Fulfilling the Promise of Newman's Second Spring

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine January – February 2012

Fr Tolhurst offers some timely encouragement from Blessed John Henry Newman for renewal in the British church. He is editing Newman's "Tracts for the Times" for the Edgbaston Millennium edition of Newman's works published by Gracewing in the UK and Notre Dame in the USA.

On 13 July 1852, John Henry Newman preached what would become one of the most famous sermons in English Catholic history. It was given during the First Synod of the New Province of Westminster, held at Oscott College, near Birmingham. The sermon, known as The Second Spring, and published in Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, set out to portray England before the Reformation in a way which has now become familiar to readers of Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars. Under the influence of Whig historians people were led to believe that England had always been essentially Protestant. Newman reminds us in his sermon that England possessed ten thousand parishes. Canterbury had numerous churches dedicated to separate saints, and the same could be said ofLondon, York, Durham, Lincoln, Lichfield, Hereford, Worcester, Salisbury, Dorchester and Chichester. The country was dotted by monasteries and convents and was renowned for its universities and its international contacts throughout Europe.

All this was swept away by the Reformation:

"The vivifying principle of truth, the shadow of St Peter, the grace of the Redeemer, left it. That old Church in its day became a corpse ... its priests were cast out or martyred. There were sacrileges innumerable. Its temples were profaned or destroyed; its revenues seized by covetous nobles ... The presence of Catholicism was at length simply removed, its grace disowned, its power despised - its name, except as a matter of history, at length almost unknown." (Quotations are from Newman's Second Spring, unless otherwise indicated.)

The remnants of the old religion were poetically portrayed:

"Here a set of poor Irishmen [Newman's first congregation, in Alcester Street, Birmingham, was in large part made up of poor Irish immigrants], coming and going at harvest time, or a colony of them lodged in a miserable quarter of a vast metropolis. There, perhaps an elderly person, seen walking in the street, grave and solitary, and strange, though noble in bearing, and said to be of good family, and a 'Roman Catholic'. An old-fashioned house of gloomy appearance, closed in with high walls, with an iron gate, and yews, and the report attaching to it that 'Roman Catholics' lived there; but who they were, or what they did, or what was meant by calling them Roman Catholics, no one could tell; though it had an unpleasant sound, and told of form and superstition.... Such were Catholics inEngland, found in corners, and alleys, and cellars, and the housetops, or in the recesses of the country; cut off from the populous world around them, and dimly seen, as if through a mist or in twilight, as ghosts flitting to and fro, by the high Protestants, the lords of the earth."

The Second Spring

The point of Newman's sermon, though, was not to rake over past injuries, but to hold out hope for the future: "The English Church was, and the English Church was not, and the English Church is once again." Newman saw the second spring beginning with the restoration of the hierarchy by Pius IX in 1850. He asks: "What! Those few scattered worshippers, the Roman Catholics, to form a Church! Shall the past be rolled back? Shall the grave open? Shall the Saxons live again to God?" And he answers: "Yes; for grace can, where nature cannot. The world grows old, but the Church is ever young. She can, in any time, at her Lord's will 'inherit the Gentiles, and inhabit the desolate cities.'" (The Scripture quotation is taken from Isaiah 54:3 in the Douai Rheims version.)

This is something which we must never forget, and which Blessed John Paul II had constantly in mind. People have too often discounted the capacity of the Church to rise again. They regard the human aspect - the obvious failures and frequent sinfulness of her members - and think that it must surely spell the end. But at the very last moment, as Newman reminds us, the Church stages a resurrection and the seemingly imperishable civil institutions crumble into the dust: "Babylon was great, and Tyre, and Egypt, and Nineveh, and shall never be great again ... The past has returned, the dead lives."

Learning the Lessons

Newman's sermon to the assembled prelates in the hot summer of 1852 was certainly complimentary: "And so that high company moves on into the holy place [Newman was picturing the procession of dignitaries with Cardinal Wiseman the last to enter the chapel of St Mary's Oscott]; and there, with august rite and awful sacrifice, inaugurates the great act which brings it hither." But he was praising them because he saw their crucial role in the revival of Roman Catholicism. On numerous occasions recent popes have reminded bishops of the need to provide the necessary leadership in their dioceses. One remembers Blessed John Paul's profound words on the prophetic and kingly office of the bishop at the ad limina visit in 2004 of American bishops to the Vatican.

This does not seem to give room for a policy of consensus between "conservative" and "liberal" factions, continually mindful of political correctness. It does not argue either for the intrusive ecumenical angle in every diocesan initiative. There was certainly a general feeling in 1970, when the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales were canonised (they were put to death between 1535 and 1679) that in order not to jeopardise ecumenical relations we should almost apologise for the celebration. The irony is that all this is ultimately self-defeating, as has been shown by our media's preparedness to pounce upon weaknesses in the Church, not least in the lead-up to the Pope's 2010 visit to Britain. The Irish Church is learning a similar lesson, among others, at the present time.

It has taken more than four decades for these lessons to be digested, but the disastrous decline in vocations, in conversions and in Mass attendance may be beginning to hit home. It would hardly be charitable to say that it has been a bitter experience, but "experience", says Oscar Wilde, "is the name we give to our mistakes". Nobody would pretend that the Catholicism of the Fifties was perfect. There was a certain complacency, rather too much triumphalism, and a reluctance to renew theology in such a way that it could face up to the new challenges, as St Thomas Aquinas had done in his own way with his Summa. But the Churches were full. Not only were they full for Mass but also for rosary, sermon and Benediction.

When, in the 1960s, I went to a Sunday afternoon service in Preston, in the north of England, where there was a church in every street, it was difficult to find a seat. Corpus Christi processions were major events, as were annual parish fiestas and May celebrations. Most priests had a constant stream of people asking to be received into the Church. Vocations exhibitions were held in London, and seminaries were thriving. There was always a long queue waiting for Confessions on Saturday mornings and evenings. At Christmas and Easter there was standing room only for Masses. This is not nostalgia for numbers but a statement of fact; and we need to believe that these signs of life will manifest themselves again, as the spring following the rather long winter: "a restoration in themoral world, such as that which yearly takes place in the physical".

It is interesting to note in this context that Newman went on to say in his address: "Yes, my Fathers and Brothers, and if it be God's blessed will, not Saints alone, not Doctors only, not Preachers only, shall be ours - but Martyrs, too, shall re-consecrate the soil to God."

A Third Spring?

Since then our efforts to become part of the establishment have made us less visible, almost incapable of being persecuted. When, in 1906, he addressed the affluent congregation of Mayfair, in the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, Fr Bernard Vaughan regretted that some people would preach reasonableness even to the Lord on the Cross. His uncompromising sermons on "The Sins of Society" attracted large audiences; they also drew criticism, and he was described by a contemporary as a modern Savonarola.

In her book The Path to Power, published in 1995, Margaret Thatcher wrote of her instinct for what people feel, "a quality which ... is sharpened and burnished through adversity." We, too, need to recover that "salt", or savour, which our religion gives to life so that we can recover a joyful confidence in our faith, and face up to whatever is thrown against us: Catholicism does not thrive on a diet of complacency and general beneficence. Acts records that after the apostles had been flogged on the orders of the Sanhedrin, "they left, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming Jesus is the Christ" (Acts 5:41-42).

Newman concluded his sermon by saying: "To set up the Church again in England is too great an act to be done in a corner." After any period of humiliation there is a tendency to shrink into the background, but we must always rise to the challenge that Jesus sets us. Are not Newman's words the challenge we need to give new life to our Catholicism? The lamp is not meant to be put under cover, after all, but on the lampstand (Mark 4:21). Achieving this is not purely a question of human effort or management structure (we have had plenty of those over the years). It will require strong, apostolic leadership - but also a humble reliance on divine help.

As Newman reminds us: "One thing alone I know - that according to our need, so will be our strength." It is time for the third spring to begin and for us to be involved "in a great, a joyful work". In all this, we need the help of her who was given to us at the foot of the Cross. "Arise, Mary," Newman prays, "and go forth in thy strength .... take possession of a land which knows thee not." Newman did not discount the task but almost relished the opposition that it would engender: "Let ten thousand influences rain down, not to confound or overwhelm, but to persuade, to win over thine enemies." Referring, maybe, to his Oratorian brethren, he added: "Perhaps they [his opponents] may be familiarised in time with our appearance, but perhaps they may be irritated the more ... [for] inproportion to God's grace is the fury of His enemies." He was confident throughout that his prayer would be heard: "O Mary, my hope, O Mother undefiled, fulfil to us the promise of this Spring."

Faith Magazine

January - February 2012