Fr Philip Cunnah
This October, for the first time, we have the joy of celebrating John Henry Newman as a saint of the Church in the liturgical calendar. Regarded as an intellectual giant of the nineteenth century, his writings and theology continue to appeal and influence. During the Papal visit to the UK, Pope Benedict remarked of Newman that he “would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion.” This endeavour is surely one we can relate to in the Faith Movement as we continue to offer a catechesis that confronts the growing tendencies in our own time. Indeed, the intercession of Saint John Henry Newman is one we can seek for many reasons, including our work with young people.
Some years ago, I was surprised to discover in my own diocese that JHN had been taken as the patron and inspiration for our youth service. Knowing very little about Newman, I had thought him to be a slightly odd, high churchman whose nuanced theology and prolific letter writing was beyond the outlook of the young and, as such, a strange choice. However, even just a quick glance at his life showed I was much mistaken.
The inspiration was rooted in JHN’s vocational conviction, “God has created me for some definite service. He has committed some work to me that he has not committed to another. I have my mission.” For Newman, life was full of meaning and had a positive direction when lived in God’s service. He recognised each person had some contribution to make, some expression of God’s creativity. How this contrasts with contemporary reports of young people’s dissatisfaction with life and their prospects for the future.
Moreover, JHN explains that his first conversion came at the age of just 15, not far from the age of many in our youth groups. “When I was 15 a great change took place in me. I fell under the influence of a definite creed. I believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious would last in to the next life and that I was elected to eternal glory.” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua) This faith was a firm foundation for JHN’s life. It offers an alternative to the young, who feel they grow up with few certainties in an ever-changing cultural landscape.
The month of October is sprinkled with other great youthful saints in Therese of Lisieux and Pope John Paul II, perhaps as we say our rosaries and ask the protection of our guardian angels, we can be conscious of praying for the young, especially those in our care, and try to offer them the example of these great figures.