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Cardinal John Henry Newman's Thoughts on

The Divine Presence and the Priest's role in
the Sacrament of Reconciliation

by Ian Ker


What seems to have struck Newman more than anything else about the worship of the Catholic Church was devotion to the reserved sacrament. Shortly after he entered the Church he wrote enthusiastically to a friend, "It is such an incomprehensible blessing to have Christ in bodily presence in one's house, within one's walls, as swallows up all other privileges . . . To know that He is close by to be able again and again through the day to go in to Him." So strongly did he feel this that he could say: "Now after tasting of the awful delight of worshiping God in His Temple, how unspeakably could is the idea of a Temple without that Divine Presence! One is tempted to say what is the meaning, what is the use of it?" The sacrament reserved in the tabernacle was not simply a source of spiritual comfort, but it was what above all helped to produce "the deep impression of religion as an objective fact: which so impressed Newman as a convert to Catholicism. And when he went to Italy to prepare for ordination to the Catholic priesthood, again and again he alluded to his overpowering sense of Christ sacramentally present in the churches to that "Presence of our Undying Life, hidden but ever working," betokened by "the distant glimmering Lamp": It is really most wonderful to see the Divine Presence looking out almost into the open streets from the various Churches . . . I never knew what worship was, as an objective fact, till I entered the Catholic Church."

Nothing I wrote, "has brought home to me so much the Unity of the Church, as the presence of its Divine Founder and Life wherever I go All places are, as it were, one."

It is not surprising that when the hero of his novel "Loss and Gain" attends a Catholic church for the first time, it is not the beauty of the liturgy that impresses him as much as "the Great Presence, which makes a Catholic Church different from every other place in the world." The reservation of the consecrated Eucharistic bread, then, has a special place for Newman among the various sacraments and sacramentals which ensure that "the Atonement of Christ is not a thing at a distance, or like the sun standing over against us and separated off form us, but that we are surrounded by an "atmosphere" and are in a medium, through which his warmth and light flow in upon us on every side.

Priests are needed for the celebration of the sacraments, and there are a few references in the Anglican sermons to the awesome sacrament of holy orders.

"Alas for us!" Newman groans, "we feel none of those terrors about it, which made the early Christians flee from it!: For them, "it was so solemn a function, that the holier a man was, the less inclined he felt to undertake it." For those who feel called to receive this sacrament, Newman has a solemn warning:

So again they who enter Holy Orders promise the know not what, engage themselves they know not how deeply, debar themselves of the world's ways they know not how intimately, find perchance they must cut off from them the right hand, sacrifice the desire of their eyes and the stirring of their hearts at the foot of the Cross, while they thought, in their simplicity, they were but choosing theeasy life of quiet "plain men dwelling in tents."

. . . As Newman drew closer to Rome he came more and more to feel that without sacramental confession the pastoral work of a priest was pointless; indeed, he insisted on regular confession as a condition of membership of the quasi-monastic community he founded at Littlemore. As a Catholic, he wrote eloquently about the psychological value of confession:

How many are the souls, in distress, anxiety or loneliness, whose one need is to find a being to whom they can pour out their feelings unheard by the world? Tell them out they must; they cannot tell them out to those whom they see every hour. They want to tell them and not to tell them; and they want to tell them out, yet be as if they be not told; they wish to tell them to one who is strong enough to bear them, yet not too strong to despise them; the wish to tell them to one who can at once advise and can sympathize with them; they wish to relieve themselves of a load, to gain a solace, to receive the assurance that there is one who thinks of them, and one to whom in thought they can recur, to whom they can betake themselves, if necessary, from time to time, while they are in the world . . . If there is a heavenly idea in the Catholic Church, looking at it simply as an idea, surely, next after the Blessed Sacrament, Confession as such . . . Oh what a soothing charm is there, which the world can neither give or take away! Oh what piercing, heart-subduing tranquillity, provoking tears of joy, is poured, almost substantially and physically upon the soul . . . when the penitent at length rises, his God reconciled to him, his sins rolled away forever!