For a brief moment in September, Cardinal John Henry Newman.caught the attention of the world. As Pope Benedict XVI declared him “blessed” during an apostolic visit to Great Britain, Blessed Newman’s conversion story was once again newsworthy, as it had been a century and a half before.
At the heart of Blessed Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism was his study of the early Christians, the Fathers of the Church. As an Anglican clergyman, he believed that they held the answer to his denomination’s perennial problem — fragmentation in doctrinal and practical matters. Blessed Newman sought a purer reflection upon Scripture in the writings of the Fathers, an interpretation untainted by modern politics and controversies.
Yet his methods were — and remain — particularly appealing to modern readers. I confess I’ve filched them shamelessly as I prepared my recent books, especially Roots of the Faith.
Blessed Newman read the Fathers deeply, and not merely to extract theoretical propositions. He wanted to enter their world — to “see” divine worship as they saw it, to experience the prayers as they prayed them, to insert himself into the drama of the ancient arguments.
He immersed himself in the works of the Fathers, so that he could recount their stories in his brief Historical Sketches, in his book-length studies and, later, in one of his novels. After decades of such labors, he concluded that, “of all existing systems, the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers. … Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own.”
An interesting thing had happened. His study of the Fathers of the Church had caused him to desire The Church of the Fathers (yet another of his book titles). He wanted to place himself in real communion with the ancients, with Athanasius and Ambrose. A notional or theoretical connection wasn’t enough, and could never be. He wanted to move out of the shadows of hypothetical churches, based on a selective reading of the Church Fathers, and into the reality of the Fathers’ Church.
In declaring Cardinal Newman blessed, Pope Benedict has held up his life as worthy of imitation. And, in the matter of encountering the Fathers, it should hardly be a burden.
Like Blessed Newman and his contemporaries, so many people today hold a lively curiosity about Christian origins. Many ordinary Christians would like to move beyond the preoccupations of today’s tenure-track historians and documentarians (gender and conflict, power and more gender). They would like to find their own imaginative entry into the world of the Church Fathers. They would like “Historical Sketches” that were vivid enough to see with an attentive mind’s eye.