Newman and Benedict XVI: A Common Approach

Interview with Archbishop Nichols of Westminster

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, NOV. 25, 2010 ( At an international symposium on Blessed John Henry Newman in Rome, which was organized by the Spiritual Family The Work and sponsored by the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales, a comparison was drawn between the approach to dialogue and evangelization of Blessed John Henry Newman and the Pontiff who recently elevated him, Benedict XVI.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales, shared his insights with ZENIT on the similar styles of these two great thinkers, and the transformative effect that the Holy Father’s visit has had on Catholics, Anglicans, and the public discourse over religion in the United Kingdom.

ZENIT: What do Blessed John Henry Newman and Benedict XVI have in common?

Archbishop Nichols: Well, they both have a great love for the church and a great love for the search of truth. But I think they also have, as we have seen today, a similar openness of mind towards how to approach other people and speak to them. We heard in the letter of Pope Benedict to the symposium his appreciation for Newman’s care in choosing words, in taking care not to offend people, and to try and find modes of expression that appeal to his listeners or readers. I think this could be said of Pope Benedict as well, and I suspect that Pope Benedict sees in Cardinal Newman something of his own approach to dialogue and encounters with so many different people in the world today.

ZENIT: What lasting effect has Benedict’s apostolic visit to the United Kingdom had on Catholic England, secular England, and Protestant England?

Archbishop Nichols: I think we are still trying to assess and just at first enjoy the effects of Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom. It was a most remarkable  three or four days, and many people are still just amazed and joyful in the way in which the Pope approached this visit, the way in which there was a close collaboration between the government, the state and the Church, the way in which the media was able to extend participation so widely. I am told that 1.5 billion people watched the visit around the world. Such is the importance of a Papal visit combined with the role of London in the world today. So without a doubt, for the Catholic community, there is great joy and pride in the best sense of the word. One of the priests in my diocese said: “This visit has given back to us priests our sense of pride”. So I think there is a great renewed sense of identity in being a Catholic that we recognize and other people recognize as well.

I think also for the country as a whole there are a number of things: one is a more ready recognition of the spiritual dimension of human life. The eloquence of the times of prayer during the Pope’s visit  I think have touched quite a deep chord and people are a little more at ease speaking about  the things of the spirit and of prayer.

I think another area of life which I believe is more readily recognized at the moment is the importance of community, relationships. I think what people saw was that despite the apparent anonymity of so much of British society, here was a community that expressed itself strongly with bonds of friendship and acceptance, and that has awakened in people the desire to work a little bit more on their families, on their quality of relationship. And I think thirdly what it is done has opened up again the possibility for dialogue and conversation, positive conversation, about the role in a very diverse and a multicultural society. The prime minister said very clearly as the Pope was leaving the country, that is his view faith would always have an important part to play in British society, and he went on to say that the project of the government was to create a culture of greater social responsibility and that the faith communities were the architects of that culture, and so I think there is in Britain today a new openness to the role that communities of faith can make to the common good. And lastly, there is our relationship with other faiths and particularly with other Christians and particularly with the church of England. And I think on all those fronts we have received a new encouragement and a new stimulus.

ZENIT: Did Benedict XVI’s visit provide impetus to the group of Anglican bishops who have resigned their posts and who are now becoming Catholic?

Archbishop Nichols: With regard first of all to the relationship between the churches, that has been quietly evolving over a number of years now. And I think more and more we sense the importance of genuinely seeking a spiritual communion among ourselves. I think we know that the pathway to visible communion which is very important and absolutely essential to the Catholic project is difficult. So I think on the broad Christian front there is this great sense that we must deepen our spiritual communion. With the church of England we have continually deepened our friendship and our relationship with particularly the bishops, and this is a moment in which we can go forward. There are great difficulties facing the Anglican communion, and we want to be of encouragement and support as well as sharing the project of presenting the Gospel in British society. On interreligious dialogue, we have now launched an annual Pope Benedict XVI lecture on dialogue and it will be the chief Rabbi who gives the first lecture in September, and that is a symbol of our determination to pursue this pathway of dialogue so elegantly highlighted for us by Pope Benedict.

ZENIT: How is Cardinal Blessed John Henry Newman a model for Catholics today, particularly for modern England? Can this “New-Man” renew the “old faith” of England?

Archbishop Nichols: I think that some of the most interesting words that Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Cardinal Newman were given in the interview on the airplane on his way to the UK, and he used two phrases which have stuck in my mind. He said, first of all, Newman is a man of modernity. Now by that he means Newman is a man who lived within sight of the circumstances in which atheism would be a real possibility and in which agnosticism had begun to be experienced. So Newman is a man who struggled with a setting for Christianity which we are all very familiar with. He foresaw it and struggled with it in his time.

And the second thing that Pope Benedict said of Newman was that he was a man for whom the formulas of the past were not sufficient. So I do not think Newman in any way represents an attempt to return to a faith of the past, but to face the challenges of today and to try and explore in utter fidelity to the past, an expression and an experience of faith which is attractive and open to the minds of today. So I think he does represent a great encouragement to us in our mission in contemporary England and he is such an eloquent writer of the English language, someone who understands the English temperament, someone who realizes the importance of moderation of the language and the view. All of these things are very important to us.

I think you see something of the affinity between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Newman in the way the Holy Father approached English society. For example, in wanting to introduce the whole question of Catholic Social Teaching, the Holy Father did it like this: in Westminster hall he said this country has served the world well, for example, in its leadership of the abolition of slavery; this country is the source of the contemporary democratic system around the world; this is a country in which respect for individuals and tolerance of the variety of views is well established; this is a country of compassion to those in need; You are not far from Social Catholic Teaching. And it was that beautiful, delicate pedagogy of the Pope which I believe reflects Newman and teaches us a great deal.

I think it would be fascinating if we could develop a pedagogy like that across all the sph
eres of Catholic teaching, so we could say to those who are inquiring about marriage for example, “Yes, you do wish to be faithful to each other in your marriage, yes you do wish that this marriage lasts and is permanent. It is difficult but that is what is in your heart; yes, you do wish to be really genuine parents to your children and guide them to everything that is best. That is what you want. You are not far from Catholic Social Teaching about marriage. And I think we have both in Newman and in Pope Benedict a style of pedagogy which is very suited to our age and from which we must learn.

ZENIT: How are you welcoming the Anglican bishops who are joining the Catholic Church in England?

Archbishop Nichols: This is the question of the ordinariate that we believe will be established by the Holy See in England in the New Year, at some point in January. And I think the first thing to understand is that the ordinariate is a response by the Holy Father to a request which he received. So this is a response — not an initiative — of the Holy Father. Probably the most significant thing with regard to the five Anglican bishops, two of whom have already retired from pastoral ministry, and three of whom have just offered their resignations, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself said that he had sat with those two closest to him and they had talked their way gently through this, and that while he was sad, he accepted in prayer the sincerity of what they were doing and he wished them well.

So I think that sets the right tone that this is a very important part of and moment in their lives, when they seek that fullness of the expression of their Catholic faith in full communion with the Catholic Church in the instrument which the Pope is soon to create. So this is not a moment of competition or of tension, and also the ordinariate is small, we are not talking about big numbers of people, which makes it easier for the Catholic community to understand and welcome, in the same spirit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, those who are seeking this expression of faith in full communion with the Catholic Church.

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