Support Site Improvements

Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

DETACHMENT, as we know from spiritual books, is a rare and high Christian virtue; a great Saint, St. Philip Neri, said that, if he had a dozen really detached men, he should be able to convert the world. To be detached is to be loosened from every tie which binds the soul to the earth, to be dependent on nothing sublunary, to lean on nothing temporal; it is to care simply nothing what other men choose to think or say of us, or do to us; to go about our own work, because it is our duty, as soldiers go to battle, without a care for the consequences; to account credit, honour, name, easy circumstances, comfort, human affections, just nothing at all, when any religious obligation involves the sacrifice of them. It is to be as reckless of all these goods of life on such occasions, as under ordinary circumstances we are lavish and wanton, if I must take an example, in our use of water,—or as we make a present of our words without grudging to friend or stranger,—or as we get rid of wasps or flies or gnats, which trouble us, without any sort of compunction, without hesitation before the act, and without a second thought after it.

Now this “detachment” is one of the special ecclesiastical virtues of the Popes. They are of all men most exposed to the temptation of secular connections; and, as history tells us, they have been of all men least subject to it. By their very office they are brought across every form of earthly power; for they have a mission to high as well as low, and it is on the high, and not the low, that their maintenance ordinarily depends. Cæsar ministers to Christ; the framework of society, itself a divine ordinance, receives such important aid from the sanction of religion, that it is its interest in turn to uphold religion, and to enrich it with temporal gifts and honours. Ordinarily speaking, then, the Roman Pontiffs owe their exaltation to the secular power, and have a great stake in its stability and prosperity. Under such circumstances, any men but they would have had a strong leaning towards what is called “Conservatism;” and they have been, and are, of course Conservatives in the right sense of the word; that is, they cannot bear anarchy, they think revolution an evil, they pray for the peace of the world and the prosperity of all Christian States, and they effectively support the cause of order and good government. The name of Religion is but another name for law on the one hand, freedom on the other; and at this very time, who are its professed enemies, but Socialists, Red Republicans, Anarchists, and Rebels? But a Conservative, in the political sense of the word, commonly signifies something else, which the Pope never is, and cannot be. It means a man who is at the top of the tree, and knows it, and means never to come down, whatever it may cost him to keep his place there. It means a man who upholds government and society and the existing state of things,—not because it exists,—not because it is good and desirable, because it is established, because it is a benefit to the population, because it is full of promise for the future,—but rather because he himself is well off in consequence of it, and because to take care of number one is his main political principle. It means a man who defends religion, not for religion’s sake, but for the sake of its accidents and externals; and in this sense Conservative a Pope can never be, without a simple betrayal of the dispensation committed to him. Hence at this very moment the extreme violence against the Holy See, of the British legislature and constituency and their newspapers and other organs, mainly because it will not identify the cause of civil government with its own, because, while it ever benefits this world, it ever contemplates the world unseen.

So much, however, is intelligible enough; but there is a more subtle form of Conservatism, by which ecclesiastical persons are much more likely to be tempted and overcome, and to which also the Popes are shown in history to be superior. Temporal possessions and natural gifts may rightly be dedicated to the service of religion; however, since they do not lose their old nature by being invested by a new mission or quality, they still possess the pabulum of temptation, and may be fatal to ecclesiastical “detachment.” To prefer the establishment of religion to its purity, is Conservatism, though in a plausible garb. It was once of no uncommon occurrence for saintly Bishops, in the time of famine or war, to break up the Church plate and sell it, in order to relieve the hungry or to redeem the captives by the sums which it brought them. Now this proceeding was not unfrequently urged against them in their day as some great offence; but the Church has always justified them. Here we see, as in a typical instance, both the wrong Conservatism, of which I am speaking, and its righteous repudiation. This fault is an over-attachment to the ecclesiastical establishment, as such;—to the seats of its power, to its holy places, its sanctuaries, churches, and palaces,—to its various national hierarchies, with their several prescriptions, privileges, and possessions,—to traditional lines of policy, precedent, and discipline,—to rules and customs of long standing. But a great Pontiff must be detached from everything save the deposit of faith, the tradition of the Apostles, and the vital principles of the divine polity. He may use, he may uphold, he may and will be very slaw to part with, a hundred things which have grown up, or taken shelter, or are stored, under the shadow of the Church; but, at bottom, and after all, he will be simply detached from pomp and etiquette, secular rank, secular learning, schools and libraries, Basilicas and Gothic cathedrals, old ways, old alliances, and old friends. He will be rightly jealous of their loss, but still he will “know nothing but” Him whose Vicar he is; he will not stake his fortunes, he will not rest his cause, upon any one else:—this is what he will do, and what he will not do, as in fact the great Popes of history have shown, in their own particular instances, on so many and various occasions.

Take the early Martyr-Popes, or the Gregories and the Leos; whether they were rich or poor, in power or in persecution, they were simply detached from every earthly thing save the Rock of Peter. This was their adamantine foundation, their starting-point in every enterprise, their refuge in every calamity, the point of leverage by which they moved the world. Secure in this, they have let other things come and go, as they would; or have deliberately made light of what they had, in order that they might gain what they had not. They have known, in the fulness of an heroic faith, that, while they were true to themselves and to their divinely appointed position, they could not but “inherit the earth,” and that, if they lost ground here, it was only to make progress elsewhere. Old men usually get fond of old habits; they cannot imagine, understand, relish any thing to which they are not accustomed. The Popes have been old men; but, wonderful to say, they have never been slow to venture out upon a new line, when it was necessary, and had ever been looking about, sounding, exploring, taking observations, reconnoitring, attempting, even when there was no immediate reason why they should not let well alone, as the world would say, or even when they were hampered with difficulties at their door so great, that you would think that they had no time or thought to spare for anything in the distance. It is but a few years ago that a man of eighty, of humble origin, the most Conservative of Popes, as he was considered, with disaffection and sedition upheaving his throne, was found to be planning missions for the interior of Africa, and, when a moment’s opportunity was given him, made the most autocratical of Emperors, the very hope of Conservatives, the very terror of Catholics, quail beneath his glance. And, thus independent of times and places, the Popes have never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy (as their astonished foes have called it), of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene in its due season, and of fastening on and establishing themselves in the new.

I am led to this line of thought by St. Gregory’s behaviour to the Anglo-Saxon race, on the break-up of the old civilization. I am not mentioning our people for their own sake, but because they furnish an instance of that remarkable trait in the character of Popes, of which I have been speaking. One would have thought that in the age of St. Gregory, a Pope bad enough to do in living on from day to day, without troubling himself about the future; that, with the Lombard at his doors, he would not have had spirit to set about converting the English; and that, if he was anxious about the preservation of learning, he would have looked elsewhere than to the Isles of the North, for its refuge in the evil day. Why, I repeat, was it not easier, safer, and more feasible for him to have made much of the prosperous, secure, and long established schools of Alexandria, when the enemy went about him plundering and burning? He was not indeed on the best terms with Constantinople; Antioch was exposed to other enemies, and had suffered from them already; but Alexandria was not only learned and protected, but was a special ally of the Holy See; yet Alexandria was put aside for England and Ireland.

With what pertinacity of zeal does Gregory send his missionaries to England! with what an appetite he waits for the tidings of their progress! with what a relish he dwells over the good news, when they are able to send it! He wrote back to Augustine in words of triumph:—“ ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,’ ” he says, “ ‘et in terrâ pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis!’ for the Grain of corn died and was buried in the earth, that It might reign with a great company in Heaven,—by whose death we live, by whose weakness we are strengthened, by whose sufferings we escape suffering, by whose love we are seeking in Britain brothers whom we know not of, by whose gift we find those whom, not knowing, we were seeking. Who can describe the joy, which was caused in the hearts of all the faithful here, on the news that the English nation, by the operation of the grace of the Omnipotent God, and by your labours, my brother, had been rescued from the shades of error and overspread with the light of holy faith! If on one penitent there is great joy in heaven, what, think we, does it become, when a whole people has turned from its error, and has betaken itself to faith, and condemned the evil it has done by repenting of the doing! Wherefore in this joy of Heaven and Angels, let me say once more the very Angels’ words, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terrâ pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis.’ ”

What were these outer barbarians to Gregory? how could they relieve him or profit him? What compensation could they make for what the Church was then losing, or might lose in future? Yet he corresponds with their king and queen, urges them to complete what they had so happily begun, reminds Bertha of St. Helena, and what St. Helena did for the Romans, and Ethelbert, of the great Constantine; informs them of the satisfaction which their conversion had given to the Imperial Court at Constantinople, and sends them sacred presents from the Apostle Peter. Nay he cannot keep from talking of these savages, apropos of anything whatever, for they have been running in his head from the day he first saw them in the slave market; and he makes the learned Church of Alexandria the special partner of his joy upon this contemptible victory. The Patriarch Eulogius had been telling him of his own success in reclaiming the heretics of Alexandria, and he sends him a piece of good news in return:—“As I am well aware,” he says, “that in the midst of your own good deeds, you rejoice in those of others, I will repay you for the kindness of your tidings by telling you something of the same sort.” And then he goes on to speak of the conversion of the English, “who are situated in a corner of the world,” as if their gain was comparable to that of the educated and wealthy persons whom Eulogius had been reconciling to the Church. Nay, lest he should take too much credit for his own success, and grow vain upon it, he attributes it to the prayers of the Alexandrians, or at least of their Bishop, all that way off, as if the Angles and Jutes were anything at all to the city of the Ptolemies! “On Christmas Day,” he says, “more than 10,000 of them were baptized. I tell you of it, that you may know, that, while your words avail for your own people, your prayers avail for the ends of the earth. For you are by prayer where you are not, while you manifest yourself by holy labours where you are.”

Time went on, and the Popes showed less and less disposition to cling to past associations, or to confide in existing establishments, or to embarrass themselves in political engagements. When they were in trouble, their old friends could not, or would not, help them. Rome was almost deserted; no throng of pilgrims mounted to the threshold of the Apostles; no students flocked to the schools. The Pope sat in the Lateran desolate, till at length news was brought him that one foreigner had made his appearance. Whence did he come? from the north; from beyond the sea; he was one of those barbarians whom his Holiness’s predecessor, Gregory of blessed memory, had converted. The pilgrim came, and he went. An interval, and then, I think, a second pilgrim-student came: and who was he? Why, he was an Englishman too. A fact to remember! one of these young barbarians is worth a thousand of those time-servers of Constantinople. Our predecessor must have acted under some special guidance, when, at the beginning of this century, he set his heart upon the worshippers of Thor and Woden! So, when a vacancy occurs in the see of Canterbury, Pope Vitalian determines to place in it a man of his own choosing, one whom so faithful a people deserves. The Irish, says the Pope, have done much for England, but teachers it still needs. Moreover, local teaching, even the best, and though saints be its organs, is apt to have something in it of local flavour, and needs from time to time to be refreshed from the founts of apostolical tradition. We will pick out, says he, the best specimens of learning and science, which the length and breadth of southern Christendom can furnish, and send them thither, uniting the excellence of different lands, under the immediate sanction of Rome. In this eclecticism, he did but follow St. Gregory himself, who, when Augustine represented to him, that, while faith was one, customs were so various, made answer, “I wish that, wherever you find anything especially pleasing to Almighty God, whether in the Roman, or Gallic, or any other Church, you would be at pains to select it, and introduce it into the English Church, as yet new in the faith.”

This line of proceeding in ecclesiastical matters was carried on by Vitalian into the province of learning. The Greek colonies of Syria and Asia Minor, and the Roman settlements upon the African coast, had been, almost from their first formation, flourishing schools of education; and now that they were perishing under the barbarism of the Saracens, they were abandoned, by such professors and students as remained, for the cities of Italy. In a convent near Naples lived Adrian, an African; at Rome there was a monk, named Theodore, from Tarsus in Cilicia; both of them were distinguished for their classical, as well as their ecclesiastical attainments; and while Theodore had been educated in Greek usages, Adrian represented the more congenial and suitable traditions of the West. Of these two, Theodore, at the age of sixty-six, was made Primate of England, while Adrian was placed at the head of the monastery of Canterbury. Passing through France, in their way to their post of duty, they delayed there a while at the command of the Pope, to accustom themselves to the manners of the North; and at length they made their appearance in England, with a collection of books, Greek classics, and Gregorian chants, and whatever other subjects of study may be considered to fill up the interval between those two. They then proceeded to found schools of secular, as well as of sacred learning throughout the south of the island; and we are assured by St. Bede, that many of their scholars were as well acqainted with Latin and Greek, as with their native tongue. One of these schools in Wiltshire, as the legend goes, was, on that account, called “Greeklade,” since corrupted into Cricklade, and, migrating afterwards to Oxford, was one of the first elements of its University. Meanwhile, one of those Saxon pilgrims, who had been so busy at Rome, having paid, it is said, as many as five visits to the Apostles, went up to the north of the country. Before the coming of the two foreign teachers, Benedict Biscop had been Abbot of Canterbury; but, making way for Adrian, he took himself and his valuable library, the fruit of his travels, to Wearmouth in Northumberland, where he founded a Church and monastery.

These details are not out of place in the history of Universities; but I introduce them here as illustrating a point, much to be remarked, in the character of the Popes. It is a common observation of Protestants, that, curiously enough, the Holy See is weakest at home when it is strongest abroad, and they derive some consolation to themselves, I do not know what, from the fact. So it is; this weakness is an alleviation of the annoyance which they feel at the sight of a world succumbing to the See of Peter. They say, that after all, if the world has its mortifications, Peter, on the other hand, has his discomforts too. True, the gates of hell do not prevail against him, but then he is driven about from place to place, thrown into prison, and, if he escapes the sword of Herod, it is only that Nero may inflict upon him the more cruel death of crucifixion. What then is Peter’s but a hollow power, which profits the possessor nothing, though it be ecumenical? Does it secure him health, strength, wealth, comfort, ease, that he is revered by millions whom he never saw? He inherits the earth, but is not certain of a roof to sleep under, or a grave to be buried in. How is he better off, because his name is mentioned in Mass in the Brazils, and his briefs are read in the Churches of Cochin China?

This taunt does but supply a boast to the Catholic, and has a moral for the philosopher. Certainly Popes are unlike any other old and infirm men that ever were. To clutch at what is within their reach, to keep tight hold of what they have, to believe what they see, to care that things should last their own time, to let posterity shift for itself, to hate disturbance and turmoil, to compound for present peace, to be sceptical about improvements, to be averse to new plans, in a word, to live in sense, not in imagination, is the characterstic of old statesmen, old lawyers, and old traders. They cannot throw their minds into new ideas; they cannot realize the views of others; they cannot move out of their lifelong position, nor advance one inch towards any other. Were such a person,—sound, safe, sensible, sagacious, experienced,—at the elbow of Pope Gregory, or his successors of the seventh century, he would have advised him to fall back upon Constantinople, to come to an understanding with the Imperial Court, to link his fortunes with those of an effete civilization, and to allow the encroachments of an ambitious hierarchy; as to Franks, and Frisons, and Westphalians, and Saxons, and Burgundians, and Visigoths, and Scots, to leave them to themselves. I need not take an imaginary instance; not many years have passed since a Nuncio of the Holy See passed through England in his way from Portugal to Rome, and had an interview with a great warrior now no more, a man of preternatural sagacity in his own sphere of thought,—which was not Catholic and divine. When the ecclesiastic in question asked the great man’s advice what the then Pope’s policy should be, the Duke abruptly replied, “Let him catch hold of the coat-tail of Austria, and hang on as hard as he can.” Yes, and the able statesmen of each age would have said the same to Gregory the First, to the Second, the Third, and the Seventh, as well as to Gregory the Sixteenth,—to Julius, Silverian, and Martin; they would have counselled the Vicar of Christ a safe and pleasant course, “fallentis semita vitæ,” which would have ended in some uninhabitable desert, or some steep precipice, far from the haunts of man.

When Pius the Ninth, foiled in his attempt to better the civil condition of his states, from the worthlessness both of his materials and his instruments, was a fugitive and exile at Gaeta, the Protestant public jeered and mocked at him, as one whose career was over and whose candle was put out. Yet he has but supplied a fresh and the latest instance, later there cannot be, of the heroic detachment of Popes, and has carried down the tradition of St. Peter into the age of railroads and newspapers. But we are entering upon a new part of the subject, which our present limits will not admit, and which we cannot perhaps treat without freedom.

Copyright ©1999-2023 Wildfire Fellowship, Inc all rights reserved