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Newman's Spiritual Legacy to the Catholic Priest

by William R. Lamm, S. M.


This 1945 article by William R. Lamm, S.M., examines John Henry Newman's significant contributions to the priesthood: the example of his priestly life, his defense of the Catholic priesthood, and his doctrine on spiritual life.

Larger Work

American Ecclesiastical Review


277 – 287

Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., October 1945

Of the many services Newman has rendered to priests, there are three that are the most precious: the example of his priestly life, his brilliant defense of the Catholic priesthood, his doctrine on the spiritual life. Each is magnificent, and has a preciousness all its own. The magnificence and preciousness grow greater as the years go by ; they glow with special brilliancy during this centenary year of Newman's conversion to the Catholic Church. The first two will be touched on briefly, and the third developed more fully.

Newman's Priestly Life

From early manhood, one might say, Newman was a priest at heart, even though the grace and powers of the Catholic priesthood were to come to him only in 1847. And the burning zeal of his priestly heart led him into various fields in the fight for Truth and for the salvation of souls, because his priesthood, if it was not the source, was certainly the cause of the development and use of his genius in the work of the Master whom he served so fully and untiringly. As educator, as philosopher, as theologian, as man of letters (in prose and poetry), as director of souls, as historian, as essayist, as apostle of the poor and needy, as Cardinal, he was first and foremost the priest, using his many-sided genius to bring souls to God.1 And to this he added holiness of life, so that, as Cardinal Manning said in his sermon at the London Oratory after Newman's death, "Whether Rome canonizes him or not, he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England." This is Newman's first great service to priests, and his life should be for all a rich source of inspiration, of instruction and of guidance.

His Defense of the Priesthood

The attack by Charles Kingsley, in his review of J. A. Froude's History of England which appeared in Macmillan's Magazine, was primarily an attack on the Catholic priesthood as a whole, although it was pointed specifically at Newman. The opening words are clear: "Truth for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not be, and on the whole ought not to be . . ." Newman understood the nature of the attack, and so did the whole world later on. It is doubtful if Newman would have written his immortal Apologia Pro Vita Sua if he alone had been attacked, but when the Catholic priesthood was in question, the attack could not be allowed to go unanswered, no matter what the cost. And so his defense was most noble, in every sense heroic. The triumph was glorious, complete. He was acclaimed the champion of the Catholic priesthood by his own bishop, by the clergy of the dioceses of Westminster, Birmingham, Beverley, Liverpool and Salford, Hexham, Hobart Town in Tasmania, by the members (laymen) of the Academia of Catholic Religion, and by the Congress of Wurzburg. The testimony of the latter is especially significant: "The undersigned, President of the Catholic Congress of Germany, assembled in Wurzburg, has been commissioned to express to you, Very Rev. and Dear Sir, its deep-felt gratitude for your late able defence of the Catholic Clergy, not only of England, but of the whole world, against the attacks of its enemies."2 And this service to the Catholic priesthood endures.

His Doctrine on the Spiritual Life

The brilliant example of Newman's priestly life, his glorious championing of the Catholic priesthood, are bewildering in their magnitude, and his third great service is equally so. He has bequeathed to us his precious legacy, a legacy of spiritual life. Of all spiritual writers, he has given us perhaps the most illuminating, the richest, the most comprehensive body of doctrine on the sublime truth of the Divine Indwelling. He is truly the master here. He made this doctrine the basis of a true Christian life, of Christian manhood and nobleness, the "well-spring of the Christian's sanctity and the seed of everlasting life." He was convinced that this doctrine would rouse men to a greater appreciation of their privileges, responsibilities, and duties as Christians, that it was a doctrine at once stimulating, persuasive, and consoling. He felt that while it is necessary to insist upon the means (the sacraments and prayer) of fostering the life of God within us, yet it is equally important to fix men's minds upon the end, namely, that very life of God of which man is made a participant. He found in this great mystery the most precious effect and manifestation, the core of God's particular Providence towards man. He believed that the realization of this sublime truth would be man's most efficacious means of surrendering completely to God, of overcoming the various forms of deceit to which man is prone, of enabling him to become entirely sincere and simple, and of gaining, paradoxically, evangelical "childhood" and Christian "manhood."

It is remarkable that Newman while still an Anglican should have developed this illuminating and comprehensive doctrine. He was led to do so because of the peculiar problems he had to face, first, the erroneous teachings on grace and justification by two schools within the Anglican Church, the Evangelical or Protestant school, which taught that our justification is not within us — that grace is not an inward state but merely the imputing of Christ's merits from without, and the Latitudinarian school (including Liberals and Armenians), which taught that our justification is not from God, but is acquired through our own works (the teaching of the Pelagians); and second, what then seemed to him to be the popular teaching in the Catholic Church, namely, that too much insistence was put upon the Christian's part in his salvation, and not enough upon the doctrine of the Divine Indwelling — that this truth was not realized by the great number of the faithful, and that it had little practical influence in their lives.

However, the Divine Indwelling is but one of the several distinct modes of God's presence, all of them related and yet distinct, each having its own value and lessons. There are eight modes or forms of God's presence which are of an abiding nature. Two of the eight belong distinctively and solely to the Old Testament, namely, God's presence in the Pillar of the Cloud and of Fire, and His presence in the Holy of Holies, over the Ark of the Covenant. It is only to the Pillar of the Cloud that Newman refers with any special significance, using it as the original title of his well-known hymn, "Lead, Kindly Light." But the other six modes play an important role in his teachings, and it is necessary to consider all of them in order to grasp the full value of his spiritual legacy.

(1) The presence of God in or to Himself, that is, the Most Blessed Trinity, the Father present to the Son, the Holy Ghost present to the Father and the Son, and each Divine Person present to the others. This presence is eternal. And it is exclusive, that is, no one can enter into the Essence of God, into that mysterious eternal infinite presence. It is true that through the Beatific Vision we shall contemplate that presence, but we cannot enter into it. Through the Divine Indwelling we are made participants of that Divine presence, we are made the temples of the Most Holy Trinity, we live with God's life. This is all mystery, but the greatest reality. This presence is that from which all the others flow. It is to be our life for all eternity. Newman often contemplates this holy presence, and draws from the contemplation many wholesome lessons. In his Lectures on Justification, in his sermons, in his poems, in his Meditations and Devotions, we find numerous apt and beautiful passages. Space will not allow many and long quotations, but two will be given as examples, and references to others noted.

I adore Thee, O my God, as the true and only Light! From Eternity to Eternity, before any creature was, when Thou wast alone, alone but not solitary, for Thou hast ever been Three in One, Thou wast the Infinite Light. There was none to see Thee but Thyself. The Father saw that Light in the Son, and the Son in the Father. . . . Most separate from all creatures is this Thy untreated Brightness. Most glorious, most beautiful, Thy attributes are so many separate and resplendent colours, each as perfect in its own purity and grace as if it were the sole and highest perfection. Nothing created is more than the very shadow of Thee. . . . For me, I cannot even look upon the sun, and what is this but a base material emblem of Thee? and how could I look upon Thee and live? If I were placed in the illumination of Thy countenance, I should shrink up like the grass. O most gracious God, who shall approach Thee, being so glorious, yet how can I keep from Thee?3

Thou alone, my dear Lord, art the food for eternity, and Thou alone. Thou only canst satisfy the soul of man. Eternity would be misery without Thee, even though Thou didst not inflict punishment. To see Thee, to gaze on Thee, to contemplate Thee, this alone is inexhaustible. Thou indeed art unchangeable, yet in Thee there are always more glorious depths and more varied attributes to search into; we shall ever be beginning as if we had never gazed upon Thee. In Thy Presence are torrents of delight, which whoso tastes will never let go. This is my true portion, O my Lord, here and hereafter!4

(2) The second mode of God's presence, distinct in form from the first, is His presence in creation. All that exists outside of God exists because of His presence. In this way God is present to all beings, and in all places. And this presence is identified with God's Providence, and His particular Providence. All that is, all that shall be, is because it came from God and is maintained by His presence. And the traces, the remainders, the proofs of this presence are everywhere.

The Providence of God is one of Newman's favorite themes. We find it everywhere; in his poems, particularly "Lead, Kindly Light," in his sermons, especially "The Powers of Nature" and "A Particular Providence as Revealed in the Gospel," and in his Meditations and Devotions. The following paragraph is probably his finest and the most characteristic on this point:

God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art. He "calls thee by thy name." He sees thee, and understands thee, as He made thee. He knows what is in thee, all thy own peculiar feelings and thoughts, thy dispositions and likings, thy strength and thy weakness. He views thee in thy day of rejoicing, and thy day of sorrow. He sympathizes in thy hopes and thy temptations. He interests Himself in all thy anxieties and remembrances, all the rising and fallings of thy spirit. He has numbered the very hairs of thy head and the cubits of thy stature. He compasses thee round and bears thee in His arms; He takes thee up and sets thee down. He notes thy very countenance, whether smiling or in tears, whether healthful or sickly. He looks tenderly upon thy hands and thy feet; He hears thy voice, the beating of thy heart, and thy very breathing. Thou dost not love thyself better than He loves thee. Thou canst not shrink from pain more than He dislikes thy bearing of it; and if He puts it on thee, it is as thou wilt put it on thyself, if thou are wise, for a greater good afterwards.5

(3) God's presence through conscience. In this way God is present to human beings only, and only to those with the use of reason. It is a narrowing down or limitation of His presence. It is entirely distinct from the first and the second. It is a presence within us. It is in many respects the most intimate, the most personal, the most clearly and universally experienced of all the forms of God's presence. It is a presence that even a child can understand, and no one really denies. Those who have studied Newman know of the role which conscience plays in his teachings, the importance, the paramount importance he attaches to it, for it is the very voice of God speaking to each individually to guide him in right and wrong. It is in a particular way, as Newman clearly shows, that "inward witness" of God's presence in the soul, as well as for the truth of Christianity. The joy of a good conscience is the supreme, the only true joy that man can know in this life, and is his guide to eternal life. "How awful is the prospect of finding myself in the presence of my judge. Yet, O Lord, I would not that Thou shouldst not know me. It is my greatest stay to know that Thou readest my heart. O give me more of that open-hearted sincerity which I have desired. Keep me ever from being afraid of Thy eye, from the inward consciousness that I am not honestly trying to please Thee."6

(4) God's presence in the Church. God is present in this way not to all human beings with the use of reason, but only to those who belong to the Church. It is the presence promised by Christ "Behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world." It is the presence of God as Head of the Mystical Body.

How dearly Newman loved the Church, and grateful he was to be in her fold. How hard he worked and studied and prayed to prove that the Anglican church was part of the true Church. The Oxford Movement, the Tracts for the Times, especially Tract 90, had to do with that. And when he was finally received into the Catholic Church, it was for him "like coming into port," and thereafter, in spite of the aloofness and even suspicion from which he sometimes suffered on the part of fellow-Catholics, he could not but rejoice that he had found God's abiding presence in a new way in His Church. His joy and gratitude led him to be her indomitable champion.

The title of his sermons on the Church are very meaningful: "The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Church," "The Church a Home for the Lonely," "The Church Visible and Invisible," "The Visible Church for the Sake of the Elect," "The Communion of Saints." But his sentiments are perhaps best expressed in the following passages:

I adore Thee, O my Lord, the Third Person of the All-Blessed Trinity, that Thou hast set up in this world of sin a great light upon a hill. Thou hast founded the Church, Thou hast established and maintained it. Thou fillest it continually with Thy gifts, that men may see, and draw near, and take, and live. Thou hast in this way brought down heaven upon earth. For Thou hast set up a great company which Angels visit by that ladder which the Patriarch saw in vision. Thou hast by Thy Presence restored the communion between God above and man below. Thou hast given him that light of grace which is one with and the commencement of the light of glory. I adore and praise Thee for Thy infinite mercy towards us, O my Lord and God.7

I adore Thee, O Almighty Lord, the Paraclete, because Thou in Thy infinite compassion hast brought me into this Church, the work of Thy supernatural power. I had no claim on Thee for so wonderful a favour over any one else in the whole world . . . Yet Thou, in Thy inscrutable love for me, hast chosen me and brought me into Thy fold . . . In the course of time, slowly but infallibly did Thy grace bring me into Thy Church. Now then give me further grace, Lord, to use all this grace well, and to turn it to my salvation. Teach me, make me, to come to the fountains of mercy continually with an awakened eager mind, and with lively devotion. Give me a love of Thy Sacraments and Ordinances. Teach me to value as I ought, to prize as the inestimable pearl, that pardon which again and again Thou givest me, and the great and heavenly gift of the Presence of Him whose Spirit Thou art, upon the Altar. Without Thee I can do nothing, and Thou art where Thy Church is and Thy Sacraments. Give me grace to rest in them for ever, till they are lost in the glory of Thy manifestation in the world to come.8

(5) God's presence in the Holy Eucharist. This distinctive presence is more limited than that of God's presence in the Church, for only at Mass or where the Sacred Species are reserved is God present in this marvellous way. It is a presence that is localized, and is dependent upon the accidents, the physical qualities of the Sacred Species. It is the unbloody renewal and commemoration of the Sacrifice of Calvary through which the Divine Life was restored to the human race, and it is the Food through which that Life is nourished. It is a sacrament, a sacrament of the living.

How beautiful and great was Newman's love and awe for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This is manifest in his remarkable Anglican Sermons such as "The Daily Service," "The Eucharistic Presence," "Attendance on Holy Communion," and "The Gospel Feast." It finds a truer and richer expression in his Catholic writings. Read that magnificent page in the sermon "Omnipotence in Bonds," or this paragraph, taken from the immortal "The Second Spring": "You, who day by day offer up the Immaculate Lamb of God, you who hold in your hands the Incarnate Word under the visible tokens which He has ordained, you who again and again drain the chalice of the Great Victim; who is to make you fear? what is to startle you? what to seduce you? who is to stop you, whether you are to suffer or to do, whether to lay the foundations of the Church in tears, or to put the crown upon the work in jubilation?"9

(6) God's presence in the soul, through the Divine Indwelling. God is present in this way in only those souls who are in the state of grace. This is a mystery as great as that of the Holy Eucharist, but the words of Christ, "If anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him" are as unequivocal as "This is My Body," "This is My Blood." As a lover yearns to be in the company of the beloved as continually or as often as possible, so God remains with His beloved creatures not only under the same roof or in a nearby church, but in the very soul of each and every one who loves Him. The Blessed Sacrament is a means of nourishing the Divine Life within in the soul, and the possession of that Divine Life is the end of man's creation, the cause and the center, after God's glory, of the whole economy of the creation and redemption. Our Lord said: "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly." Even those who cannot receive Holy Communion can still possess this Divine Life in their souls.

Moreover, without this Divine Life in the soul, a man cannot receive the Holy Eucharist worthily and with benefit, and he may even flee from or avoid the Presence of God in this Holy Sacrament; he becomes a dead member of the Church, his conscience upbraids him, so that he may try to still it, or kill it, or like Adam, would hide away from God ; the thought of God's presence in creation brings him no comfort or delight, and may even lead him to deny that there is a God; and without that Divine presence in his soul in this world, no man can enjoy the ineffable presence of the Most Holy Trinity for all eternity.

Some Catholics, when speaking of the state of grace, speak of it as something negative, namely, as not having mortal sin on the soul; they do not speak, they do not think, they do not know (in many cases) of that sublime positive aspect of God's grace, the Divine Indwelling. Men will tip their hats when passing in front of a church, or will drop in for a visit, genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, keep a reverential silence and attitude there, but they do not think of making visits to God dwelling in their own souls, really and truly, whom they can visit at any time, in any place, under all circumstances. And how seldom do priests think of this, or teach it to their people — priests, who are called "Father" by the faithful because they "beget" souls to this spiritual life and nourish that life through the sacraments.


This then is Newman's third great service to priests, to remind them of the sublime truth of the Divine Indwelling, and by his masterful teachings on it to help them in their own meditations, and in giving it to others. Space allows for only the following brief outline of the main features of his teaching.10

I. Newman's profound awe at the contemplation of this mystery, and his deep gratitude for it. The following passages best expressed this:

My God, I adore Thee, O Eternal Paraclete, the light and life of my soul. Thou mightest have been content with merely giving me good suggestions, inspiring grace and helping from without. Thou mightest thus have led me on, cleansing me with Thy inward virtue, when I changed my state from this world to the next. But in Thine infinite compassion Thou hast from the first entered into my soul, and taken possession of it. Thou hast made it Thy Temple. Thou dwellest in me by Thy grace in an ineffable way, uniting me to Thyself and the whole company of angels and saints. Nay — Thou hadst taken possession of my very body, this earthly, fleshly, wretched tabernacle — even my body is Thy Temple. O astonishing, awful truth! I believe it, I know it, O my God!11

What a thought is this, a thought almost too great for our faith! Scarce can we refrain from acting Sarah's part, when we bring it before us, so as to "laugh" from amazement and perplexity. What is man, what are we, what am I, that the Son of God should be so mindful of me? What am I, that He should have raised me from almost a devil's nature to that of an Angel's? that He should have changed my soul's original constitution, new-made me, who from my youth up have been a transgressor, and should Himself dwell personally in this heart of mine, making me His Temple? What am I, that God the Holy Ghost, should enter into me and draw up my thoughts heavenward "with plaints unutterable?"12

II. The points of doctrine which Newman stressed

A. Our righteousness is:

1. Inward, that is, it is actually in man; it is not without an "inward change"; it does not dispense with personal effort.
2. A gift.

B. Our righteousness is the very indwelling of the Holy Trinity. The Divine presence and grace, though distinct, cannot be separated in the soul, and it is a mistake to separate them in our thoughts.

III. The office and manifestations of the Divine Indwelling

A. The completion in the soul of the work of Christ the Saviour.

1. The work of purification.
2. The implanting of good will.
3. The impressing of the Divine image on the soul.

B. The Divine presence manifests itself by continual prayer.

1. It fixes the mind on God.
2. It raises the mind to Christ.
3. It bestows peace.
4. It creates and fosters sympathy for others.
5. It leads to sincerity and simplicity.

IV. Newman's special views of the Divine Indwelling:

A. It is the most precious effect and manifestation, the centre and heart of "particular Providence."

B. The "realizing" of the Divine Indwelling is the surest means of overcoming or counteracting "hypocrisy" (the manifold deceit to which man is prone), and of "surrendering" completely and unconditionally to God through sincerity and simplicity.

Let us conclude this article with a Newman prayer that is especially meaningful for priests:

"Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest; so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from Thee. None of it will be mine. No merit to me. It will be Thou who shinest through me upon others. O let me thus praise Thee, in the way which Thou dost love best, by shining on all those around me. Give light to them as well as to me; light them with me, through me. Teach me to show forth Thy praise, Thy truth, Thy will. Make me preach Thee without preaching — not by words, but by my example and by the catching force, the sympathetic influence, of what I do — by my visible resemblance to Thy saints, and the evident fullness o f the love which my heart bears to Thee."13

End Notes

  1. Cf. my article "The Many-Sided Genius of Newman," The American Ecclesiastical Review, XCII, 6 (Dec. 1937), pp. 581-86. It is difficult to understand why some eminent Catholic priests should criticize Newman as not interested in the social welfare of his people. Perhaps they have never read Bishop Ullathorne's eloquent testimony as reproduced in the Apologia (New York and London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1905) pp. 368 ff.; or have never heard of Newman's heroic work among the poor of Birmingham and during the epidemic.
  2. These public testimonies are reproduced in the appendix of the Apologia, pp. 372-79.
  3. Meditations and Devotions (New York and London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1893), pp. 363 f.
  4. Ibid., p. 328. Cf. also pp. 327, 417 f.; "The Dream of Gerontius" (Verses on Various Occasions [New York and London: Burns and Oates, 1883], pp. 319-70); and Parochial and Plain Sermons (London, Oxford and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1868), Vol. VI, Sermon XXIV, "The Mystery of the Holy Trinity."
  5. Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 124 f. Cf. also Meditations and Devotions, pp. 299 ff., 420 ff.
  6. Meditations and Devotions, pp. 418 f. Cf. also Parochial and Plain Sermons, VIII, 112 f.; and Sermons on Various Occasions (New York and London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1900), p. 74.
  7. Meditations and Devotions, pp. 398 f.
  8. Ibid., pp. 399 f. (italics mine). Cf. also the "Prayer for a Happy Death" (ibid., p. 290).
  9. Sermons on Various Occasions, p. 181. Cf. also the beautiful prayer in Meditations and Devotions, p. 352.
  10. For a more complete treatment of the subject cf. Lamm, S.M., The Spiritual Legacy of Newman (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1934.)
  11. Meditations and Devotions, p. 401.
  12. Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 125 f.
  13. Meditations and Devotions, p. 401.
  14. Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 125 f.

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