John Henry Newman: Son of St. Philip
by Robert Peck
In an 1848 address to the Birmingham Oratory, John Henry Newman notes the curious fact that St. Philip Neri—who time and again disavowed any desire to create a new community within the Church—became the beloved founder of the Congregation of the Oratory. Newman observes that such seemingly accidental acts are not uncommon in the history of the Church. Saints often pursue limited, local undertakings—in Philip’s case, the sanctification of a small circle of disciples—but through such humble efforts the Spirit often works its own, far grander designs. Perhaps Philip did not seek to found the Oratory, but the Lord surely did.
According to Newman, the virtue necessary for achieving this unintentional greatness is not boldness or originality or any sort of ambitious genius, but simple humility. Saints such as Philip “go out in faith and obedience not knowing whither they go. They begin a limited work, and they are led on to a great one. They have thoughts of their own neighborhood or country, and God’s grace and blessing has made them a light to the world.” Perhaps Philip was reluctant to accept his role as founder, but he could hardly have been surprised by it; for he keenly understood that he was but an instrument through whom the Spirit would work the will of God.
Though he would have denied it, Newman himself was much like the saints of whom he speaks. Late in life he lamented that so much of his work had been haphazardly assembled in response to events around him and that he had wasted much of his time engaged in controversy. “It has been my misfortune through life, never to have been able to devote myself to one subject in consequence of the urgent calls upon me of the passing hour, so that I have ever been beginning and never ending.” Looking back with over a century of perspective, even a cursory glance at Newman’s accomplishments speaks otherwise. Much of his labor may have been in reaction to the challenges of the day rather than efforts of his own choosing, but without these outside stimuli Newman would not have otherwise produced the Development of Christian Doctrine, the Idea of the University, or the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. He never intended any of these to have the lasting import that they possess today; but even as Newman took up his pen against his Protestant detractors or to garner support for the University of Ireland or to parry the mudslinging of Charles Kingsley, the Spirit worked its own mission.
Newman recognized, as Philip did, that true sanctity does not come in the form of heroic martyrdoms or grand mystical experiences, but rather in meeting the daily challenges of life with a spirit of Christian charity and joy. In his addresses to his Oratorian brothers, he offers a frequent, Philip-like refrain: “If we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the duties of the day well.” The Lord has His own designs which will be worked out in His own time, through our cooperation with His grace. We may not see it in this life, but even the most minor act performed in a Christian spirit may have profound effects unimaginable in our limited mortal vision. This is not to discount those saints who have witnessed to the faith with mighty acts of virtue, but these deeds were often the last, not the first steps in their life of Faith. One must be a saint before one can be a martyr.
We may not see the distant scene, but by humbly following that same “kindly light” that led John Henry Newman and Philip himself, we can accomplish the great work each of us has been created to do.
About the Author
Robert Peck was a member of the New Brunswick Oratory from 2007-2011. He currently teaches at St. Vincent Ferrer High School in New York City, and resides in New York with his wife and daughter.