At St. John Henry Newman Mass on Feb. 20, Father Adam Grelinger delivered a homily based on a poem by Saint John Henry Newman titled ‘My Birthday.’ Newman wrote the poem as a young man and Grelinger felt it to be fitting for a homily for this Mass that celebrates Newman’s Feb. 21 birthday.
“I thought it would be fun to preach on, but I couldn’t really understand it all. But the ending seems clear enough,” Grelinger said.
The poem reads,
Each coming year, O grant it to refine
All purer motions of this anxious breast;
Kindle the steadfast flame of love divine,
And comfort me with holier thoughts possest;
Till this worn body slowly sink to rest,
This feeble spirit to the sky aspire,—
As some long-prisoned dove toward her nest—
There to receive the gracious full-toned lyre,
Bowed low before the Throne ‘mid the bright
Isn’t it beautiful that his wish on his birthday 201 years ago was that God would kindle in him that ‘steadfast flame of divine love,’ grant him holier thoughts, and increase his longing for Heaven so that he could one day have a new birthday, a greater birthday, a more real birthday because it would be a birth into an even greater life, a birth to fullness of life.
And this being his first earthly-birthday that we are celebrating since his canonization, we can admire that his wish came true. This wish which he made on his 18th birthday. A wish not for revelries, or fortunes, or fame, but a wish for greater love and perseverance in faith. What a thing.
It is a wish, I don’t think it is a stretch to say, he shares for all of us as well, who attend the university bearing his name and often asking for his prayerful intercession.
For a university is certainly a place for intellectual growth, human formation, and life preparation – even empowering its graduates to transform society, but for a Catholic university it should always be in the back of its mind, ‘What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?’
In a sermon delivered at a university, Newman said a university should be a ‘loving mother’ an ‘alma mater,’ mothering students intellectually and also religiously. This ‘alma mater,’ and I quote, “in every department of human learning, is able to confute and put right those who would set knowledge against itself, and would make truth contradict truth, and would persuade the world that, to be religious, you must be ignorant, and to be intellectual, you must be unbelieving.”
There is a tendency to separate, subjects, yes, but also these areas in our lives: intellectual/professional & religious. Which is somewhat of a natural tendency as they are often taught by different methods and practiced separately. But the person suffers when the two remain apart. A Catholic University has a privileged place and role to hold these two together, to care for the whole person as a mother would.
Newman again, “Some persons will say that I am thinking of confining, distorting, and stunting the growth of the intellect by ecclesiastical supervision. I have no such thought. Nor have I any thought of a compromise, as if religion must give up something, and science something. I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons.”
And he went on to say, “It will not satisfy me, what satisfies so many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labour, and only accidentally brought together. It will not satisfy me, if religion is here, and science there”
For in separation we tend to lose one or the other.
Newman himself is a great model of such integration – the saintly Oxford Don. And as we celebrate his birthday, we recall his wish – to have a greater longing for and perseverance to be with Christ in Heaven. And as patron of this, our “alma mater,” this is hopefully a wish and prayer of ours as well. That we, and every student at Newman University, may be filled intellectually but also, and importantly, filled with a love for and a longing for God.