Hope in God our Last End

Fr Provost, fellow guests, Bishop Philip, dear friends, it is a great pleasure for me to be with you this evening to mark the close of the Bicentenary Year honouring the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman. I don’t suppose there is a person in this church who doesn’t know who Newman was. Most of us I suspect have a very personal interest in him, and will have been moved by an encounter, literary or spiritual, or most likely both, with either his obvious holiness, his towering intellect, or his uncompromising devotion to the Church and her development. Newman was the quintessential man of faith and of reason. The man wedded to truth, mindful not only of the tradition of the Church, but of the vital importance of an informed conscience. A man at once completely of his time — a time of great upheaval in the Church — and, in so many ways, far ahead of his time.

    And not without a sense of humour either. Surely there was a twinkle in his eye, as well as a hint of steel, when he famously toasted 'conscience first, and the Pope afterwards'. In truth a man of great joy and great sorrow whose 'capax dei' revealed itself in some of the most sublime creative writing in the English language.

    Newman knew dark times, the loss of friends, a life among strangers, feelings of desolation, depression, and bewilderment; that’s a fair description of much of his Catholic life, at least until the Apologia and later when he became a cardinal. And yet I draw inspiration from the fact that in spite of severe trials, he never lost hope. It should be the same for each of us, not only as individuals, but in our service of the Church. Not for nothing I chose the epithet 'Joy and Hope, Gaudium et Spes' for my motto both as a bishop and when I followed Newman and was made Cardinal.

    When I spoke to the National Conference of Priests in September last year, I remarked that in England and Wales today Christianity as a background to people’s lives and moral decisions is now almost vanquished. You may remember it caused quite a stir. It was interpreted in parts of the national media as defeatist, as though I were depressed and throwing in the towel. Of course, I was doing no such thing: what I was trying to do was describe realistically the situation in which we find ourselves today.

    Our Christian faith does not have the status it once had; it is no longer the automatic point of reference for the way people live. Ahead of his time, Newman once remarked that ‘Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious.’(1)  He clearly foresaw a moment when that would no longer be the case. Maybe that moment is upon us. I certainly sense a secular outlook in our society which ignores the Gospel: it does not know it and it does not want to.

    It is important that we are realistic not just about our faith but about our circumstances. It seems to me that we are being challenged. Our faith is being challenged. Because this is the changed social setting in which we are called by Christ to live and work and bear witness. On occasion we may find ourselves thinking that the situation does not look all that promising. There may, indeed most certainly will, be testing times ahead. But as Christians we do not get down or depressed. We do not abandon hope. On the contrary. Our hope is in the Lord. His Cross and Resurrection are our sure hope, today, tomorrow, and always. As Newman so elegantly puts it: 'The planting of Christ ‘s Cross in the heart is sharp and trying; but the stately tree rears itself aloft, and has fair branches and rich fruit, and is good to look upon.'(2)

    Newman was a deeply inspiring figure not just for his time, but for us today. He was blessed with a penetrating sense of God’s providence. There is a divine plan for each of us. We’ve heard that expressed earlier this evening: ‘We are all created to His glory - we are created to do His will.’ Newman put it like this: ‘God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission -‘. That’s very clear, inspiring. But he goes on to say: ‘I never may know it in this life’. The work, the service which divine providence has committed to us, may be obscure, hidden from us. So what are we to do? How are we to cope? Listen to Newman again: Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us ... He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me - still He knows what He is about.(3)

    That is a sign of very great faith is it not? Newman was far too disciplined and insightful to fall prey to the temptation to equate his feelings with the existence or otherwise of the cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love. Hope has to be sturdier than our feelings. It’s not an anaesthetic for keeping troubles at bay, nor another word for a sunny nature. We are called to be a people of hope. A fundamental part of our disposition is our trust and hope in the Lord. That trust and hope can go hand-in-hand with terrible experiences, the very darkest times of our lives. In fact, it must. That’s when our hope is most necessary.

    I leave the final word to Newman, the master of our language and of the language of the soul:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and l 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.

1.  C. S. Dessain (ed.), The Catholic Sermons of Cardinal Newman, London 1957, p.123.
2.  J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons iv, uniform edition, Westminster, Maryland 1967, p.262.
3.  J. H. Newman, Meditations and Devotions, uniform edition, London 1893, pp.399-401.
4. Geoffrey Tillotson (ed.) Newman Prose and Poetry London 1957, p 807.