the worshippers in Church are serious and subdued in their manner, and will not look, and speak, and move as much at their ease as out of doors, or in their own houses, then (if they are very profane) they ridicule them, as weak and superstitious. Now is it not plain that those who are thus tired, and wearied, and made impatient by our sacred services below, would most certainly get tired and wearied with heaven above? because there the Cherubim and Seraphim “rest not day and night,” saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” (Reverence in Worship)

10. Last but by no means least is a motto Newman adopted in his youth: “Holiness rather than peace.” So often today we hear calls for “peace” in the Church, but it is but a false peace because it is not grounded in truth. Christ warns us that following Him in total fidelity will bring not peace, but the sword (see Mt 10:34). Jesus goes so far as to declare that fidelity to Him will affect even family relationships (see Lk 12:53). And haven’t we seen that prophecy, sadly, fulfilled in spades over the past several decades? The sainted Cardinal experienced alienation throughout his life for the very reason that he pursued holiness: loss of an Oxford position; mistrust by Anglicans as an Anglican; loss of friends upon his conversion; mistrust by Catholics as a Catholic; betrayal by bishops. However, he informs us in his Apologia pro Vita Sua that, in spite of all he suffered:

I have been in perfect peace and contentment; I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.

Isn’t it interesting that his pursuit of holiness and passion for the truth did, ultimately, bring him also the experience of peace?

Well, we are at the end of our seminar on holiness according to the mind and heart of St. John Henry Newman: Cor ad cor loquitur. I hope you have noticed how he consistently, unwaveringly urges his congregations to pray the Good God to “make us love what you command, so that we may merit what you promise.” Everything about Newman is directed by and to that transcendental horizon we call Heaven. With that in mind, I urge you to make your own daily prayer his prayer for a happy death, yes, a happy death, which will lead us to full communion with all those holy ones we celebrate today:

Oh, my Lord and Savior, support me in that hour in the strong arms of Your Sacraments, and by the fresh fragrance of Your consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me, and Your own Body be my food, and Your Blood my sprinkling; and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious Saints smile upon me; that in them all, and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in Your faith, in Your Church, in Your service, and in Your love. Amen.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 118 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

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