The Model Priest for a Church in Crisis

In his spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua, Blessed John Henry Newman informs us: “When I was fifteen (in the autumn of 1816), a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.” We also learn that, at the same time, he perceived a vocation to the priesthood—and to celibacy, which was a rather uncommon conviction in the Anglicanism of his day. So began Newman’s path to the holy priesthood—and to sainthood, which reaches its apex on October 13 with his canonization in Rome.

As Newman was ever the realist, it’s well that we begin this study of his views on the priesthood with his Discourse 3 to Mixed Congregations, with its very realistic title, “Men, not Angels, the Priests of the Gospel.” He explains the divine rationale:

Had Angels been your Priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can… Therefore did [Christ] send you men to be the ministers of reconciliation and intercession.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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This is a healthy corrective for those who expect priests to be sinless, all the while making excuses for their own failings. However, this is not an excuse for a less-than-exemplary life on the part of priests; it simply sets the ecclesial context for the priestly ministry.

Newman took seriously the adage Ecclesia semper reformanda—the Church is always in need of reform. Moreover, he knew that, if reform were to succeed, priests had to be in the vanguard. We in the clerical ranks may, therefore, draw upon his sage counsel: “It is plain every great change is effected by the few, not by the many; by the resolute, undaunted, zealous few.” We may follow his example: “shunning all intemperate words, let us show our light before men by our works.” And those of our brother priests who have attained the ranks of the episcopacy would do well to remember that “calculation never made a hero.”

All of us who serve Holy Mother Church in this time of crisis—ordained and lay alike—ought to bear in mind his warning:

She fights and she suffers, in proportion as she plays her part well; and if she is without suffering, it is because she is slumbering. Her doctrines and precepts never can be palatable to the world; and if the world does not persecute, it is because she does not preach.

The Oxford Movement, of which Newman was a leader, sought to return to Anglicanism the many Catholic elements that had been put aside at the Reformation. Front and center in the program was a concern for the Sacred Liturgy. Taking head-on the assertion that Christian worship ought to be “simple” and that splendor in worship is contrary to the will of Our Lord, he declares:

This is what He condemned, the show of great attention to outward things, while inward things, which were more important, were neglected. This, He says Himself, in His denunciation of the Pharisees, “These ought ye to have done,” He says, “and not to leave the other,” the inward, “undone.”

To those who claim to be “spiritual,” he warns that, by praying in their own way, “they end in not praying at all.” Last but by no means least, he issues a warning many of the would-be liturgists of the 1970s would have done well to heed: “Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason… being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls.”

Many observers have also noted the uncanny prophetic quality of Newman’s writings. If he ever showed himself the realist, it was on October 2, 1873, when he was invited to preach on what should have been a joyous occasion: the opening of the first seminary in England since the Reformation. The title of the sermon was “The Infidelity of the Future”; to say that the future cardinal rained on their parade would be an understatement. After tipping his biretta in the direction of the momentous nature of the happy event, Newman spent the rest of his time proffering a series of dizzying predictions of what those seminarians would face in the coming years of their priestly ministry.

He referred to the “perilous times” which he saw on the horizon—“the special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity,” by which he meant living without any sense of a transcendental horizon. One might ask, Wasn’t there always unbelief in one form or another throughout history? Well, not really. As Newman explained, “Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious.” Then, addressing the seminarians directly, he warned: “My Brethren, you are coming into a world, if present appearances do not deceive, such as priests never came into before, that is, so far forth as you do go into it, so far as you go beyond your flocks, and so far as those flocks may be in great danger as under the influence of the prevailing epidemic.”

Finally, we read a prognostication of the great churchman that could have been spoken today as he asserts that, although “no large body can be free from scandals from the misconduct of its members,” people of ill will can use even one bad priest against the Church to feed “a malicious curiosity,” so “that we are at the mercy of even one unworthy member or false brother.” I would submit, however, that even the ever-prescient Newman would be astonished at the contemporary social and ecclesial landscape.

While many know of Newman’s magisterial work The Idea of a University, very few are aware of his intense commitment to Catholic elementary and secondary schools. Herewith are some salient thoughts of his which should stir up among clergy and laity alike a deep appreciation for our Catholic schools in America—once the envy of the Church Universal.

The Oratory School founded by Newman was described as “the apple of his eye” and is still fulfilling its mission today. He stated his goal simply but forcefully:

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. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity.

So strong was Cardinal Newman’s advocacy on behalf of Catholic schools that, in 1879, Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan of Sydney solicited his assistance for the cause in Australia. The new cardinal summed up the whole rationale for Catholic schools with what he deemed a rhetorical question: “if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?”

Reflecting specifically on the Oratory School, he refers to it as “a pastoral charge of the most intimate kind.” Then, with a most priestly heart, he places the role of the priest in a Catholic school directly within one’s pastoral ministry and gives it preeminence: “No other department of the pastoral office requires such sustained attention and such unwearied services.”

Our new saint never trod an easy path through life. As an Anglican, he was accused of being a crypto-papist; as a Catholic, he was regarded by many as a Protestant mole. At the age of 79, the venerable churchman was named a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. Never one for fanfare or honors, nonetheless, the new Eminence exclaimed, “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” Vindication came late, but it did come. He took advantage of his acceptance speech to launch a frontal assault on what he called “liberalism in religion”—which, he said, he had fought his entire life, both as an Anglican and as a Catholic.

Always a bit of a hypochondriac, Newman had been dying for years. The conferral of the red hat, however, gave him a new lease on life. He adopted as his cardinalatial motto, Cor ad cor loquitur: “Heart speaks to heart.” It well summed up his conviction that every person is called to a personal relationship with the Creator and, equally, that interpersonal relations are “the heart of the matter.” When asked by the members of his Oratory how he should now be addressed, he replied that, of all the titles he had ever borne, the only one that ever really mattered to him was “Father.”

In 2009, the Year for the Priest, I collected my many musings on the priesthood into a volume entitled Be to Me a Father and a Priest, the plea of Micah to the Levite stranger. John Henry Newman was nothing other than a true father and a most devoted priest. The Sacred Liturgy has us pray “that the shepherd may never be without the obedience of the flock, nor the flock without the care of the shepherd.” May the intercession of our new sainted priest make that prayer a reality in our time.


  • Fr. Peter M. Stravinskas

    Fr. Peter M. Stravinskas is the founder and superior of the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. He is also president of the Catholic Education Foundation and editor of The Catholic Response.

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