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

A GREAT personage, within the last fifteen years, sent his advice to the Pope “to make sure of the cont-tail of Austria, and hold on.” Austria is a great and religious power; she inherits the prerogatives of the German Empire and the titles of the Cæsars. There must ever be relations of a very peculiar kind between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, when the time came for taking advantage of his advice, the Pope did just the reverse. He made light of this master of political wisdom, and showed his independence of Austria;—not that he did not honour Austria, but that he honoured the Rock of Peter more. And what has been the consequence? he has simply gained by his fidelity to his position. Austria has been far more truly the friend and protector, the child and servant of the Pope than before; she has repealed the Josephine statutes, so injurious to the Church, and has opened her territories to the full religious influences of the Holy See. Here is an instance of what I have called “ecclesiastical detachment,” and of its working.

Again, a revolution breaks out in Europe, and a deep scheme is laid to mix up the Pope in secular politics of a contrary character. He is to be the head of Italy, to range himself against the sovereigns of Europe, and to carry all things before him in the name of Religion. He steadily refuses to accept the insidious proposal; and at length he is driven out of his dominions, because, While he would ameliorate their condition, he would do so as a Father and a Prince, and not as the tool of a conspiracy. However, not many months pass, and the party of disorder is defeated, and he goes back to Rome again. Rome is his place; but it is little to him whether he is there or away, compared with the duty of fidelity to his Trust.

Once more, the power which restores him to his country, presumes; and insists upon his modelling his temporal polity upon the unecclesiastical principles of a foreign code. France, too, as Austria, is a great Catholic power; the eldest-born of the Church; the representative of the coming civilization, as Austria is the heir of the past; but France was not likely to gain for the Code of a dead Emperor, what that Emperor, in the plenitude of his living genius and authority, could not compass for it. The Pope refuses to subject himself to France, as he had refused to subject himself to Austria; and what is the consequence? It is the old story; a new Emperor arises, with the name, and without the religious shortsightedness, of his great predecessor. He has the wisdom to run a race with Austria in doing honour to the Church, and France professes Catholicity with an ardour unknown to her since the reign of Louis the Fourteenth.

These are times of peculiar difficulty and delicacy for the Church. It is not as in the middle ages, or as in the ante-Nicene period, when right and wrong were boldly marked out, and there was a broad line between them, and little chance of mistaking one for the other. In such times detachment was another name for faith; it was scarcely a virtue, substantive and sui generis; for attachment to any temporal possession or advantage then was practically nothing else than apostasy. Things are otherwise now; it has not, therefore, fallen to the lot of many Popes, to have such opportunities as Pius the Ninth, of resisting temptation, of resigning himself to the political weakness incident to the Holy See, of falling back calmly upon its traditionary principles, of rejecting the arguments for innovating upon its true position, and in consequence of attaining so rapid a triumph after deplorable reverses. When Pius was at Gaeta and Portici, the world laughed on hearing that he was giving his attention to the theological bearings of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Little fancying what various subject-matters fall all at once under a Pope’s contemplation, and are successively carried out into effect, as circumstances require; little dreaming of the intimate connexion of these matters with each other, even when they seem most heterogeneous; or that a belief touching the Blessed Virgin might have any influence upon the fortunes of the Holy See; the wise men of the day concluded from the Pope’s Encyclical about that doctrine, that he had, what they called, given up politics in disgust, and had become a harmless devotee or a trifling school-divine. But soon they heard of other acts of the Holy Father; they heard of his interposition in the Fast; of his success in Spain; of his vigilant eye directed towards Sardinia and Switzerland in his own neighbourhood, and towards North and South America in another hemisphere; of his preachers spreading through Germany; of his wonderful triumphs, already noticed, in Austria and France; of his children rising as if out of the very earth in England; and of their increasing moral strength in Ireland, in proportion to her past extraordinary sufferings; of the hierarchies of England and Holland, and of the struggle going forward on the Rhine; and then they exchanged contempt for astonishment and indignation, saying that it was intolerable that a potentate who could not keep his own, and whose ease and comfort at home were not worth a month’s purchase, should be so blind to his own interests as to busy himself with the fortunes of Religion at the ends of the earth.

And an additional feeling arose, which it is more to our purpose to dwell upon. They were not only angry, but they began to fear. It may strike one at first with surprise, that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, in an age of professed light and liberality, so determined a spirit of persecution should have arisen, as we experience it, in these countries, against the professors of the ancient faith. Catholics have been startled, irritated, and depressed, at this unexpected occurrence; they have been frightened, and have wished to retrace their steps; but after all, far from suggesting matter for alarm or despondency, it is nothing more or less than a confession on the part of our adversaries, how strong we are, and how great our promise. It is the expression of their profound misgiving that the Religion which existed long before theirs, is destined to live after it. This is no mere deduction from their acts; it is their own avowal. They have seen that Protestantism was all but extinct abroad; they have confessed that its last refuge and fortress was in England; they have proclaimed aloud, that, if England was supine at this moment, Protestantism was gone. Twenty years ago England could afford, as much in contempt as in generosity, to grant to Catholics political emancipation. Forty or fifty years ago it was a common belief in her religious circles, that the great Emperor, with whom she was at war, was raised up to annihilate the Popedom. But from the very grave of Pius the Sixth, and from the prison of Pius the Seventh, from the very moment that they had an opportunity of showing to the world their familiarity with that ecclesiastical virtue of which I have said so much, the Catholic movement began. In proportion to the weakness of the Holy See at home, became its influence and its success in the world. The Apostles were told to be prudent as serpents, and simple as doves. It has been the simplicity of the Sovereign Pontiffs which has been their prudence. It is their fidelity to their commission, and their detachment from all secular objects, which has given them the possession of the earth.

I am not pursuing the line of thought which has engaged me in my last chapter and my present without a drift. It bears directly upon the subject which leads me to write at all; and it has an important bearing, intelligible even to the historian and philosopher, so that reason and experience would be able to extort from him what faith could not obtain. Even a pagan ought to be able to prophecy that our University is destined for great things. I look back at the early combats of Popes Victor and Stephen; I go on to Julius and Celestine, Leo and Gregory, Boniface and Nicholas; I pass along the Middle Ages, down to Paul the Third and Pius the Fifth; and thence to the two Popes of the same name, who occupy the most eventful fifty years, since Christianity was; and I cannot shut my eyes to the fact, that the Sovereign Pontiffs have had a gift, proper to themselves, of understanding what is good for the Church, and what Catholic interests require. And in the next place, I find that this gift exercises itself in an absolute independence of secular politics, and a detachment from every earthly and temporal advantage, and pursues its end by uncommon courses, and by unlikely instruments, and by methods of its own. I see that it shines the brightest, and is the most surprising in its results, when its possessors are the weakest in this world and the most despised; that in them are most vividly exemplified the Apostle’s words, in the most beautiful and most touching of his Epistles, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency may be of the power of God, and not of us; as needy, yet enriching many, as having nothing, and possessing all things.”

I get these two points of history well into my mind; and then I shut my book, and look at the world before my eyes. I see an age of transition, the breaking up of the old and the coming in of the new; an old system shattered some sixty years ago, and a new state of things scarcely in its rudiments as yet, to be settled perhaps some centuries after our time. And it is a special circumstance in these changes, that they extend beyond the past historical platform of human affairs; not only is Europe broken up, but other continents are thrown open, and the new organization of society aims at embracing the world. It is a day of colonists and emigrants;—and, what is another most pertinent consideration, the language they carry with them is English, which consequently, as time goes on, is certain, humanly speaking, to extend itself into every part of the world. It is already occupying the whole of North America, whence it threatens to descend upon South; already is it the language of Australia, a country large enough in the course of centuries to rival Europe in population; already it has become the speech of a hundred marts of commerce, scattered over the East, and, even where not the mother tongue, it is at least the medium of intercourse between nations. And, lastly, though the people who own that language is Protestant, a race preëminently Catholic has adopted it, and has a share in its literature; and this Catholic race is, at this very time, of all tribes of the earth, the most fertile in emigrants both to the West and the South. These are the manifest facts of the day, which would be before our eyes, whether the Pope had anything to say to them or no. The English language and the Irish race are overrunning the world.

When then I consider what an eye the Sovereign Pontiffs have for the future; and what an independence in policy and vigour in action have been the characteristics of their present representative; and what a flood of success, mounting higher and higher, has lifted up the Ark of God from the beginning of this century; and then, that the Holy Father has definitely put His finger upon Ireland, and selected her soil as the seat of a great Catholic University, to spread religion, science, and learning, wherever the English language is spoken; when I take all these things together,—I care not what others think, I care not what others do, God has no need of men,—oppose who will, shrink who will, I know and cannot doubt that a great work is begun. It is no great imprudence to commit oneself to a guidance which never yet has failed; nor is it surely irrational or fanatical to believe, that, whatever difficulties or disappointments, reverses or delays, may be our lot in the prosecution of the work, its ultimate success is certain, even though it seemed at first to fail,—just as the greatest measures in former times have been the most tardy in execution, as Athanasius triumphed though he passed away before Arianism, and Hildebrand died in exile, that his successors might enter into his labours.

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