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Watching for Christ – Newman’s Challenge to Worldly Religion

Almost a year ago, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the famous Roman Catholic convert from Anglicanism, was canonized by Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square. I was in attendance with a group of students from Benedictine College and thousands of eager pilgrims. We watched in the twilight as people gathered at the gates under the columns of St. Peter’s Square. We watched as the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica was bathed in the golden light of the sunrise. We watched for the great bell of St. Peter’s to ring out the canonization. We watched for the Holy Father to proclaim that Newman was among the blessed in Heaven. And we watched for the presence of Christ in the saints, in the Word of God, and in the Eucharist. All of these “watchings” are but analogies for Newman’s vision of holiness and his challenge to Christians today.

From the same pulpit that John Wesley delivered the greatest English sermons of the 18th century, Newman delivered the greatest of the 19th to the students at Oxford University. He spoke of holiness as contrasted with comfortable worldliness and hypocritical self-righteousness.  He warned the young men of Oxford University, who were the future leaders of English religious, political, and cultural life, not to be drawn in by the “principalities and powers” of the world. Newman’s call to holiness penetrated through the façade of formalism, while defending the importance of adherence to forms of devotion and worship. Saying one’s prayers, participation in the Church’s liturgies, making acts of fasting and penance were the necessary means to holiness, not out of some mechanistic or legalistic moralism, but because these practices discipline the mind and the heart to “watch” for Christ. To stand watch or to keep watch is one of the most frequent commands of the New Testament, as Newman demonstrates with over a page worth of citations in the sermon, “Watching.”

The difference between authentic holiness and worldly Christianity, according to Newman, is that the true Christian is always “watching for and with Christ.” Worldliness, he said, is the contrast to watchfulness. Those who fail to watch are like a soldier assigned to the night watch that fails at their duty,

We go on in a self-satisfied or a self-conceited way, not looking out of ourselves, not standing like soldiers on the watch in the dark night; but we kindle our own fire, and delight ourselves in the sparks of it.

The comfort of a night fire calls us to reflect on how we seek the comforts and consolations of the world. It is not that the worldly Christian has no regard for God, but their heart it split between loving God and loving this world. Their error lies in a form of idolatry, “an identifying God with this world,” such that, “they are rid of the trouble of looking out for their God, for they think they have found Him in the goods of this world.” This love of the world acts like rust on the soul, beginning on the surface and slowly creeping “more and more deeply into the soul.”

Watchfulness, however, is a getting outside of ourselves. It is a dissatisfaction with the things of the world, and allowing the longing of the soul for communion with God to make us attentive to His presence. As Newman explained, to watch is,

to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as He came once, and as He will come again…

This watchfulness is “the life or energy of faith and love.” To watch for Christ is to have a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind for God’s action. It is to be “awake”, and “alive” and “quick-sighted”, “looking for Him in all things.” To watch with Christ is to keep in mind the suffering of Christ, and to not seek the joy of life without first remembering the suffering with Christ that is its prerequisite. We can only truly love the things of the world, according to Newman, if we begin with the cross of Christ. If we begin with discontent, and a looking out for Christ, only then can we find him in the midst of the world and our daily lives.

Newman compares the experience of watching for Christ to those awkward times when you are stuck at a social gathering and cannot escape. You look for a friend to rescue you from the painful conversations, or for a message that will excuse you. This is the feeling one should have in this world as we long to see Christ. In these days, especially in this strange year of our Lord 2020, Newman reminds us to keep watch for the One who can truly bring relief and salvation. He warns us to not seek help from the promises of the world, to not put our trust in man, but to pray and resolve to truly keep watch:

O, my brethren, pray Him to give you the heart to seek Him in sincerity. Pray Him to make you in earnest. You have one work only, to bear your cross after Him. Resolve in His strength to do so. Resolve to be no longer beguiled by “shadows of religion,” by words, or by disputings, or by notions, or by high professions, or by excuses, or by the world’s promises or threats.


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Matthew Muller

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Matt Muller is an assistant professor of theology and director of programs for the Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He completed his PhD in historical theology from Saint Louis University in May 2017. His dissertation was on Newman's understanding of Biblical inspiration in his Anglican years. He earned a Masters in Catholic Studies from the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota where he wrote his masters thesis under the direction of the late Don Briel on the role of imagination in Newman's writings on education. After graduating from Benedictine in 2006, he served for three years as a missionary with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) at the University of Illinois. He and his wife, Jordan, have three children: Anthony, Owen, and Juliana.