Some Definite Service

Homily given by Bishop Nicholas Hudson in the church of the Venerable English College, Rome, for Westminster Youth Ministry pilgrims on 14 October 2019, a votive Mass of thanksgiving for the canonization of Saint John Henry Newman.

Priests are not all angels!

That was one of St John Henry Newman’s more memorable sayings.

And we should be pleased that priests are not angels, he would go on to say, because, if they were all angels, then they would not be able to sympathise with, to have compassion on us in the same way as they can as human beings!

The generations of men who trained at the Venerable English College knew themselves not to be angels either.

But they felt a deep sense of mission.

This was a common bond; something that united them.

And they felt this same bond, those who came after him, with Newman too, endowed as he was with a deep sense that God has created each one of us “for some definite service”.

“I may not know it in this life but I shall know it in the next,” he would say.

I found myself recalling this during yesterday’s Canonization ceremony; how Newman could never have imagined that God would use him, for example, to be the key intercessor for two remarkable miracles.

I mean the miracles worked by God but through Newman’s intercession in favour of Deacon Jack Sullivan and Melissa Villalobos and her daughter Gemma and which enabled Newman’s own Canonization yesterday.

I was thinking too of all the criticisms Newman experienced in his lifetime and which must have seemed such formidable setbacks.

And yet the lesson in this for him and for us is that he was to find, time after time, that great good came from what appeared the worst defeats.

To name just three:

Sent to Dublin to establish a university, he had to abandon the project for lack of cooperation; and yet it led him to write ‘The Idea of a University’ which remains a key text for those who seek guidance as to what the establishment of a university should entail.

Setting out to write a ‘Via Media’ for the Anglican and Catholic Churches and experiencing vehement rejection by a large body of C of E bishops, he proceeded in response to write ‘An Essay on the Development of Doctrine’ which remains a key reference-point for doctrinal development in the Catholic Church.

Visiting this College, then afterwards Sicily, and taken badly ill in the Bay of Naples, he composed ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ and could never have imagined the Successor of Peter invoking the very words of this hymn in the ceremony of his own canonization a century later.

Kipling’s dictum comes forcibly to mind: ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same, my son, you’ll be a man!’

So much of St John Henry Newman’s life after conversion to Catholicism “seemed like a disaster”, as the Book of Wisdom puts it.

This reality serves to deepen the bond with many, many of the martyrs who lived and studied here, since, for such a number of them, arrest, imprisonment and execution shortly after their return to the mission in England and Wales, also “seemed like a disaster.”

Yet, for both Newman and for these martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice, their witness lives on.

Their faith gives us faith.

And we should pray for their intercession regularly – the intercession of both the 44 Martyrs of this Venerable English College and St John Henry Newman – that we too might receive something of the courage they displayed, to go readily and willingly to the place that our true mission calls us.