Newman, the Real Presence & The Tabernacle

April 2000By Richard Geraghty

Richard Geraghty teaches philosophy to pre-theologians at the St. Joseph House of Studies on the campus of the Eternal Word Television Network in Alabama.

Newman and Conversion.  Edited by Ian Ker. University of Notre Dame Press. 153 pages. $18.



John Henry Cardinal Newman is a writer who touches things in me that I may not have been aware of. He gives words to things that lie unnoticed at the roots of my soul. That is why I pick up any book about Newman I run across. From any given page may come a lightning flash that will fuse heart and head and illuminate my whole being. I imagine that many readers of Newman have had the same experience and share the same keen interest in the man.

Ian Ker, the leading Catholic expert on Newman, has taken eight papers given at a recent international congress held in Oxford and turned them into a book. In order to interpret Newman’s conversion from a wide number of disciplinary perspectives, he collected papers delivered by various experts who are not necessarily Newman scholars. There are articles from the perspective of von Balthasar, of Wittgenstein, of Kierkegaard, of the contemporary theology of religion, and of literary analysis. These will be of special interest to those already familiar with those fields. Then there are several articles dealing with Newman himself. One is entitled “Newman and the Convert Mind” by Sheridan Gilley. Another is “Newman: The Anatomy of Conversion” by Avery Dulles, S.J. I think these will be of special interest to converts, particularly converts from Anglicanism. Then there is “Newman’s Post-Conversion Discovery of Catholicism” by Ker. For me this was the most striking essay in the book, probably because I am a cradle Catholic.

Ker points out that when Newman entered the Church in his mid-forties, he did not have much experiential knowledge of Catholicism as it is lived by actual Catholics. Newman had not sought out the acquaintance of Catholics. Anglicans and Catholics in England occupied quite different social positions in the first half of the 19th century, and Newman would indeed have had to seek Catholics out. In addition to this socio-religious segregation is the fact that Newman in his early years thought that the Roman Church was the Anti-Christ. What would a man who takes his own faith seriously have to do with members of such a church? Even when the intensity of this “stain on his imagination” (as Newman later called it) had faded, still Newman did not turn Romeward but became a leading figure propagating the notion that the established Church of England was a kind of middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. It would not have done for Newman, already suspected by many of being a Romish subversive, to seek publicly the company of Catholics. Thus when Newman finally converted to the Church in 1845 it was not because of his experience of ordinary clergy and laity going about their business. It was because of his reading of the ancient Church Fathers and his attentiveness to his conscience. His experience was certainly personal and deep. Still, it was not the experience of the Church in the quotidian and concrete.

But after Newman entered the Church, says Ker, he was delighted by his new acquaintances at the altars and in the pews. The surprise of this encounter with the real so captured his intellect, heart, and imagination that he then wrote some of his most vivid works — two novels and two series of public lectures, one series about the Anglicans and one about the position of Catholics in English society. Here was a deeply reserved man telling stories and delivering talks filled with warmth and wit.

What was it that so touched Newman? What was there in the lives of ordinary Catholics that could surprise a man so learned in the Fathers (a learning that would leaven the theology of his adoptive Mother Church)? Ker says: “When Newman arrived in Italy a year after his becoming Catholic, he was immediately and vividly aware of a reality that powerfully impinged on his consciousness, but of which he had been quite oblivious on his previous visit [as a young Protestant]. Arriving in Milan he immediately noticed that he had now an added reason for preferring classical to gothic architecture, since its simplicity meant that the high altar stood out as the focal point of the church, which meant that the reserved sacrament had particular prominence — for ‘Nothing moves there but the distant glimmering Lamp, which betokens the Presence of our undying life, hidden but ever working.’ His almost obsessive preoccupation with this ‘Real Presence’ goes further than the devotional: ‘It is really most wonderful to see this 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.’”

Did Newman have an “almost obsessive preoccupation”? The psychological-sounding phrase may be a concession that a courteous Catholic Englishman makes to the sensibilities of a modern reader in order to understate his absolute agreement with Newman. But Ker does not have to understate his case with me. For Newman used a phrase that immediately filled me with triumphant delight. The phrase is: “It is really most wonderful to see this Divine Presence looking out almost into the open streets from the various Churches.”

As a kid in St. Joseph’s parish in Queens, I stood in the street and, looking over the steps through great wooden doors and down the dark aisle, saw the Tabernacle in the gloom with the red lamp hanging over it from the great dome above. The nuns and my parents left me in no doubt that God Himself was behind the little metal doors covered by a veil. Buses and cars were going by on the Avenue, people were walking past on their errands, and God was looking out at the scene — though not many were looking at Him. But I was. I was looking at the God of the universe looking at a little portion of 25th Avenue from a little house on the altar.

Ker gives many powerful passages from Newman about the Real Presence and analyzes them insightfully. But let me make his points in my own way. Whenever a little kid learns that the consecrated Host is God Himself under the appearance of bread, and that this Host is put into the Tabernacle, where it stays until taken out again, he has an apprehension of the real which can influence his whole life without necessarily realizing it. Real apprehensions are like little acorns; they grow steadily and quietly into mighty oaks of faith. I remember a story told by my sister. She was only five, and was taking our four-year-old sister into the parish church. She told the little girl what mother had told her: “This is God’s House.” Years later she joined an order of contemplative nuns with the express purpose of living in the beauty of God’s House. Her young faith was nourished by the faith (and wits) of immigrants who, though they may not have reached the sixth grade, knew their catechism, knew their prayers, and knew of the Real Presence in the Tabernacle.

When Newman speaks about his happy surprise at how objective and real he found the religion of Catholics to be, he often refers to the Real Presence. Here is united the intimate core of a believer with his most basic Object — the God of the whole world. The encounter is not merely private; it is very public indeed, as public as a great parish church on a city block. Children and adults can walk in and talk to God, Who is right over there in the Tabernacle, which is the focus of the building and of all that goes on in it. Crowds walk by outside: Those who know Who is inside may doff their hats or sign themselves with the cross; many pass on unaware of its real significance. The fact remains — God is there.

At Mass the church is filled with worshipers. Then the mystery is enacted in which the priest changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Even the mind of a child can grasp the logic of how the Presence in the Tabernacle is tied up with the priest who says the Mass, with the people who receive Holy Communion, and with the commands to be good. Liturgy, Scripture, Tradition, devotion, and morality are all one. The Blessed Virgin is there too. Children who have learned their catechism and gone to processions know that she is the Mother of this God Who was her baby and is now in the Host. When the child grows up and has the opportunity to learn more about theology and philosophy, he may acquire a large intellectual superstructure, perhaps too large. Like a sloop trying to carry the canvas of a man-of-war, he may start leaning at all kinds of crazy angles, a menace to himself and to anyone else close by. But to read Newman — on this topic as on others — is to meet an intellect under complete control. Newman can say the words that will prompt the careening intellectual to shorten sail a bit and put some ballast in his hold. And what better ballast than the infinitely weighty Tabernacle in the heart of a parish church?

A religion based upon the Tabernacle has, as it were, a center of gravity. In the past there were people who considered themselves “bad” Catholics. The breed seems to have gone out of existence today, perhaps because people now often see themselves as voluntary members of a communal gathering. The “bad Catholics” of the past knew they were neglecting or leaving behind something serious, something big — the Presence in the Tabernacle. They had a bad conscience — rather than no conscience — because somewhere in their childhood they had once knelt in front of the Tabernacle. To go away, to fall away, was to absent themselves from a concrete reality. And, of course, even “good Catholics” were aware of how they could fail. Such is the way people behave when they are dealing with concrete facts. Such realities become unreal to a people for whom the Tabernacle has become merely the object of “liturgical concern.”

Somewhere Newman said that, when it comes to creating a theological scheme, the selection of its central point may within certain limits be arbitrary. Some (like St. Thomas) may create a theology on the movement of things from God and back to God. Others may center their attention on the Incarnation. Still others may focus on the Redemption. All hangs together, even while the points of emphasis differ. If I were to suggest, not a scientific or theological principle upon which to start a theology, but a practical principle upon which to base a religion, I would start with the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I think Newman and Ker would agree.

My negative proof of this thesis is drawn from the facts of contemporary Catholic practice in many places. When the Tabernacle is moved off to one side, or even placed outside the main church building, it surely diminishes our sense that the building is literally God’s House. It will no longer make sense to genuflect, to be hushed and quiet; instead people will talk and hug themselves into a community. And so why not make a “presider’s” throne the center of attention? I savor the story of the ancient Israelite being struck down by God when he put a hand on the Ark of the Covenant. I used to feel sorry for the man. But I now know he was a prototype of some liturgist or ecclesiastical architect — he deserved what he got!

I entered a modern church recently and felt suddenly the urge to lay about me with a sledge hammer. My wife, knowing what I was feeling, led me over to the “adoration chapel.” To see Jesus boxed away there really steamed me. But then I saw some ladies praying away as if in the days of yore. I looked at the wall before which they knelt, a flat expanse of marble with a plain box of bronze protruding from it. Sheer faith, nothing else, told me that Christ was within. So I tried to recollect myself.

Since then I have grown a bit more patient. The One in the Tabernacle became a baby and found no place in the inn. He takes on the appearance of bread and again finds no real place in many Catholic churches. But that is an old story to Him. The devil looks as if he is winning — but he isn’t.

As far as I’m concerned, Ker’s article alone is worth the price of this fine book, for it brings together two great themes of Newman: the intensely personal with the Objective Fact. And in the rest of the book are enough branches to accommodate the reach of scholars and laymen, of converts and cradle Catholics. Whatever part a reader fastens on, he will be grasping the reality of a Church that is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.



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