All Saints, Sunday 27 October 2019
In 1845 a middle-aged Oxford vicar, after a long period of agonising, decided to become a Roman Catholic. From the perspective of 2019, it is hard to see why this should have been – as it was – a matter of widespread shock and scandal. A modern secularist will wonder why moving from one religious institution to another seemed important to anyone; and a modern, Christian would be baffled by the vitriolic reaction from many in the Church of England.
But on the 13th of this month this man was declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. And people were queueing up to be at the ceremony, including Prince Charles and the Muslim Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and no fewer than 6 Anglican Bishops.
I’m speaking of course of Cardinal, now Saint, John Henry Newman. The first Englishman to be canonised since the 17th century.
It’s difficult to get our heads around what a big deal it was when he left the church of England and joined what was then viewed as a foreign sect – remember that the Gunpowder plot which was a failed attempt to end the persecution of British Catholics was still very much in the popular imagination.
I remember as a child hearing people saying the words “a penny for the Guy” while wheeling guy around in a wheelbarrow – not realising at that time that bonfire night was anti catholic. Catholics were not popular in Victorian Britain, so to become one was pretty outrageous.
But Newman was very worried that the elite church of England of his day had got far too close to the state and had lost its bite and become warped by the establishment.
He had the courage of his convictions and converted to Catholicism. And this was scandalous. He lost much – his job, his family, his friends and his reputation – at least for a time.
But he became respected again for his intelligence and principles and simply loved by the poor Irish immigrant community he ministered to in Birmingham.
And now he is regarded by many to be a Saint. But what is it to be a Saint? Peter, Paul, John Henry Newman. What is it they have got in common? Well on the surface not a lot. They were all very different people. But they have got something very much in common:
Hear the beginning of the Gospel again:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
They were all prepared to be hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed on account of Jesus. Sainthood, whether of the apostles, or of people much nearer our own time is really all about putting God first – regardless of the consequences.
It does not involve being perfect – it involves being human. And being the humans you and I are called to be, not the people we think we perhaps should be. It’s not about imitating anybody else, in essence it’s about being confident that God loves us and treating this as the most important thing in our lives. That’s what all the saints have in common.
And their courage to do what they know to be right. Our culture is certainly more liberal than it was when Newman was alive. There may be more acceptance of Catholics, but I would say there is less acceptance of Christians in general – whatever our denomination. Newman reminds us of the need to stand up for what we believe, even if it leads to bad treatment at the hands of others.
And the saints also have a common hope of heaven. This is what gives them the courage of their convictions. Because hope in heaven changes our view of earth. If we look beyond this world then our lives take on a different perspective and I think we get other things into perspective too.
John Henry Newman wrote these wonderful words:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,--
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene,--one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on:
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish days, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on;
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
As we celebrate the saints let us also remember our part in the communion of saints and that God calls us in our own small way to play our own small parts in the building of his kingdom.
Father Matthew BUCHAN