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Francis of Assisi, Newman and the Gospel

· On the eve of the Year of Faith ·

Blessed John Henry Newman, in his great book, A Grammar of Assent, distinguishes two forms of knowledge. He calls one “notional” and the other “real.” One might call them “abstract knowledge” and “experiential knowledge:” or knowledge of the head and knowledge of the heart.

Unlike lesser thinkers, Newman does not opt for one rather than the other. Both forms of knowledge are important; both are necessary for a comprehensive view of man, for an integral humanism. But, in matters religious, real knowledge, real assent, is absolutely crucial.

One may and should know the articles of the Creed and the passages of the Catechism. But, if these remain merely “notional,” abstract propositions, they do not attain the living reality at which religion aims.

Hence the goal of the evangelist, the preacher, the catechist is to “midwife” in their hearers the movement from the merely notional to the real. One of Newman’s favorite words was “realization:” with God’s grace to make real for ourselves and to aid others in making real for themselves the awe-inspiring mysteries of the faith.

This challenge to make real our faith for ourselves and others is at the heart of the Year of Faith. As Pope Benedict urged the young people gathered in Beirut:“Seek out good teachers, spiritual masters, who will be able to guide you along the path to maturity, leaving behind all that is illusory, garish and deceptive. Bring the love of Christ to everyone! How? By turning unreservedly to God the Father, who is the measure of everything that is right, true and good. Meditate on God’s word! Discover how relevant and real the Gospel can be. Pray! Prayer and the sacraments are the sure and effective means to be a Christian and to live “rooted and built up in Christ, and established in the faith” (Col 2:7). The Year of Faith, which is about to begin, will be a time to rediscover the treasure of the faith which you received at Baptism”.

Newman, whose writings so influenced the young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, also gave much thought as how best to facilitate the passage from the merely notional to the real. He suggests that it is primarily the imagination which moves our affections and inspires us to action. In a striking passage from The Grammar of Assent he writes: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason but through the imagination.” And he adds these words, so characteristic of his approach, of his deeply incarnational vision: “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”

No wonder that, when he was made a Cardinal, Newman took as his motto “cor ad cor loquitur” – “heart speaks to heart.” They sum up his intensely personalist vision of human relations, indeed of all reality proceeding from the love of the tri-personal God.

Few figures in the history of the Church more powerfully embody the truth of Newman’s insight than Francis of Assisi. In his “First Life of Blessed Francis,” written within three years of the Saint’s death, Thomas of Celano, describes the enormous impact of Francis upon the men and women of his time.

We tend to think of the 13th century as a high point of the “age of faith.” But Thomas of Celano speaks of the situation in Umbria at the time that Francis began his ministry in terms that bear an uncanny resemblance to our own secular age. He says that a “deep forgetfulness of God” darkened the land and that “neglect of God’s commandments” permeated people’s lives. In Newman’s terms much of the Christianity that characterized the age was only “notional,” not “real.”

Intriguingly, Thomas describes Francis’ as “novus evangelista” -- a new evangelist! For Celano Francis was the new Evangelist sent by God to rouse the hearts of men and women to a real sense of God’s presence and action in their lives. What Francis embarked upon was a new evangelization of his society and culture.

What was new about Francis’ evangelization? Certainly not a new Gospel. He proclaimed in word and deed, in his entire being, the one Good News of Jesus Christ. But a new realization of the Gospel, with passionate commitment and creative embodiment. He rekindled the Christian imagination for his time.

Underlying and sustaining everything for Francis was his love affair with Jesus Christ. The heart of Francis’ heart was Jesus. As Celano writes: “The brothers who lived with him know that daily, constantly, talk of Jesus was always on his lips … the spring of radiant love that filled his heart flowed forth. He was always with Jesus: Jesus in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his hands: he bore Jesus always in his whole body.”

Of course, Francis’ bearing of Jesus “in his whole body” was consummated by the costly grace of the stigmata. Francis was so great an Evangelist because he not only preached – which he certainly did, but because he lived Jesus fully: dying with Jesus that he might rise with him.

As we begin this Year of Faith, as Bishops of the World gather for the Synod on Evangelization, we can learn from John Henry Newman and Francis of Assisi that a merely notional faith is not sufficient. We are invited once again to realize our faith more fully so that we might become more generous and creative evangelists. For only heart can truly speak to heart.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 19, 2019