John C. Reville
From December 18, 1909
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Men of different temperaments and creeds, Gladstone and Wiseman, Dean Church and Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, Shairp, Mozley and James A. Froude have borne testimony to the lasting effect produced upon them by the sermons of Cardinal Newman. The St. Mary's sermons stirred Oxford to its depths. The Catholic discourses showed no less of power; there was a gain even in breadth and warmth of feeling. These masterpieces are today a storehouse of spiritual energy, a mine seamed with lodes and veins of purest gold.

Yet John Henry Newman was not an orator. He lacked many of the physical qualities, some perhaps of the mental and emotive endowments generally attributed to the wizards of the spoken word. The sermons were usually read. There was little action, the voice, was weak, the manner slightly constrained--some have called it awkward. But as Gladstone wrote, taking the man as a whole, " here was a stamp and a seal upon him; there was a solemn sweetness and music in the tone, there was a completeness in the figure which made his delivery singularly attractive." What was the stamp and seal, what was the attraction?

In every speaker certain elements ultimately determine and gain success. A commanding personality; sound, noble ideas, even if not highly originai; the gift of exposition, coupled with a persuasive charm of style that wins the heart, never fail. Of these qualifications, the first is undoubtedly the most essential. Without it intellect, genius has failed; with it alone, the less gifted have wrought marvels. That commanding personality Newman had in the highest degree. To all who saw him at St. Mary's, or later as priest or cardinal, his presence in the pulpit must have been an inspiration. At Oxford he was the spirit of unworldliness personified, the embodiment of principle, a voice crying out: "Make straight the paths," the Atlas who bore on his shoulders the weight of the world groaning with a new life. Later when he spoke, with the authoritative voice of a priest of the Catholic Church, there was a nobler seal upon him. He had a right to speak of God, of Conscience, of Justice, of Truth. He had suffered in their cause. For them he had breasted the icy tides of sorrow; for them he had groped disconsolate amid the encircling gloom. He could point the way of Faith; that Faith had ever been his guiding star. He could call men to holiness and humility; for pride and worldliness he had ever loathed. The man's saintly life, the sacrifices he had made, the sorrows which had waylaid his path, his chivalrous loyalty to Truth and Principle, shone from his brow, spoke in conquering accents on his lips. He dwelt on those serene heights, where he saw life's rounded orb as God wants us to see it. To use a phrase of the Schoolmen he viewed that life, not, "sub specie temporis," not from the standpoint of time--too often distorted--but "sub specie aternitatis," from the standpoint of eternity. Hence the recurrence of a few leading thoughts in ever new, original and striking form, the organ-like undertone of his sweet and solemn music.

A sermon on "Human Responsibility" weaves together in one sentence ideas which seem to have mastered him. "It has always been the office of Religion to protest against the sophistry of Satan and to preserve the memory of those truths which the unbelieving heart corrupts, both the freedom and responsibility of man, the sovereignty of the Creator, the supremacy of the law of conscience within us." Ideas such as this, especially the idea of the Creator's supreme dominion over us, the Creator's right to rule His rational creatures by ways and means and an economy of His own choosing, are the very warp and woof, the core, the central theme of the sermons.

Consequent to this is the concept of that visible Kingdom of Christ on earth towards whose dimly-seen border-land he groped so long, but the sight of which gladdened at last his straining eyes, that Kingdom "coming to us from the very time of the Apostles, spreading out in all lands, triumphant over a thousand revolutions, exhibiting an awful unity, glorying in a mysterious vitality, so majestic, so imperturbable, so bold, so saintly, so sublime, so beautiful." To extend that Kingdom, to make the followers of the King less worldly, more knightly, was his dream.

To press home these thoughts Newman had some peculiar gifts. In the pulpit, he evidently felt ill at ease before those broad, general questions common to some even of the great preachers. He narrows his field. He selects a very limited, a circumscribed subject. "Forms of Private Prayer," "The Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion," "The State of Grace," "Religious Emotion," "Secret Faults," "Perseverance in Grace," "Intellect the Instrument of Religious Training," "Neglect of Divine Calls and Warnings," such are the subjects he prefers. Generalizations he could handle brilliantly, but these practical subjects suit his apostolic purpose better. His subject thus chosen and fenced in between the limits of this narrow but not barren field, he fastens upon one or two central thoughts, with one end in view, to make his audience not merely understand but realize them.

Here lies his power. He flashes the subject before you as on a screen. He seems at the same time to be thinking your thoughts, evoking the subject out of your own heart and soul, realizing it with you and for you. So true is the artist's stroke, there is such sureness of outline and brilliancy of coloring, that the canvas once painted never fades. That power is heightened by the use of apt and telling illustration. No one understands better the art of building windows into the solid structure of discourse, through whose spacious openings his clear intellect pours its white lambent beams. Add the cumulative effect of his work, for we see the marble shaft of thought capped block by block before our eyes. Steadily he moves on "with extreme orderliness, masterly elaboration and unchecked progress" to the foreseen, predetermined end.

Newman's gifts of persuasion are no less remarkable. How characteristic his motto: "Cor ad cor loquitur," "Heart winneth heart!" He had an unerring insight into the state of mind, the views, the prejudices of his hearers. Walter Bagehot describes him as "a consummate master of the difficulties of the creeds of other men." With the instinct of the dramatic poet he could project himself into the moods, the feelings, the temperament of his fellows. He possessed the magic "Open Sesame," which unlocks the secret chambers of the soul. His diagnosis is faultless, relentless; but there is a pathetic tenderness, a restrained emotion which finally beats down the hearer's guard and wins him. The sermons, if the comparison be allowed, have something of the slow, silent, all-conquering power of grace.

One factor of that power is the style. His style is stamped with a note of urbanity to be found in the same degree in very few of the great English writers. Yet its rich texture is shot through and through with bits of solid homespun. For that style is idiomatic, familiar, colloquial; it is never crude or clumsy. It is individual, but it is neither manneristic nor odd. It is sufficiently emphatic, yet mindful of proportion and reserve. "It employs," says Mr. Birrell, "a vast vocabulary and it does so with the ease of the educated gentleman, who by a sure instinct ever avoids alike the ugly pedantry of the book-worm, the forbidding accents of the lawyer, and the stiff conceit of the man of scientific theory." It addresses the intellect, and it sounds its message full and clear; it appeals to the imagination and it glows with color to the heart, and it has pathos and tenderness, sometimes a compelling, resistless power.

The traveler standing before the frescoes of Fra Angelico, feels what the canvases of Raphael or Rubens can never inspire. On the stainless, untroubled brows of those Madonnas, in the eyes of that radiant company of saints and angels buoyant with immortal life, he reads the beauty and splendor of a soul adorned with sanctifying grace. In reading the sermons of John Henry Newman, we listen not merely to a clear and lofty intellect, we not only catch the strains of a great prose-poet and master of melody, we hear the very heart-throbs of a pure and saintly soul.

John C. Reville, S.J., was an associate editor at America and author of