Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Pentecost Reflection on the Holy Spirit, Newman and Catholic Faith

I heard a woman speak the other day (lets call her Margaret) of those "becoming Catholic" in the British Ordinariate.  Unfortunately, this process is often equated in the popular mind with leaving the Masons to join the Lions' Club or the Moose Lodge.  Granted, most understand that it is a rather more profound commitment but essentially it is still something that as Margaret put it: "a person decides and does".


In truth, coming to Catholic faith does require decisions but it is really more a process initiated by God and our continuing response to the action of God the Holy Spirit including the acceptance of gifts given to us rather than simply an intellectual decision based upon interests or taste.  


Certainly the content of the faith is important and the requirement for catechesis recognizes this.  There is, though, so much more and I always find myself uncomfortable with statements like those from Margaret: "He's defecting to the Romans" or "She's converting to the Catholics" which imply that this is simply a decision made for good or bad reasons depending upon the person making the statement. 


In reality, people often have several conversions at various times in their lives and if these are real they are initiated by God. John Henry Newman counted at least three profound conversions in his journey since his baptism as a child: conversion to living faith in God as a teenager, a powerful personal experience of the Holy Spirit during his trip to Sicily and his near death experience before he and others began the Oxford Movement, and then his ultimate reception into full communion with the See of Peter.  


When, then, did he "become Catholic"?  The simple answer is: at his baptism (Catechism of the Catholic Church, hereafter CCC, sections 1272 - 1274).  But that is not the complete answer either since baptism is the beginning of something that needs to grow. 


Perhaps the better question is: "How was his relationship with the Holy Spirit forming him in Catholic faith and converting him throughout his pilgrimage?"  


By his own admission, Newman had no appreciable change of opinion from the latter stages of his ministry as an Anglican priest and leader of the Catholic renewal of Anglicanism to the time following his reception by Rome as one in full communion with the See of Peter.  As Fr. Phillips has recently quoted from Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua on the Anglo-Catholic blog:


"I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea . . . . I am far of course from denying that every article of the Christian Creed, whether as held by Catholics or by Protestants, is beset with intellectual difficulties; and it is simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer those difficulties . . . . but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and on the other hand doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt . . . ."


Were doctrinal affirmations necessary? Undoubtedly. Had Newman arrived at his decision after much thought and deliberation?  Well, even amongst his enemies he was considered one of the greatest intellects of the 19th century so naturally he had given deep thought to all matters doctrinal but never said that he had no questions. 


Even so, it was at a deep level that he discerned the work of the Holy Spirit forming him in Catholic faith throughout his life.  It was not at a magical moment that he suddenly "became Catholic".  Indeed there was a moment when he entered into full communion with the See of Peter and so affirmed the essential unity which all who share Catholic faith must seek.  


Yet, the Church of the West, made up of those in full communion with Rome, does not deny that the Eastern Churches which are not in full communion with the Pope still share the Catholic faith, have valid priests and other ministers and valid sacraments.  Are they in full communion? No. Are they Catholic?  Well, they hold the Catholic faith almost entirely according to CCC, section 838.


In a similar way, Anglicans are validly baptized if they follow the prescribed rites of their churches and so share in a basic level of communion with the Catholic Church as also recognized in the CCC, section 836 - 837.  Do Anglicans share the content of the Catholic faith?  Many share a very large portion of the content of the faith.  Many are being moved by the Holy Spirit to fuller and fuller acceptance of this content. Are they then in or out of the Catholic Church?  


In line with John Henry Newman's thought we might say that this is a question we cannot answer with a simple yes or no.  Of course people like simplistic categories: "He is Catholic. She is not." In terms of the relationship of the soul with the Holy Spirit it is not quite so simple.  It is the trajectory of our lives in our responses to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit that leads us ever more deeply into the faith which is the bond of unity with others and with the Holy Father, but most importantly with the Heart of God.


Newman had as his motto: "Heart speaks to heart".  By this he meant that the "Heart" (capital letter) of God i.e. the Holy Spirit, speaks to our hearts.  This is the initiative of God which is another way of speaking of what is known as "prevenient grace" i.e. God's loving action to draw us into communion before we have even made a conscious decision (CCC sec. 1996 - 2005). The grace that goes before us is an unmerited gift calling us into unity with God and so with one another and inevitably into fuller and fuller Catholic faith and practice.  In this sense, the only ones who are fully Catholics are the saints in Heaven.  


The rest of us, the baptized, are simply incomplete Catholic pilgrims. We might be very surprised to know who practices the Catholic faith most fully on earth; perhaps some of those who are the least likely in our minds.  Equally, we might be surprised which professing Christians are least Catholic in the sense of living the fulness of the faith and, as St Paul says, "filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church"  (1 Colossians 1:24).  


As Blessed John Newman indicates, ultimately this journey in faith is a mystery and one about which we should not speculate upon as it relates to other people and to their unique journeys into the fullness of faith and communion.  The main thing is that since we are baptized into the Catholic Church we want to continue growing in faith as we continue to receive the revelation of God given to us in the sacred scriptures and interpreted in the magisterial teaching of the Church.


We pray then for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to build ordinariates to welcome all on the journey of Catholic faith. As our patron Blessed J.H. Newman put it in his Pentecost sermon "The Visible Temple" (Parochial and Plain Sermons):


Wherever there is faith and love this temple is . . . . 'builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.'
O may He in His mercy grant that our outward show does not outstrip our inward progress; that whatever gift, rare or beautiful, we introduce here, may be but a figure of inward beauty and unseen sanctity ornamenting our hearts.  Hearts are the true shrine within which Christ must dwell.

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