By Andrea Kirk Assaf
ROME, NOV. 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- It is a year of celebration and commemoration for the Spiritual Family “The Work.” The international group that began in Belgium is marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Julia Verhaeghe, their founder, and the beatification of “the brother of her soul,” Blessed John Henry Newman.
Later this month in Rome, the International Center of Newman Friends, run by “The Work,” will celebrate the success of their years of effort in promoting Cardinal Newman’s canonization cause when they gather an international community of scholars together to discuss the primacy of God in his life and writings.
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Hermann Geissler, a member of the Spiritual Family “The Work” and the director of the International Center of Newman Friends in Rome, reflects on what his ecclesial community, and what the significance of this month’s anniversary.
ZENIT: What characterizes the spirituality of “The Work”?
Father Geissler: The name of our Spiritual Family is a program of life. Jesus said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he (the Father) has sent” (John 6:29). Julia Verhaeghe, our founder, whom we call Mother (1910-1997), foresaw many years ago that there would come a time when many people, also within the Church, would live a superficial and pagan life, being active in different ways but not really believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Thus she invited us to a profound conversion, to a deep union with the Sacred Heart and to a personal faith in Jesus Christ, who showed her the richness of his merciful and just love.
At the same time, Mother Julia realized that we cannot love Jesus without loving the Church, his Body. Through a special encounter with St. Paul, she was given the grace of a second conversion, which brought her, step by step, to a total self-surrender of her life to Christ for the renewal of his holy Church. “I have founded nothing,” she wrote. “Since Christ founded the Church everything has been founded. It is only necessary that people live this foundation profoundly, that is, on and from the foundation which Jesus himself laid.”
An expression of this love for Christ and his Church can be found in the two mottos of our Spiritual Family: “Ad laudem et gloriam Dei” — “For God’s honour and glory.” And “Ut uomnes unum sint” — “That all may be one.” These are the two pillars on which the spirituality of “The Work” rests: adoration and unity. God must be at the center of our lives. Thus we begin every day with Holy Mass and conclude the day with a holy hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Praising the Lord in a spirit of faith and love helps us to live in unity, respect and mutual complementarily, as we form one spiritual family, which includes a priests’ community and a sisters’ community, to which many other members of the Church are associated in different ways.
ZENIT: How did your community come to be linked to the work of Cardinal Newman?
Father Geissler: Mother Julia did not know Cardinal Newman when our spiritual family began to grow. It was only in the early 1960s that she was given a biography and a book with words of Cardinal Newman. She was deeply touched by this great convert and discovered a spiritual affinity with Newman, to such a degree that she called him “a brother of my soul.”
Newman’s life and witness were a confirmation of her deepest convictions: her love of the Catholic Church in difficult times, her unwavering trust in God’s providence, her engagement in helping people to form their consciences according to the principles of the faith. Thus, some years later, in 1975, our spiritual family organized the first academic symposium on Cardinal John Henry Newman in Rome, bringing together Cardinal Newman experts from all over the world and helping people in Rome to come to know the life and works of Cardinal Newman.
Afterward, we were asked by the Vatican to continue this work for Cardinal Newman and established an International Center of Newman Friends, which has now specialized Cardinal Newman libraries in Rome, Oxford-Littlemore (where Newman was received into the Catholic Church), Bregenz (Austria) and Budapest (Hungary).
For 35 years we have been promoting Cardinal Newman’s veneration and study, organizing conferences, talks, exhibitions and devotions, publishing books and articles on Cardinal Newman and a regularly updated bibliography on our homepage, as well as sending circular letters to thousands of Newman friends, and — most importantly — helping people in a personal way on their journey of faith, according to Cardinal Newman’s motto: “Cor ad cor loquitur” — “Heart speaks unto heart.”
Therefore, Benedict XVI mentioned our spiritual family in his homily during the Mass of beatification (Sept. 19, 2010), thanking us for our work in promoting the cause of Cardinal Newman.
ZENIT: In what way are you marking this special year — the 100th anniversary of your founder and the year of Cardinal Newman’s beatification?
Father Geissler: First of all, this is a year of thanksgiving. We thank the Lord for the beatification of Newman, by promoting liturgical celebrations, holy hours, pilgrimages (especially in Littlemore) and other prayer events in honor of Blessed John Henry Newman. And we thank the Lord for the life of Mother Julia, by organizing Masses of thanksgiving in many countries in Europe, in the United States and in Jerusalem. The most important celebration will take place on Nov. 11 in Geluwe, Belgium, where Mother Julia was born in 1910; during this Eucharist two young sisters will consecrate their lives to God in virginal love, giving an answer, in faith and love, to the serious problems the Church has to face in Belgium.
Then, this special year should also be a year of spiritual renewal. The Second Vatican Council invited religious communities to return to their sources, to their founders. In our spiritual family we put this past year under the motto: “Our friendship with Christ according to Mother Julia.” And the coming year will be dedicated to the words: “Toward the Sacred Heart and his Body, the Church.” Thus we focus on some fundamental elements of our spirituality, that are also of great relevance for the Church as a whole. Newman’s beatification fits very well into this spiritual program, as he is a model of joyful self-surrender to Christ and selfless dedication to the Church, “the one true fold of the Redeemer.”
Finally, we use this year in giving witness to the spiritual gifts we received from our Mother founder. For this reason we publish articles and interviews on her life and spirituality, we send newsletters to many friends, we update regularly our homepage in nine languages, and, most importantly, we try to be credible witnesses to Christ and the Church in the midst of a world which, in some countries, seems to become more and more secular and hostile toward God and his people, manifesting the urgent need of a new evangelization.
Blessed John Henry Newman, of course, is a model for us and a saint for our times. He had foreseen the great apostasy of our modern age, but he never lost faith and hope knowing that God is more powerful than the spirit of this world.
On Nov. 22-23, we will hold an international symposium, with the participation of the most renowned Cardinal Newman scholars worldwide, reflecting on “The Primacy of God in the Life and Writings of Blessed John Henry Newman.” We hope that this great academic event, that will take place at the Pontifical Gregorian University, will strengthen the faith of many people, showing them that we have a great future if we continue to give primacy to God.
— — —
On the Net:
“The Work”: www.thework-fso.org
Newman Friends International: www.newmanfriendsinternational.org/newman