The two addresses that the Holy Father dedicated to Cardinal Newman during his recent state visit to the UK, that of the prayer vigil in Hyde Park and the homily during the eucharistic celebration in Cofton Park, Birmingham, on Sunday, clearly highlighted the themes that link the Pope with the English Blessed. The first of these themes is the public relevance of religious faith: a key theme of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. To all those who would like to reduce faith to a merely private affair, to “privatise” it as it were, the Pope replied that its public expression is a right of all believers and a duty of Christians in particular. Newman reminds us, he said, that “we have been created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations”. In one of the most secularized societies of the West the Holy Father recalled again and again the duty to bear witness to our faith, because otherwise it risks being wholly extinguished. “No one who looks realistically at our world today could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual, ignoring the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society, or simply trusting that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society”. This deep crisis of faith was already clear to Newman who, at the age of 78, in his speech accepting his elevation to the rank of cardinal, summed up his whole life as an attempt to oppose those in the intellectual world who maintained that as far as religion is concerned truth does not exist but only personal opinions.The passion for truth, that always animated him, demands, however, witness to truth. “If we have accepted the truth of Christ and committed our lives to him, there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives”, stressed Benedict XVI in the prayer vigil on Saturday evening”. This appeal to coherence between faith and life is especially aimed at Christians who, when they deny the Gospel, are a source of scandal for those who consider them, but who, when they let themselves be led by the “kindly light” through prayer and the sacraments, illuminate all those around them, often without them even realizing it.Newman has justly been presented as an example of someone who, with his spiritual and intellectual life, bore witness to truth, even at the cost of great personal sacrifices. The conversion to Catholicism led in fact to his exclusion from the University of Oxford, where he had spent his whole life, and the end of many friendships with members of the Anglican Church and English society in general. Recalling the many martyrs who had given their life for their faith and who for centuries has sustained and inspired English Catholics, the Pope pointed out that “in our own time the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered, but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied”. This too is a form of persecution from which not even the Holy Father has been immune in recent weeks.Newman, moreover, was presented by the Pope as a great defender of the prophetic office of the Catholic laity. This is a further theme that links him with Pope Benedict. Newman was called the “absent father” of Vatican Council II, the Council which emphasized the active role of the laity in the life of the Church and in which the young theologian Ratzinger played a significant role.Newman’s holiness is expressed in his teaching, writings and sermons. Benedict XVI underlined that “his insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education were not only of profound importance for Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world”.Lastly, in his homily during Mass on Sunday, after having paid tribute to the educational thought of the new Blessed and his desire to see an intelligent and well-instructed laity, bringing him for example to the attention of all those engaged in catechesis and teaching, Benedict XVI underlined an aspect sometimes ignored: Newman was a great pastor of souls. “He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison”. On the occasion of his funeral many thousands of people – Benedict XVI recollected – “lined the local streets as his body was taken to its place of burial”, in demonstration of the profound mark he left on the life of ordinary people.The days of the Pope’s visit to England and his beatification of Newman have shown not only the actuality of the Blessed Newman, but also his significance for this pontificate. Benedict XVI wished to show his affection for the English cardinal not only in his decision personally to preside over the beatification ceremony, but also by describing in his speeches the consonance of views that links him to Newman on questions such as the struggle against moral and intellectual relativism, the value of Christian witness, the role of the laity, and holiness in the life of the priest.
A consonance that transcends time