The Heart of John Henry Newman: Beating with the Spirit of the Liturgy
Nov 11, 2020

The Heart of John Henry Newman: Beating with the Spirit of the Liturgy

John Henry Newman on Worship, Reverence, & Ritual, ed. Peter Kwasniewski. Os Justi Press (, 2019. 524 pp. ISBN: 978-0359969951. $23.96, Paperback.

Cardinal John Henry Newman is known best for his conversion to the Catholic faith (see his Apologia Pro Vita Sua), his description of the development of doctrine (see his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine), and for his account of how a person comes to the act of faith (see his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent)—and now he is also known as one the Church’s newest canonized saints. But one thing St. John Henry Newman is not as well known for is his ardent love for the liturgy. Indeed, as Cardinal Avery Dulles has noted, “in Newman’s writings one looks in vain for anything resembling the statement of Vatican II that the liturgy is ‘the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed [and] the fountain from which all her power flows’” (SC 10).[1] While this characterization of the English Oratorian alludes to a certain aliturgical orientation in the monographs Newman published, it stands in stark contrast to Frank O’Malley’s assertion that “the spirit of Newman moved within the spirit of the liturgy.” O’Malley’s point can be understood in the light of the fact that “Newman’s life and thought were permeated with the ceremonies and hallowed texts of the Christian liturgy, which he performed daily for over six decades, starting as an Anglican deacon in 1824 and ending as a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church” (Kwasniewski, vii).

Peter Kwasniewski has assembled a testimony to Newman’s regular attention to matters of liturgical worship in a stirring volume that fills over five-hundred pages: John Henry Newman On Worship, Reverence, and Ritual: A Selection of Texts. While Newman’s works of academic pursuits and theological controversy did not focus on producing liturgical scholarship, he was nevertheless a curate at heart and his voluminous correspondence attests that he was sought out for his pastoral wisdom, not only in matters of practical action but in spiritual direction as well. Though Newman’s impact on the Second Vatican Council has often been noted, much of what Newman wrote concerning worship, reverence, ritual, and prayer deserves to be brought back into the discussion of post-Conciliar pastoral practice. Indeed, the project Newman set for himself as a young clergyman was to imbue the Anglican Communion with “a ceremonial, a ritual, and a fulness of doctrine and devotion” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua). While much of what Kwasniewski has assembled are texts from Newman’s Anglican years, and of these most are drawn from his Parochial and Plain Sermons, it bears a deeply Catholic spirit throughout.

Elements of Liturgical Style

Newman is known for his great literary quality, his gaudium de stilo—delight in style. Justly, he has been called one of the greatest English stylists to have ever taken up a pen. Newman’s episcopal motto—cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”)evokes the deep feeling, affection, and the profound nature of his prose. Nonetheless, Newman emphasized the objective and indeed succinct nature of public prayers. For example, Newman preached these inspiring words of exhortation regarding the objectivity of liturgical prayer: “Let us compose ourselves, and kneel down quietly as to a work far above us, preparing our minds for our own imperfection in prayer, meekly repeating the wonderful words of the Church our Teacher, and desiring with the Angels to look into them” (23). It was the words of the liturgy itself that deeply shaped and captivated Newman. Nevertheless, it was the action of the liturgy beneath the words that especially enthralled him: “I declare…, to me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming as the Mass, said as it is among us,” Newman writes in his novel Loss and Gain. “I could attend Mass forever and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words—it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble. This is that awful event which is the scope, and is the interpretation, of every part of the solemnity” (386).

As in Newman’s day, so in our own, “instead of using the words of the Church, and [so] speaking to God, men are led to use their own words” (24). While certainly not looking askance on personal prayer from the heart, Newman urges the faithful to allow Holy Mother Church to “speak for us,” to robe “us from head to foot in the garments of righteousness” and so to “form within us the glorious mind of Christ” (25).

Newman preached regularly and therefore commented upon much of the Biblical text having to do with ritual and liturgy. The sermon entitled, “Reverence in Worship,” takes up the “forms of worship—such as bowing the knee, taking off shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress.” These and the like are “considered as necessary for a due approach to God,” even from the standpoint of natural religion (310). While reverence is “one of the marks or notes of the Church,” the world teaches man to be “familiar and free with sacred things” (310), entering the Church “carelessly and familiarly” (311). While Newman opposes the approach of the world, rather than simply adopting rote ritual postures “for their own sake,” he challenges the faithful to keep in mind the fact of being in the very presence of God and so to “allow the forms of piety to come into God’s service naturally” (311). In his sermon on the “Ceremonies of the Church,” Newman comments upon the “great importance of retaining those religious forms to which we are accustomed” (76). Indeed, there is “no such thing as abstract religion” (78).

The following passage calls to mind various remarks of Pope Benedict XVI, a great devotee of Newman’s, in his plea not to fiddle with the outward forms of piety: “Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself. In most minds usage has so identified them with the notion of religion, that the one cannot be extirpated without the other. Their faith will not bear transplanting” (78). Accordingly, “Christ and His Apostles did not even suffer [the rites of Judaism] to be irreverently treated or suddenly discarded” (80).

High Art of Celebration

Finally, in the current discussion of the ars celebrandi and the form that should take, Newman considers how the task of the preacher “differs from the minister of the sacraments” (424). In distinguishing the two, Newman encourages the priest as “minister of the sacraments” to take on the form of Christ the High Priest: “Clad in his sacerdotal vestments, he sinks what is individual in himself altogether, and is but the representative of Him from whom he derives his commission. His words, his tones, his actions, his presence, lose their personality; one bishop, one priest, is like another; they all chant the same notes, and observe the same genuflexions, as they give one peace and one blessing, as they offer one and the same sacrifice” (424–425).

On the other hand, in the context of preaching, the celebrant “resumes himself, and comes to us in the gifts and associations which attach to his person” (425). The prophetic office of the priest comes through and is based upon his deep connection with his flock: “He knows his sheep, and they know him; and it is this direct bearing of the teacher on the taught, of his mind upon their minds, and the mutual sympathy which exists between them, which is his strength and influence when he addresses them. They hang upon his lips as they cannot hang upon the pages of his book. Definiteness is the life of preaching. A definite hearer, not the whole world; a definite topic, not the whole evangelical tradition; and, in like manner, a definite speaker. Nothing that is anonymous will preach; nothing that is dead and gone; nothing even which is of yesterday, however religious in itself and useful” (425).

As Newman’s writings witness, what he passed along to the faithful were the definite things he received from the Lord in prayer and the deep practice of the liturgical life of the Church. Indeed, the continued publication of Newman’s writings attest to this pithy precept: “necessary is it to have something to say, if we desire anyone to listen” (424). Even huddled in the silence of his study, Newman never lacked “something to say.” Undeniably, every page of this collection, drawn together by Dr. Kwasniewski, crackles with verve, style, and relevance for the spiritual life and indeed, the liturgical life. Perhaps the one thing lacking in this already-large volume would be the collection of sermons that Newman preached between 1824 and 1843, Sermons on the Liturgy and Sacraments and on Christ the Mediator (unpublished during Newman’s lifetime, and only recently published for the first time).

Newman in Christ

The “life’s work” of John Henry Newman is described by Pope Benedict XVI “as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter.” This volume draws one into the spirit Newman found in the liturgy: an “experience of the truth of God’s word, of the objective reality of Christian revelation as handed down in the Church” and especially through her liturgy (Pope Benedict XVI, Address at the Prayer Vigil on the Eve of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman). What is on offer in this selection of texts moves the reader to assent to the proposition that the heart of Newman did indeed beat with the spirit of the liturgy—not simply in a cursory way, but rather in ways that became, in Newman’s own words, “deep, and broad, and full.”

  1. Avery Cardinal Dulles, Newman (Outstanding Christian Thinkers) (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), 155.

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, MI, as well as Content Editor for Adoremus. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have three children and live in Lansing, Michigan.