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Newman on the Conversion of St. Paul.

By Bertrand de Margerie. S.J.

Newman preached on the conversion of St Paul. These sermons help us to understand how and why, in Newman's eyes, his own conversion was analogous; so similar and so different.

'Paul's conversion was a triumph over the enemy', as Newman observes (PPS II, 97). The persecutor was converted. Newman never saw himself as a persecutor of the Catholic Church, during his Anglican years. Even when he tells us that Paul's conversion was 'an expressive emblem of the nature of God's general dealings with the race of man: what are we all but rebels and enemies of the Truth' (PPS II, 98), we know that he would not think about his Anglican period in those terms: he even went so far as to say that he had never sinned against light.

However, he also stresses the fact that Paul 'underwent no radical change of religious principle'. The later Newman would also uphold this view about himself: he developed his Christian doctrine in a Catholic sense, as Paul had developed his Judaism in Christianity. Just as Paul's 'strange conversion' (PPS II, 101) 'constituted a peculiar preparation for the office of preaching to a lost world, dead in sin', so an older Newman would recognise that his own intellectual odyssey from evangelical Christianity to Rome had prepared him to address himself to searchers of truth inside a liberal world. He would call, if not always 'sinners to repentance', at least uncertain minds to a full Christian faith and conviction. Just as Paul's conversion 'wrought in him a profound humility, which disposed him to bear meekly the abundance of revelations given him', (ibid., 101) so Newman's humble and humiliating conversion disposed him to greet inside the Catholic Church the abundance of Christ's full revelation and to help others greet it; he would become, like Paul, 'an earthly paraclete, the comforter, help and guide of his brethren' (101).

For Newman, Paul's previous sins 'rendered him more fitted, when converted, to reclaim others' (102). Both the Pharisees, breakers of the Law, and the Gentile reasoners were proud and despised the voice of conscience. Though Paul's sin was very great because he certainly might have learned from the Old Testament far clearer and more divine doctrine than the tradition of the Pharisees, yet as he erred in ignorance, following closely his own notion of right and wrong, though these notions were mistaken, he was not left by the God of all grace. God led him to the light in spite of errors in faith, as he continued strictly to obey what he believed to be his will.

To declare this comfortable truth to us, Paul was brought into the light by a miracle that we may learn what He ever does, though He does not in ordinary cases thus declare it openly to the world (105-106).

This sermon, delivered before 1836 and not modified by Newman after he became a Catholic, seems to foreshadow his permanent and future understanding of God's ways in his later evolution. In spite of some errors resulting from his Anglican formation, Newman was brought into a greater light so that we all might learn what the divine illuminator of our consciences always does. The conclusion of this sermon prepares us to understand with Newman himself his 1845 adherence to the Catholic Church (106).

Who has not felt a fear lest he be wandering from the true doctrine of Christ? Let him cherish and obey the holy light of conscience within him, as Saul did; let him carefully study the Scriptures, as Saul did not; and the God who had even mercy on the persecutor of His saints will assuredly shed His grace upon him and bring him in to the truth as it is in Jesus.

Newman obeyed the light of conscience, leading him to study the prolongation of the New Testament contained in the history of the first five centuries of Christianity. Such a study required in the circumstances of his life, time and age, a moral miracle, an extraordinary supernatural grace of the risen Christ: so Newman was brought into the fulness of truth that is - to express it in Paulinian terms - this plenitude of Jesus which we call the Church (Eph 1:23). So we can say that preaching before 1836, on the conversion of Paul to Christ, Newman was already unconsciously preparing his Anglican listeners to understand his 1845 Roman conclusions.

More than twenty years after this sermon, more than ten years after his reception into the Catholic Church and in the security of its doctrinal judgements (securus judicat orbis terrarum), Newman preached again in the context of the feast of Paul's conversion, in Dublin. The general topic was "Paul's gift of sympathy'. In this 1857 sermon Newman stressed a point not mentioned in his previous homily:

Paul was one of these Twelve who were the special High Priests of the New Testament, who sit on the thrones as judges of the people (Sermons on Various Occasions, 1904 ed., p.110).

To understand better the importance and permanent meaning of this statement in Newman's mind, let us turn to another pre-1836 sermon on the Christian ministry (PPS, II, 303ff.). The Apostles, says Newman, were anointed with the gift of the Holy Ghost for the same ministerial offices: Christ is a Prophet, so were the Apostles, Christ is a Priest, forgiving sin; the Apostles, too, had this power, and Christ is a King, as ruling the Church; and the Apostles rule in his stead. Inside this triple office,

Newman insists not on the missions of teaching and ruling, but on the 'ministry of reconciliation'. Newman clearly states his thought: 'by a Priest, in a Christian sense, is meant an appointed channel, one who has power to apply to individuals those gifts which Christ has promised us generally as the fruit of His mediation' (305); 'the power of remitting and retaining sins was committed to the Apostles without restriction, the grant was unconditional and left to their Christian discretion' (307); the gift of reconciliation is not one of the extraordinary gifts given to the Apostles only, not to their successors, but one of the ordinary gifts given through the Apostles also to their successors. From the context it seems that Newman was not thinking about the sacrament of Penance, but about Baptism. He underlines (PPS II, 311) that Paul was justified not by faith only, but by the baptism given by Ananias: 'an especial revelation was made to Ananias, lest Saul should go without baptism'. So the intention of Newman here is to stress that sacraments are not only seals but also channels of grace, and Christ does not send his witnesses without the instrumentality of a minister. Here Newman's conviction is clear:

though Christ has purchased inestimable blessings for our race, it is still necessary ever to apply them to individuals by visible means (311).

This early conviction about the existence of a living authority of, and in, the Church would lead him to Rome.

It would lead him also to be, like Paul, 'indignant at the sight of divisions inside the Christian body'. Like Paul, Newman saw these divisions 'not only as injurious to (the) Saviour, but as an offence against that common nature which gives us one and all a right to the title of men' (Var. 0cc., 117). For both of them 'the unity of human nature was recognised and restored in Jesus Christ' (ibid.). Newman perceived the teaching of Paul: through faith in the unique and universal church, we deepen our understanding of the unity of the human race and nature, perfectly unified in this unique and universal Church.

Newman, recognising the unique character of Paul's conversion, wanted his own conversion to reproduce its imitable aspects; their conversions humiliated both of them, already humble by God's gift before; converted, both became earthly paracletes consoling and saving a lost world; both received the power of forgiving sins; both received, as a fruit of conversion, the grace of being indignant at the sight of divisions inside mankind and inside the Church and both (PPS IV sermon 9) were conscious of being the objects of a particular providence of God.

This article first appeared in the April 2000 issue of The Month.

Newman about Mary, Mother of God.

By Bertrand de Margerie. S.J.

We can contemplate with Cardinal Newman the Virgin Mary as earthly co-operator of our redeemer, as our earthly mediatrix and as our heavenly advocate. We can ask ourselves how he would react today to the petitions of millions of Catholics, including numerous Bishops, asking Pope John Paul to define as dogma the Mother of God, Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix and Advocate of mankind.

At first sight it would seem that Newman, avoiding the signature of any petition, would have rejected any affirmation contending that Mary was co-redemptrix if this word was understood as meaning purely and simply redemptrix: this is what he rejects in his Sermon Notes. In a more general way he would have desired, as in the case of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, a consultation of the Catholic world (Ker, 478). He would think today, as in 1854, that such a definition by the Pope would be valid and licit, but extraordinary. He would add that it would be later received by a Council, the normal mode of deciding points of faith and in that sense Newman was a prophet: Vatican II received and proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (LG 56). But Newman, today, as indicated in a letter of his to Pusey, would not promise us that there would be no further dogmatic definitions about Mary, because the Spirit blows as he wills and one cannot bind over the Holy Ghost to keep ecumenical peace (Ker, pp.571, 610, 651).

Today, Newman might be more sensitive than he was at the time of his letter to the mention of the name of Mary in the Latin Mass. He would underline the fact that since the fifth century, no Mass is ever celebrated in the western or eastern Christian world without the mention of the name of Mary. This fact, indeed, corresponds to an affirmation of Mary as coredemptrix, mediatrix and advocate, doctrines which he clearly held and expressed in the same letter to Pusey, and which we will now look at more closely.

Co-operation in salvation

Newman receives the witness of the second century Fathers from Asia Minor, Africa, Rome and France: he listens to the voice of Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, telling us that Mary was not a mere instrument in the Incarnation, like David. On the contrary they declare that she co-operated in our salvation, not merely by the descent of the Holy Ghost on her body but by specific holy acts, the effect of the Holy Ghost within her soul. The Fathers tell us that as Eve was a cause of ruin to all, Mary was a cause of salvation to all; as Eve co-operated in effecting a great evil, Mary co-operated in effecting a much greater good.

Newman sums up his thought in the following beautiful affirmation: 'She co-operated in the salvation of the world'. He thinks that the book of Genesis, chapter 3 with its promise of a saviour linked with a woman and chapter 12 of the book of Revelation reveal such a mission of the salvific cooperation of Mary.

True, Newman stresses the incommunicable greatness of Our Lord alone in his death and passion. alone in the garden, alone upon the cross, alone in the resurrection, and gives us to understand that we wound Mary if we deny this incommunicable greatness of Christ as God in relation to her, a pure creature. Newman admitted that he hated the perverse doctrine attributing to Mary the part that belonged to Christ only in the mystery of the Redemption. However, as Francis Davis explains, Newman deepens the meaning of the mysterious words of Christ to his Mother at Cana: 'Woman, what have I to do with thee?' These words are interpreted by Newman, (Dif 1:11, 149) as an indication to his Mother at the beginning of his public ministry hinting that until its end (SD, 39-6) when he should have to do with his Mother again, until the consummation of the Paschal mystery, she could not participate directly in his works. Nevertheless, she could suffer and pray and offer these sufferings and prayers for his members. In other words, Davis believes that for Newman, Mary interiorly co-operated, through the offering of her sufferings and prayers, in the redemption of the world. This means that such an offering (so frequently mentioned by John Paul II) constituted a 'specific holy act of co-operation with our salvation'. To express it in a different way, in Newman's thought, Mary's co-operation was secret and mysterious before being publicly and officially manifested in the Church. At Cana 'he had seemed to turn from his Mother's prayer, while he granted it' (SD, 37).


This co-operation of Mary in the salvation of the world implies her mediation of prayer. Newman quotes Basil of Seleucia as saying that 'Mary mediates between God and man'; much more than the other saints, much more than the martyrs, 'she shines out above as the sun above the stars'. From the Greek Fathers and liturgies he has received a high idea of Mary: 'Morning star, mother of all living, mother of life itself'. This is the reason, linked with her divine maternity, why her prayer is so powerful for the redemption of the world. Her office in the Church is one of 'perpetual intercession for the faithful.'. While the serpent's weapon lies in being the tempter, this weapon of the second Eve and mother of God is prayer. For Newman, the mediation of her intercessory power is symbolised in those representations of her with uplifted hands, still extant in Rome.

So Cardinal Newman follows the thought of Irenaeus about Mary as being our earthly mediatrix and our heavenly advocate, advocate of Eve, advocate of the Church, advocate of each one of us. He remains impressed by the fact that through Eastern liturgies seventy million Christians offer petitions in the name of the Theotokos. He is also impressed by other doctrinal facts coming from the West: the mother of Our Lord intercedes for those Christians who do not know her. He quotes St Alphonsus Liguori with approval: 'God gives no grace except through Mary'. that is, 'through her intercession'. He even quotes Suarez saying that the intercession of Mary is not only useful but necessary; but it is the question of her intercession, not of our invocation of her, nor of our devotion to her.

Such is the doctrine of Cardinal Newman about the mother of God's co-operation with our salvation, about her mediation of the graces we receive, about her intercession as advocate in our favour. Like her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, this doctrine is implied in the second century affirmation of Mary as the new Eve.

We can sum him up by quoting the fourth-century archbishop, St Proclus of Constantinople: Mary is:

the golden altar of holocaust, God's only bridge to man: run through all creation in your thoughts and see if there be equal or greater than the Holy Virgin, Mother of the God (Essay on Development, ch. IV, sect. II § 11).

Is this doctrine considered by Newman as having undergone a growth? His negative answer has to be understood and explained. It has been in substance one and the same from the beginning (Di ang, II, 79). This means that when the Gospels and the anteNicene Fathers call her the 'Mother of Jesus' everything is said implicitly. However in the Essay on Development, Newman admits that 'in the first ages there was no ecclesiastical recognition of the place which Mary holds in the economy of grace: this was reserved for the fifth-century (Ephesus)'.

Growth in expression

So we admit with Newman that the doctrine about Mary's salvific co-operation, mediation and intercession, though remaining one and the same in substance, in its roots, has undergone a growth in its expression: the Greek Fathers of the fifth-century are more explicit about this mediation than the Gospels and Irenaeus. The objective growth corresponds to the subjective increase of St Mary in the reception and in the study of truth, beautifully described in the fifteenth Oxford University Sermon: the Church, as Mary:

pondering in her heart does not think it enough to accept the truth, she dwells upon it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit to reason, she reasons upon it. Not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence reasoning after believing... Thus she symbolises to us not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the Doctors of the Church also: 'Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart' (Lk 2:51).

If the Church defines dogmatically the Mother of God's privileged co-operation with the only redeemer, in the work of atonement, as well as her mediation of intercession, Newman would help us with his writings and examples, still more by his own prayer, to perceive the foundations, the exact meaning, limits and finalities of such definitions without maximisation but with a legitimate minimisation, and we would find in his works materials to defend and promote these doctrines. Newman would tell us about these eventual Mariological definitions in the same way that he wrote about Papal infallibility before it was defined:

if the Church says anything about it, it will be so strictly worded, with such safeguards, conditions, limitations, as will add as little as possible to what is now held (Sept. 28, 1869).

In his 1849 discourses to mixed congregations, Newman concludes with these words:

In thee, O Mary, is fulfilled an original purpose of the Most High. He once had meant to come on earth in heavenly glory. But we sinned. And then he could not safely visit us, except with a shrouded radiance and a bedimmed majesty, for he is God. So he came himself in weakness, not in power. And he sent this creature in his stead, with a creature's comeliness and lustre to suit our state.

This article first appeared in the May 2000 issue of The Month.

Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Fr. Bertrand de Margerie 2000.

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