“No one can have a more unfavourable view than I of the present state of the Roman Catholics,” stated the then Anglican priest John Henry Newman (1801-1890) on the eve of his conversion to the Catholic Church. His feelings opposed, he saw the sad situation of the Church yet he knew her to be the true bride; he felt no desire to give up friends, position, and his old life yet he did; he admired few, if any, Catholics, but he became one. He believed, so he acted. This was no convenient choice. It would have been easy to justify his conscience because he was doing wonderful works of God where he was. He was a zealous young Anglican priest whose priority was the care of souls in Oxford University, working with the students and leading them to Christ. He was a leading figure in the renewal movement for Anglican Church, a fabulous preacher, well known and loved by countless. Then suddenly he was Catholic. Overnight he became an apparent enemy to all in his previous life.
The ship of his life was not tossed about with the rudder of how he felt, the approval of others, or personal ambition, rather his guide was the kind light of truth amid the encircling gloom. Truth was his criterion with which he measured his decisions, not the changing fads of the day, not one day Anglican, another Buddhist, and yet another Muslim, then at the end to top it all off an Agnostic. Nor did he run when the life-changing implications of truth knocked on his door. This is the stuff saints are made of.
Another great British saint who bears the same name and rank of Cardinal, St John Fisher (1459-1535), shared the same spirit as he publicly opposed Henry VIII’s unlawful divorce and re-marriage just as the Baptist did to King Herod. But why did he make so much fuss? It was just about a marriage. Today with the fad of co-habitation, the more than fifty percent of marriages ending in divorce, and all the crass private lives of countless Hollywood stars that dominate in newspapers and TV program, how ridiculous it would be to defend traditional marriage. Fisher believed in the sacredness of marriage. Be he king or pauper, no man has right to wave aside its value on the rush of a whim, on the desire for a new experience or spouse. And when King Henry decided to proclaim himself sole head of the Church of England in 1531 the rest of the bishops signed the document while St John refused, at the cost of his very life. All he needed to do was be silent, turn a blind eye to the actions of the king, not get involved by pleading the cause of the rightful wife of Henry, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and everything would have been alright. A little signature to the royal decree and all would have been healed again. A little concession to his conscience and he would have retained his head. But that is not the stuff of saints.
The Saint is no intellectual lightweight, no flimsy willow blowing at the least breeze on a sunny day. Rather he rises like the oak upon the mountain top that stands amid the gales, or the rock that juts out of the sea while crashed upon by the surging waves and swelling tides. The raging royal anger of Henry did not daunt St Fisher, nor did the intellectual snobbery of the age and loss of social prestige budged Blessed John Newman from his resolve. They chose to ride the storm of time and misfortunes to come forth heroes, while those who swayed and faltered amidst the strife are unknown, forgotten.
The saint does not sacrifice the truth in the face of prevailing opinion, criticism, or acclaim. Do does not fall for the trap of human respect or waver under the mighty name of tolerance. He cannot serve both God and mammon.
Countless men marginalize the truth. They cut it down and trim it to size like a tailored suit. The courage to be a hero, to build their life not on the shifting sands of opinion and fads but on the rock of truth escapes them. They do not receive the joy of chancing the tides, of riding the rugged storm, of coming forth a champion and a hero. They choose to wait. They choose to dig their head in the sand wishing to see the world change by a miracle without lifting a finger to change it. They choose to see what the others are doing, afraid to be squashed as they stand up against the Goliath of prevailing opinions. They are neither hot nor cold, just decent people, never did anything really bad, but nothing worthy of merit. They are the forgotten masses who have no face and no name for they feared to rise above counting the cost.
But not the saints. They are the men who having risked it all on the gamble of truth and have come forth victorious. For St. John Fisher the price he paid was his blood spilled upon the scaffold of London that warm summer’s day of June 1535 as the executioner swung his axe. As for John Henry Newman, the man the Church beatified recently, he scorned career, positions, possibilities, and fame to embrace the truth. This is the stuff saints are made of.
Richard Wimer, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome.
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