Lead, Kindly Light

Thoughts on the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time & the Canonization of Cardinal Newman

October 13, 2019

by Rev. Jim Ryan,  jimryan6885@gmail.com

My Dad had a lifetime devotion to Cardinal Newman.  The one document he wrote that I regret never having read is his college thesis which he did on the man who this morning was proclaimed a saint by Pope Francis.  At one point in my life I became interested in Newman’s views on the development of doctrine.

Now, to get this story just right I need to fill you in on a few details.  The first is that, as you may be aware, John Henry Newman was the most widely known participant in what came to be called the Oxford Movement in England.  This movement was begun and led during the early and mid 1800s by Anglicans, mostly clergy or those aspiring to be clergy.  They were interested in the rejoining of the two churches, Anglican and Roman Catholic.  Of course that’s a simplistic way of referring to it and it leaves out many critical specifics.  But that will have to do for now.

In 1845 John Henry Newman was baptized a Catholic by a Passionist priest, Dominic Barberi, whose career dedicated to the conversion of England is also interesting.  But that story about the non-English speaking Italian who convinced the Pope that he was the one who would lead a great conversion of England must be left for another time.

One further detail you need to know is that in 1842-43 Newman refined his thought on the matter of the development of doctrine.  He used the scriptural example of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) to focus his thought.  He viewed the seed growing into the “tallest of shrubs” as an image for the church in its growing and developing the religious truths which are gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church.  This sort of thinking disturbed at the time, as apparently it still does today, those whose view of church doctrine is as a settled sort of thing.  Doctrines are treasures in a lock-box, if you will, only to be read and applied but certainly not to be given new interpretations over the years and definitely not by an ever widening and expanding gathering of secular cultures or understandings of human consciousness.

So, we have two dates to remember for the purpose of getting the punch line of this story of me and my Dad.  1845 – Newman’s conversion, and 1843 his first “Sermon of the Day” on the topic of development of doctrine.

There I was, this young punk priest aglow in his newly gained knowledge of Cardinal Newman.  And there was my Dad who had read and studied the great man for over 40 years.  I made my argument for some change or other to church doctrine based upon Newman’s Sermon on the Development of Doctrine of 1843.  And my Father’s dismissive response to me was, “You can’t believe anything the man wrote before 1845.”

The notion that the church as institution was perfect totally colored and shaped my Dad’s view on the writings of Newman as in RED – full stop before he converted, and GREEN – all systems go after he converted.  After all it was only after his conversion in 1845 that Newman’s writings had the full sanction of the Roman Church.  My Dad was, as they say, an institutionalist.

I now see this experience with my Dad as a telling point on what lay behind and underneath the rational foundation, the intellectual rigor, the lock-tight integrity, and the beautiful consistency of what a view on the development of doctrine is about.  It is about the meaning of history and the process of thinking.

Newman saw that doctrine requires history’s span which allows ideas and beliefs to emerge, take shape and make sense.  He also saw that the human process of thinking is always about reaching, expanding, experiencing and applying what convinces us at our depths.  The motto that the new Cardinal took was “Heart speaks to heart,” in Latin “Cor ad cor loquitur.”

The example I like to use is the variations on Jesus’ response to the disciples who reported their encounter with those who were not in the company of Jesus but who preached in his name.  In Mark (9:38-41) Jesus’ response is akin to “those who are not against us are with us.”  And in Matthew (12:30) Jesus’ phrase is turned into “those who are not with us are against us.”

What lay behind the change from Mark, the first gospel to be written down, to Matthew, a much later writing, was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem,  History intervened in doctrine.

When I was growing up there was a very aggressive group of Catholics, maybe you also ran across them, who loved to use the Matthew version of this phrase to spout the arrogance that holds, “ No salvation outside the Roman Church,” which means of course , “If you’re not Catholic then you are going to hell.”

How tragic was that tragic turn of phrase of Jesus, particularly since its original inspiration in Mark’s writing was an embrace, a lesson of inclusion for those on their first mission assignments to spread Jesus’ message.

As we know, it took almost 2000 years before the Roman Church finally got it right.  We are all called.  You see in the development of doctrine sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong.  But it must always be open to development.

John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit philosopher and teacher whose role and inspiration was a great influence on the Vatican II document on Religious Liberty, held that the single most important achievement of Vatican II was the adoption of Newman’s view on the development of doctrine.  Edward Ondrako’s book on Newman is titled, “Progressive Illumination.”  In it he points out that Newman presented 7 criteria that formed the test on whether a developed doctrine can be trusted.  Not one of them says anything about, “the Institution says so.”

Newman, with his desire to explore the process of thinking and how development depends upon this most human of activities, was keenly disposed and committed to change, adjustment to culture and circumstances.  By preaching (and later publishing) this view of development in 1843 the Anglican churchman predated Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” with its enlightening and shattering view on development known as evolution – Newman predated this by 16 years.  “Origin” was published in 1859.

It seems to me one can argue that with an openness to development as a pathway for thought when applied to theology, spirituality, religious customs and practices, it becomes obvious that many of today’s religious thinkers, preachers, teachers and spiritual guides are fortunate to have Newman as the one who opened the ecclesial gate through which they pass.  Where would the Richard Rohrs the Ilia de Lillos, the Matthew Foxes, yes, even the Teilhard de Chardins be if Cardinal Newman hadn’t fought the battle before them?

Newman suffered the snobbery and the dismissiveness of those who could not accept the Anglican convert with his intellectual openness.  Yet, while he did not gain universal acceptance and likely wouldn’t recognize, today, where we have taken his thought – for example terms like Cosmic Christ, Universal Christ, Emergent God, Omega Point – his way of inference offers hints of God that will lead us to the divine as well as reveal the divine within.

Just as a point that brings me back to the second reading of today’s liturgy, let me say this.  Newman based his confidence on this view of development of doctrine through a countervailing confidence in Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction.  Remember that one from Philosophy 101?  “An entity cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same place.”

In Newman’s terms when a doctrine, having met the criteria for development, results in an updated (some would say “new”) doctrine it necessarily replaces the former doctrine.  Here’s where we find the possibility of the God who “could be” or “may be” in the future explorations of the multiple universes as well as the depth of divine presence within each created entity/person.

I do not know if in a quantum world noncontradiction applies to dimension as it has applied to time and space.  I am, however, confident that Newman’s view remains a large leap forward in how we view and apply our religious thought.

As we read today in the 2nd Letter to Timothy, “If we deny Christ, then Christ will deny us.  If we are unfaithful, Christ will still remain faithful, for Christ can never be unfaithful.” In some translations the end of this sentence is “Christ can never deny himself.”  In other words, Christ cannot be faithful and unfaithful at the same time and in the same place.

We are Christ, and because we are, he will always be for us.

We are the ones who are entrusted with the development that keeps faith alive, transformed, and ever new.

A Prayer  (JR)

In today’s liturgy we prayed for a change in our nation’s abandonment of friends in northern Syria as well as in other places.  Our friends from past alliances are now being murdered and expelled from their homeland.  How often this occurs these days.

We have all seen miracles.  People change or are made to change by ways that defy limits of space, time, dimension.

As people of faith we have all seen your action in such changes.  We need to see your action now, Most High.  When will this senseless murder and violence end?

We have ancestors in faith who have been here before.  We pray for the courage to be like them, searching for your light when darkness surrounds us.

Hear this prayer we make in desperation, but which we offer, nevertheless through your Son, Jesus, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reigh, one God, now and forever.       Amen.

Litany of Penitence

       Leader:   Our nation has abandoned our friends and exposed innocent people                                      to murder and expulsion from their homeland.  Jesus, have mercy.

All:   Jesus, have mercy.

       Leader:   Elected leaders of our nation have abandoned their oath to                              the Constitution that defines who we are.  Christ, have mercy.

       All:   Christ, have mercy.

       Leader:   Self-avowing Christians have chosen politics and self-interest                                                over faith.  Jesus, have mercy.

       All:   Jesus, have mercy.

       Presider:  This time is for penitence—acts of self-denial for

the sake of reconciliation and transformation, for

ourselves, for our nation, for our world.

        All:   Free us, O God, by your mercy, to live honorably and

to act justly.  Lead, kindly Light.

Call to Penitence    (JR)

God creates in me an awareness of evil – evil in myself and evil in the inhumanity of one against the other.  The Creator calls me to do what it takes to overcome evil, to confess my unwillingness at times to do so, to develop in my life a soulful penitence.

Jesus, the Christ, came among us to share in the human side of both good and evil and to show us a way to overcome, to be our model of acting justly, to forgive in love and mercy.

The Holy Spirit gifts us with a vision that is disciplined for action.  This Spirit of reconciliation inspires and motivates us to identify with the victims of evil, to acknowledge the Creator’s goal of peace for all creation, to act with resolve to avoid evil and do good.

We gather as People of God baptized in the hope of making good on God’s gifts as well as making this creation better in our leaving it than when it was handed on to us.  May our penitential acts reveal the way of hope, the strength of resolve, and the vision of New and Unending Life.   Amen.

Lead, Kindly Light,  Cardinal Newman

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’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 day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest 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!                                                        Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

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