John Henry Newman was canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, the anniversary of his famous conversion to Catholicism. The saint would undoubtedly have been amused by the reception of his works after his death. In his own life, Newman found himself criticized by people on every side of opinion: by conservatives and liberals, by believers and agnostics, and by Catholics and Protestants. That he is presently quoted favorably by all of those groups would have brought an ironic smile to his famously Victorian visage.
In that spirit of irony, I will focus on three phrases key to understanding and appreciating Newman, none of which come from his published works and none of which are written in English. If we allow ourselves to be moved by these words, we may find essential guidance for our own times.
Cor ad cor loquitur
When Newman was created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, he chose cor ad cor loquitur as his motto: heart speaks unto heart. Newman is not talking about Hallmark sentiment here. Rather, in speaking of the words of love spoken from heart to heart, Newman is talking about the intimate love between God and God’s beloved.
The poet Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that the world is truly charged with the grandeur of God. Newman, who welcomed Hopkins into the Church after a long correspondence, agreed that the world is completely saturated with God’s love and believed that this love is most surely experienced and responded to in the depths of the human heart. Those who are seized by the love of God and respond in love live the most profound communication: the heart of God speaking to the heart of man – cor ad cor loquitur.
Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem
On Newman’s tomb, he had inscribed the phrase ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem: out of shadows and phantasms into the truth. Nothing better could describe how Newman understood his own life’s journey. In the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman’s intellectual autobiography (or, as Bishop Barron describes it, the biography of Newman’s brain), Newman describes his long and slow journey from one of the great minds of Protestant theology finally home to Roman Catholicism. Throughout the Apologia, Newman demonstrates his constant quest for the truth. It was not enough for an idea to be satisfactory for him to accept: for Newman, it had to be true.
When Newman converted to Catholicism, he lost his entire social world, including his life at Oxford. His leadership of the Oxford Movement, the intellectual project of his life, fell apart because he no longer believed it to be true. Newman staked everything he had on the truth he had come to grasp and, at times in his life, Newman must have thought that decision a serious mistake. From our position (and from his own in the Communion of Saints), we can judge the success of his venture.
More than a century later, may we embrace the same journey: out of the shadows and phantasms into the truth.
After Newman became Catholic, he found inspiration in the life and thought of Saint Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians. Neri, a friend of Saint Ignatius and well known for his good humor, famously counseled his many followers that the way to holiness is through humility. To be humble for Neri was to love to be unknown: amare nesciri. So it was for Newman.
This of all Newman’s reminders may be the most difficult to accept. For us, an inescapable element of love is being known: when I am truly seen, when I am understood, when I am known by another, then I can be loved for who I am (or perhaps, despite who I am). When I am known in love, I can return love in kind; when I give myself in love, I am known.
Newman reminds us that the greatest danger in a desire to be known is that love for another can be mistaken for and subsumed into self-absorption and self-obsession. Far greater, then, is the love that gives without expecting a return, the love that wills to be forgotten for the sake of the beloved. If we are to truly be free to love completely, then we must learn this lesson: amare nesciri.
These precepts of Newman are not solely intellectual. Rather, they bear directly on our relationship to God, neighbor, and ourselves. They are not handy word arrows for us to use in our interminable battles over politics, culture, and religion, but rather calls to conversion. To appreciate Newman the theologian, we must understand Newman the convert, a conversion that did not begin or end with his conversion to Catholicism but encompassed his whole life on the journey to sanctity.
Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us and for our conversion.