Archbishop Jozef Michalik
The special ceremony held during the September visit of Benedict XVI to Great Britain, i.e. the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, was inscribed into the press news about the various expressions of an alleged crisis in the Church.
I am very glad and spiritually encouraged by this beatification. There are several reasons for that. Cardinal Newman was an authentic man, showing an honest line of search on the way of faithfulness to the reason as well as the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church. My first scientific dissertation focused on Newman and his conception of the Tradition, which led him to the Catholic Church. He was a very interesting man, a very talented intellectual, courageous in seeking various ways to reach God and man. He tried to be faithful to his vocation all his life. He wanted the holiness of the Anglican Church. He tried to found a group of people with whom he could realise these ideals of holiness. He drew the models from the Tradition of the Catholic Church. He was not afraid to take the pastoral and evangelisation method of Saint Philip Nereus who was an apostle of Rome.
Newman was 44 years in the Anglican Church and 44 years in the Catholic Church. When he decided to accept Catholicism, which was not easy in those times, he exposed himself to criticism of all people. At first, the Roman Church had doubts about this convert but then the Church recognised his merits – he became cardinal. The extraordinary thing is not only his theological involvement and search but also his desire to activate the laity. It is the modernity of this Blessed – he looked forward; saw the threats to the Anglican Church. It is worth noticing that he chose celibacy himself, which was very rare in his Church. He tried to gather people who would like to give more and more of themselves to the Church.
The Holy Father Benedict XVI used this gift of God for the Church in a very rich and pastorally inspiring way. His speech during the prayer vigil on the eve of the beatification of Cardinal Newman and his beatification homily could become important instructions on the way of the self-reflection of the 21st century Church. The first hint is, ‘Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ, who is himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6) (prayer vigil on the eve of the beatification, Hyde Park, London, 18 September 2010).
Lord Jesus said that he is the way, the truth and the life. The main ideal for each of us as a Christian is to be like Christ. It is very demanding. Be like Christ – to die, allow to be crucified and be silent, feel like he felt.
In his cycle of sermons about shepherds St. Augustine shows one essential element of pastoral service. It is the concern for weak sheep and these are not only those who we call non-believers but also those – like the saint bishop writes – who want to live good lives, who decide to live good lives but do not know how to bear evil, how to do good. But Christian’s strength is not only doing good but also bearing evil.
The newly Blessed shows a way to discover one’s identity on the way of asceticism. Asceticism is as if another step and hint for the Church of our times. The practice of many saints throughout ages is deeply neglected today. The gate of asceticism is prayer, not the ‘recited’ one but reflective, deep, about which Newman spoke and about which the Holy Father reminded us in his homily, “a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency – prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualising and elevating the soul. A man is no longer what he was before; gradually … he has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles” (Benedict XVI, beatification homily, 19 September 2010).
Fr Luigi Giussani, the founder of ‘Comunione e Liberazione’, based his whole conception of education on the statement that faith must be an encounter with Christ, making contact with him. Benedict XVI said exactly the same. Where can I meet Christ? There are many places – another man, the Holy Scripture, the sacraments but first of all, such a place and time of meeting is prayer. And here following Jesus means to be like him who spent whole nights praying, who struggled with Satan during prayer; he went his way praying and we are going the same way. He taught us the prayer ‘Our Father’, directing our reference to God as the Father. Holy Mass is a great prayer of Christ but if we want to experience it well we must enter into Christ’s prayer, together with Him and in Him we praise, ask, show concern and salvific joy of the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus.
Waking up the sleeping giant
The Pope’s words about the presence of the laity in the world, which were the quotations of the thought of the Blessed from his book ‘The Present Position of Catholics in England’ echoed very widely in the Catholic world and not only there. The text is important and worth recollecting, ‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it’ (Benedict XVI, beatification homily, 19 September 2010).
A fascinating quotation. In the present times of confusion, distorted hierarchy of values, big intellectual, political, spiritual complexes we should return to these words so that each man fulfils his/her role, a priest be a priest, a religious be a religious, and a layman be a layman, In Christianity it is not important to be a man or a woman: we are all children of God. Holiness is open to everyone and holiness is a life of grace, life of God, following Christ where we are, in our times, with the gifts we have; we should do our best to become holy. Christ needs us, sinful and weak, but aware of what we should be, doing our best, overcoming our weaknesses, realising his works in our human way. The laity must understand their mission: as workers, clerks in post offices or men sweeping streets, ministerial clerks or teachers – they must be holy, united with God, open to love their neighbours, friendly to other people, interested in getting to know Christ’s teaching, the Gospel and its transmission.
What kind of Christians are they?
Listening to the Pope’s words, which echoed the reflections of Blessed John Henry Newman, a simple question can be posed, ‘What should the laity know to defend the Church?’ As for the matters of faith they should know as much as possible. The main set of the truths of faith is the Creed – to understand the content of ‘I believe in God the Father’; to understand the prayer ‘Our Father’ and the fundamental truths of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Christians must know the teaching of the Church to live it and to defend it. If in a parish of 1,600 souls, i.e. ca. 400 families, there are only 25 copies of ‘Niedziela’, what does it tell about the believers’ interests in the life of the Church? How many biblical circles are there? What kind of Christians are these who have not read the four Gospels? The Gospels are simple, written in a simple language. The lack of systematic catechesis in schools during the communist times brought about the neglect of some part of religious formation, which we should make up for. Today we have bigger possibilities, the intellectual level is higher. Earlier we were doomed to the Bible of the poor – painted in pictures and placed in churches. And sometimes our grandmothers, often illiterate, knew more from those pictures about the history of salvation than we understand our faith today since our grandmothers accepted these truths in their lives. If we are not Christians of our faith and life, if we do not defend the natural law; if we accept abortion, in vitro fertilisation, euthanasia; if we do not know what destroys God’s truths and what a sin is, we will not be useful to the world. We must defend this world against its entanglement in sin, against its lies. Completing these statements let us quote the words of Blessed John H. Newman himself, the words about mission, i.e. sending believers to the world, ‘I have my mission”, he wrote, “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place … if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling’ (Meditations and Devotions, 301-2).
These difficult words translate into simple behaviours of people who realise the theological truths in their lives. They do that in the simplicity of their faith, aware of their mission. Let us repeat, ‘I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth.’ We do not always need instructions, orders. Much more depends on conscience, i.e. our self-awareness of being Christians and understanding what it means.
‘In communion with God’
Finally, the last message of the Pope. The moods preceding his visit to the British Isles developed around the so-called abuses in the Church, criticism of priests showed in numerous ways. The Holy Father did not engage in polemics but using the teaching of Cardinal Newman he reminded the faithful, ‘Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you’ (Benedict XVI, beatification Mass on 19 September 2010).
He repeated the words St John Maria Vianney about priesthood and priests. They lived and experienced Christ’s priesthood in themselves. Christianity is the religion in which God seeks man, seeks in the human way and not in the angelic way. The Son of God became man and speaks to us in the human language, chooses priests from among the weak and sinful men. St Paul would say that he can see that his body follows a different law that battles against the law which his reason, heart, faith dictates. But he treats his body, his reason, hard and makes his body obey him and moves forward. Such a man understands people. Peter denied Lord Jesus; Peter knew fear – and each of us, looking at him, takes courage because although we sometimes fear and desire carrier we can take courage to be Christians, be priests according to Jesus’ heart. Priests are not shocked seeing sinners in their confessionals because they confess their sins themselves. Many a time they know that they are more responsible before God and more sinful. The Church can embrace saints and sinners, and human priesthood tells us about it, which does not mean that we are to encourage one another to weaknesses. It is the Lord that chooses his priests; the Church only leads on the way of vocation. In the present times priests will be needed more and more, and they are to understand people, lead them on God’s way and do not condemn them but go with them.
The new pastoral year is approaching and its motto is, ‘In communion with God.’ It is worth including the reflections born after the beatification of Cardinal John H. Newman to this time.