What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?” asks the Catechism of the Catholic Church (479).
This luminous truth has been dimmed amid a yearlong parade of scandal that continues to exert a powerful gravitational force on many Catholics, tempting them to leave the Body of Christ as the flood of revelations seems too much to bear.
All the more reason, then, to welcome a summer of saints. We celebrate Pope Francis’ announcement that Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman will be canonized with four others Oct. 13, and we rejoice in the Pope’s formal approval of a miracle attributed to the intercession of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, paving the way for his beatification. The date had not been announced at press time.
Courageous and prescient in their reading of the signs of the times, these two Church leaders employed their extraordinary gifts to transmit the faith, serve the faithful, and condemn moral relativism and other powerful ideologies that erode religious belief and practice. And though many prominent evangelists have been corrupted by their celebrity, these famed holy, humble men stayed firmly anchored to Christ through a life of prayer, the sacraments and devoted service to the needy.
Born in London in 1801, Newman rose to become one of the most influential Anglican clergyman of his time, as the chief organizer of the Oxford Movement. He sought to deepen the Catholic elements of the Church of England, but his writings eventually crossed a line, and he was censured. He soon converted to Catholicism in 1845 and was ordained a priest two years later.
Entering the Church during a time of intense anti-Catholic animus in Britain, he knew what his conversion would mean and was not deterred — even his sister turned her back on him.
“I have my mission,” he wrote, saying that God “has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do his work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place … if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling” (Meditations and Devotions, 301-2).
The author of some of the most important Catholic texts in the English language, Newman had intellectual gifts that were matched by his charitable service to the poor in the city of Birmingham — a legacy that brought 15,000 mourners to his funeral in 1890.
During his homily at the 2010 Mass that marked Newman’s beatification, Pope Benedict XVI singled out his writings and sermons on the Christian call to holiness through an ever-deepening relationship with the Lord.
“Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, or ‘Heart speaks unto heart,’ gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the heart of God. He reminds us that faithfulness to prayer gradually transforms us into the divine likeness,” said the Pope.
Benedict also highlighted the relevance of Newman’s writings on the “relationship between faith and reason” and the “need for a broadly based and wide-ranging approach to education.”
Newman’s conception of education embraced an integrated vision of Christian life in which faith and reason work in unison and students absorb the lessons of history that confirm the need for inconvenient moral truths that protect a universal common good. An authentic Catholic education, he believed, would help prepare the faithful for a coming age of apostacy and persecution, when their courage and fortitude would be tested to the breaking point.
As Newman himself put it: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it” (The Present Position of Catholics in England, ix, 390).
Fulton Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois, in 1895, almost a century after Cardinal Newman’s birth. Still, he shared both the British Catholic’s alarm at the steady encroachment of moral relativism and his commitment to prayer and charity. “Only those who live by faith really know what is happening in the world,” said Sheen.
After his ordination in 1919, he taught at The Catholic University of America and led the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. His talents as an author and speaker were quickly recognized, and his popular television show, Life Is Worth Living, brought him national fame in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1966, he was named bishop of Rochester, New York.
Bishop Sheen used his national pulpit on television to warn against the totalitarian lie of communism. Likewise, he spoke out against the rise of a therapeutic culture. Modern psychology, he argued, had downplayed personal responsibility and resisted moral judgments.
While some contend America “is suffering from intolerance — it is not,” Sheen tartly observed. “It is suffering from tolerance. Tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded.”
His acute guidance to fellow priests was equally spot-on.
“The only defense against acedia, against the tragic loss of divine reality, is a daily renewal of faith in Christ,” he wrote in one book, The Priest Is Not His Own. “The priest who has not kept near the fires of the tabernacle can strike no sparks from the pulpit.”
The televangelist followed his own advice and began his day with an hour before the Eucharist. Members of his New York household have also recalled his many acts of charity. After finding a man on the street who suffered from leprosy, for example, Sheen organized medical treatment and other assistance, and then he invited the man for weekly Friday night dinners.
His ability to make such commitments reflected a striking simplicity of life. But it was also the fruit of his deep relationship with the Lord, the servant of the servants, who suffered and died for the salvation of the world. “We have a God,” said Archbishop Sheen, “who stumbled to his throne.”
Those words are a fitting reminder today for a suffering Church, in need of forgiveness, healing and greater faith in the Risen Lord, to take heart in the witness of the triumph of God. We must celebrate the causes of these two holy priests who, despite temptations and challenges equal to those we encounter today, made their earthly pilgrimages a light for others.
Blessed John Henry Newman and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, intercede for us.