Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the Mass of Thanksgiving for the Beatification of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
We gather to give thanks to God for the Beatification last Sunday of Cardinal John Henry Newman and to remember his special link with Ireland, with Dublin and with this Church in particular.
We gather in this Church which is an extraordinary icon of the memory of the presence and activity of Newman in Dublin, his true relic in Dublin. He personally chose the architect of this Church and followed in detail its design and construction. An attractive booklet on the history of the Church, written by the current Administrator, Fr Ciaran O’Carroll, is available this evening to those interested.
We gather then in this unique atmosphere of Newman’s own Church. You cannot understand the project of the Catholic University of Ireland without understanding this Church. I dare to go a step further: you cannot understand Newman’s universally acclaimed idea of the idea of a university without understanding this Church and what it signified for Newman.
Newman saw this Church as essential to his vision of his university. This Church was not to be just a symbol of the Catholic identity of his university, but as a sign of the place that faith ought to play in learning in any university. For Newman, the University was to be a place where all knowledge formed an indivisible union. At a time marked by fragmentation among new empirical disciplines, Newman affirmed that truly liberal education had the task of grasping or at least grappling with the connectedness of all knowledge and of reality. He did not reject the new disciplines; the Catholic University of Ireland was not to be a theological seminary, but a true university, which by it nature would strife to foster dialogue between a variety of academic disciplines and sciences.
In presenting his idea of the university, Newman tried to sensitise the authorities of Church and State of the time in Ireland, as well as the general public, about the importance which the development of intellectual life in itself had for the welfare of individuals, of society and of the Catholic Church.
Opening students to a variety of disciplines would, for Newman, produce the educated person, rather than just the person trained for a specific task. Newman argues that liberal education, rather than being a luxury for the wealthy, would actually enable more people to adapt better to the needs of many professions. In many ways we can see that wisdom of such reflection today, as we live in a knowledge-based economy, where they key to success is the capacity to enhance technical ability through fostering creativity and innovation.
For Newman it was above all philosophy which offered the person the sharpened mental capacity which would enable him or her to attain a unity and an integration of knowledge. Philosophy was a sort of “science of the sciences”, a sort of science distinct from the other sciences aimed at exploring the comprehensive bonds that exist between all the sciences.
The sense of inclusiveness of knowledge means that Newman’s university could not ignore questions about faith, about theology and about God. This University Church was not to be an additional building parallel to or much less on the margins of the University, but an integral part of it. It was to play a special role in the life of the university. Lectures and homilies addressing the question of the relationship between faith and reason and the nature of knowledge were to be a regular part of university life.
For Newman, revealed truth cannot be irrelevant to an overall reflection on knowledge and truth and meaning. His understanding of the role of religion in university life was not limited to any narrow apologetics. He deliberately chose to speak and write about the subject of faith in terms which would be accessible to people who did not profess a specific faith.
This had to be done in a cultural climate in which, on the one hand certain versions of free thinking challenged the very foundations of revelation, and on the other hand, there was a religious climate which was suspicious of free thought. For Newman: “One of the greatest disasters of modern times is the separation between religion and science, [while] the perfection of knowledge is a combination of both ... “
The question of the relationship between faith and reason was a particularly delicate time — maybe less in Ireland than the rest of the United Kingdom and continental Europe — with the increase of the sceptical attitude toward religion. Newman wanted to show his contemporaries that faith and reason do not conflict, but also that “reason could not be the sole arbiter of all truth”, that “faith must be in accord with right reason, but it does not have its source in reason”.
Newman did not object to the project of the Queens Colleges just because they were not Catholic owned and managed, but because he felt that they were “Godless Colleges”. He felt that no serious education on a third level could avoid asking the question about God. For Newman the relationship between faith and reason was to be examined in an academic framework with the same academic rigour which should be demanded in any other dialogue between disciplines.
There is a certain sense then in which it is impossible to lay claim to share Newman’s idea of the university and yet ignore the centrality which Newman attributed to reflection on the relationship between faith and reason. To slide over that dimension of Newman’s thought would be distorting Newman’s thought, failing to apply academic rigour to discussion on central questions about learning and knowledge. Fragmentation still today defeats the fundamental need that people feel to seek a truth which unites and brings meaning.
Many parallels can be found between Newman’s reflections then and those of Pope Benedict XVI today, just as one can find parallels between the cultural contexts in which Newman found himself and the cultural context in which Ireland lives today.
Education is not about utility. When utility begins to dominate and when to use the language of Pope Benedict in his Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, when the “how” questions” ignore the “why” questions about the meaning of life, when being technologically possible becomes the criterion for assessing what is lawful and good, we betray the very nature of knowledge and freedom.
Newman stressed the reasonableness of faith. But he also saw that faith linked solely to reason was not enough. For Newman religion was above all a religion of the heart. Newman was not just the philosopher and academic, he was the priest, the poet and the spiritual writer. In his Beatification homily, Pope Benedict described Newman’s “understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God”.
Newman’s sought God not just through reason, but through a faith which was founded on a loving relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. His best known poems and hymns are those which reflect also his own spiritual journey. Like many great Christian thinkers and man and women of action, at the roots of the sensitivity of his thought is his own spiritual mysticism. “Heart speaks unto heart” was the motto of Newman. May his works touch our hearts in a world that is at times cold and divided, so that we can come to experience the light and the love of God and find peace in Christ’s Church.