Mass of Thanksgiving - homily of The Most Reverend James D. Conley

thanksgiving1.jpgNew York City, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle October 23, 2010

Mass of Thanksgiving for the Beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman and for the Life of Mother Julia Verhaeghe Foundress of The Spiritual Family The Work on the Hundredth Anniversary of her Birth

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

First of all I want to thank the sisters of the Spiritual Family of the Work and our host, Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. and Fordham University, for their kind invitation to celebrate and preach at this Mass of Thanksgiving as we begin this special Newman Conference today entitled: Cor ad cor loquitur.

We come together this morning to thank God in this celebration of the Eucharist for the recent Beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman which took place in England last month, and for the life of Mother Julia Verhaeghe whose centenary of birth we will celebrate on the 11th of next month. Both were blessed with very long and fruitful lives. Newman’s life spanned nearly the whole of the nineteenth century and Mother Julia’s life, almost the entirety of the twentieth. Their biographies are very different and yet one can draw parallels between the famous Oxford scholar and the unassuming, simple and humble woman from Geluwe in West Flanders, Belgium whom God chose to become the instrument for the birth of a new spiritual family. I would like to try to draw three parallels between the religious insight and experiences of these two personalities of faith in the Church.

1. Throughout their lives, both took the promptings of conscience seriously. For them, conscience was not some interior feeling or simply the right to do one’s own will. Both knew that not every inclination to act which emerges in one’s thoughts is the voice of conscience. Both knew that there is a difference between the voice of conscience and the other voices in us, between the promptings of conscience and the demands of the ego. Newman once said: “Conscience - there are two ways of regarding conscience, one as a mere sort of propriety, a taste teaching us to do this or that, the other as the echo of God’s voice. Now all depends on this distinction - the first way is not of faith, and the second is of faith.”[1]

In the same vein Mother Julia writes: “God wishes that his voice be obeyed by our conscience in silent hours of adoration and meditation, so as to share his presence with us. God wishes that his voice, bearing light and life, should echo in our conscience.”

God speaks to us so that his word may find acceptance in us. He gives us a spiritual light that calls for an answer, a response. The summit of the Christian way of faith, the summit of love and knowledge of God can be reached by those who do not trifle with the precious light that God again and again gives to every individual. This is what being true to one’s conscience really means. Newman prayed, Lead, kindly light. This kindly light shines in the heart of every person. It calls for a response - also from us, here, now and today!

2. Besides the interior authority of conscience, the exterior authority of the Church was of great importance for both. For many years, Newman struggled with the question: in which ecclesial community has the inheritance of the early Church been preserved authentically and fully. This struggle eventually led him into the Catholic Church. On October 9, 1845 he was received into the “one true fold of the Redeemer” as he wrote to his sister Jemima on the eve of his reception. With his beatification on the 19th of last month, this day was established as his liturgical memorial. The Church of Rome became Newman’s new religious home. He nonetheless remained grateful throughout his life to the Church of England for all he had received through her. After having given everything for the Anglican Church he was ready to give his whole love to the Church of Rome.

Through God’s grace, Mother Julia also received a burning love for the Church. The Apostle Paul was God’s instrument to give her this love. She testifies that this love was poured into her heart. Newman and Mother Julia looked at the Church with the eyes of faith. Newman prayed: “Let me never for an instant forget that Thou hast established on earth a kingdom of Thy own, that the Church is Thy work, Thy establishment, Thy instrument, that we are under Thy rule, Thy laws and Thy eye - that when the Church speaks, Thou dost speak. Let not familiarity with this wonderful truth lead me to be insensible to it - let not the weakness of Thy human representatives lead me to forget that it is Thou who dost speak and act through them.”[2]

Newman saw many things in the Church that should be different and better. He suffered from her wounds, caused by her members, but he still loved the Church and always trusted in the Church.

In Mother Julia’s life we also find gratitude and joy in belonging to Christ’s Church. Let us listen to her testimony, to her wonder at the Church: “I am inwardly urged to express my deep joy and profound gratitude to the Church, my beloved Mother, though I do not know how to find the words. She is Christ’s foundation to which I belong.”[3] And again: “I have given my whole life to the Church, my dear Mother, in order to love her and to serve her with my whole heart and my whole being. I want to love her with that love which God Himself poured into my soul and my mind.” And yet again: “I loved the Church as much as I loved the Lord Himself.”

There are many reasons to complain about the earthly appearance of the Church, but there are even more reasons to love and serve her. Filled with the light of the Gospel and the life of Christ and fully enlivened by the Holy Spirit she offers us God’s riches. Each one of us should be like a “business card” for the Church and contribute to a new appreciation of the Church’s inner strength and beauty by a life of lived faith and love. Therefore Mother Julia says: “Our life should radiate the glory of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church”[4] .

3. Finally, Newman and Mother Julia both distinguished themselves by a strong faith in divine Providence. In their lives there were - humanly speaking - hopeless moments. Their faith and love, however, were stronger than the obstacles they faced in the Church or the human frailty of its members. Both knew that the risen Lord guides and leads his Church through the centuries. Newman wrote in a letter: “I do not look at the divisions of Christendom so very anxiously as you do, for the Catholic Church presents a continuous history of fearful falls and as strange and successful recoveries. We have a series of catastrophes each unlike the others, and that diversity is the pledge that the present ordeal, though different from any of the preceding, will be overcome, in God’s good time, also … Of course one’s forecasting may be wrong - but we may be entering on quite a new course - for which the civil ignoring of Christianity may be the necessary first step, and we may have centuries of confusion - but the Church has steadily worked her way out of overwhelming misfortunes in time past, and will by God’s mercy, again.[5] As for his personal itinerary, Newman testifies: “I have ever tried to leave my cause in the Hands of God and to be patient - and He has not forgotten me.”[6]

These words dovetail with the witness of Mother Julia who states: “I am firmly convinced that the Lord takes the lead in everything and makes use of concrete circumstances. I shall always endeavour to remain dependent on God’s Spirit and to regulate my activity, so that nothing the Lord has entrusted me with is obstructed or undermined. … I have not yet discerned the Lord’s concrete plans, but I am convinced that, when the moment determined by Providence arrives, He will not keep them hidden from me.”[7]

For Newman and for Mother Julia, trust in divine Providence did not mean waiting passively for God’s interventions. Throughout their lives, both gave everything they could. They were people of decision and action. They were sensitive to God’s signs and hints. They were strong in the virtues of faith and hope, but humble enough to renounce their own opinions and give an answer to God’s many calls in their lives. In this sense, Mother Julia once said: “God’s providence can reign only through hearts which pledge themselves without reserve. The power of God’s omnipotence can be made manifest only through ready hearts which open themselves to that power with a strong faith and a deep trust. We can expect all things from God, not as passive spectators, but as those who are committed to serving”.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, both Blessed John Henry Newman and Mother Julia Verhaeghe had a deep love for the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. Both worked and prayed for unity within the Body of Christ. And both believed very strongly that we have been called to “build up the Body of Christ” each in his or her own particular vocation. We have been called to a “definite service” in the Body of Christ. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman in his famous meditation: “he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission - I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connections between persons. ”

These words echo those of Saint Paul to the Ephesians: “…living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole Body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the Body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

Saints and great people of faith should not and cannot be copied, but their words and the example of their lives can inspire us to progress on the way of faith, hope and love in the concrete situations in which we find ourselves. From their eternal home, they accompany us and assist us here and now. Amen.



[1] Sermon Notes of John Henry Cardinal Newman 1847-1878, edited by Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1913, 327[2] Meditations and Devotions of the late Cardinal Newman, Christian Classics Inc., Westminster, Md., 1975, 378 - 379[3] She loved the Church. Mother Julia Verhaeghe and the Beginnings of The Spiritual Family The Work, edited by Mother Katharina Strolz, FSO and Fr Peter Willi FSO, Family Publications, Oxford, 2009, 25 f.

[4] She loved the Church, inner back cover.

[5] The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, edited at the Birmingham Oratory by Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall, S.J., Clarendon Press, Oxford, XXVIII, 1875, 91

[6] The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, edited at the Birmingham Oratory by Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall, S.J., Clarendon Press, Oxford, XXIX, 1976, 72

[7] She loved the Church, p. 123 f.


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