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St. John Henry Newman’s insights on the Blessed Virgin Mary

John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais. / Credit: Public domain

CNA Staff, Oct 9, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).

When John Henry Newman converted to the Catholic faith from Anglicanism in the 19th century, it shook the English world.

As the country’s most prominent and influential religious preacher, leaving the official Church of England brought him ridicule and even skepticism from both Anglicans and Catholics who doubted his motives.

But Newman’s intentions became clear and his holiness proved true as he “finished the race” in the Catholic Church, serving as a priest and rising to the position of a cardinal and ultimately being named among the saints in heaven when he was canonized Oct. 13, 2019. 

One of the greatest intellectuals of his day, Newman fostered a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and even spent a portion of his autobiography defending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the long-held belief that Mary was conceived without sin. 

Here are five reflections on the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. John Henry Newman worth pondering as the Church celebrates his feast day on Oct. 9.

The Immaculate Conception

In Newman’s religious autobiography, titled “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (“Apology for His Life”), he defended in great detail the teaching that the Catholic faith is the one true faith. 

In the book, Newman addresses “the doctrine that Protestants consider our greatest difficulty, that of the Immaculate Conception.” 

He begins by saying “I have no difficulty in receiving the doctrine,” adding later that “there is no burden at all in holding that the Blessed Virgin was conceived without original sin; indeed, it is a simple fact to say, that Catholics have not come to believe it because it is defined, but that it was defined because they believed it.”

In a compilation of Newman’s religious reflections titled “Meditations and Devotions,” he wrote that “when God would prepare a human mother for his Son, this was why he began by giving her an immaculate conception.”

“He began, not by giving her the gift of love, or truthfulness, or gentleness, or devotion, though according to the occasion she had them all. But he began his great work before she was born; before she could think, speak, or act, by making her holy, and thereby, while on earth, a citizen of heaven,” Newman wrote. 

The Annunciation of Mary

In “Meditations and Devotions,” Newman writes that “Mary is called the Gate of Heaven, because it was through her that Our Lord passed from heaven to earth.”

He said that the Scriptures were referring to Mary in the 44th chapter of the Book of Ezekiel when the prophet said God told him “the gate shall be closed, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it — and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince himself shall sit in it.”

This prophecy is fulfilled not only in Mary becoming the mother of Jesus but also “in that she had a place in the economy of redemption,” Newman wrote.

He explained that Eve participated in the fall of man by tempting Adam, as written in the Book of Genesis.

“It was fitting then in God’s mercy that, as the woman began the destruction of the world, so woman should also begin its recovery, and that as Eve opened the way for the fatal deed of the first Adam, so Mary should open the way for the great achievement of the second Adam,” referring to Christ, Newman wrote. 

Mary took part in the restoration of the world when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of God, he wrote. 

Newman added that “it was God’s will that she should undertake willingly and with full understanding to be the mother of Our Lord, and not to be a mere passive instrument whose maternity would have no merit and no reward.”

“The higher our gifts,” he said, “the heavier our duties,” adding that “it was no light lot to one so intimately near to the Redeemer of men, as she experienced afterwards when she suffered with him.”

On the Assumption of Mary

Because Mary is the mother of God, “other wonderful truths” follow — one of which is that “she was exempt from the ordinary lot of mortals,” Newman wrote in “Meditations and Devotions.”

Newman believed that Mary died on earth and her soul was separated from her body in a tomb but affirmed that “it did not remain there.”

“And the most obvious reason for so concluding is this — that other servants of God have been raised from the grave by the power of God, and it is not to be supposed that Our Lord would have granted any such privilege to anyone else without also granting it to his own mother,” he wrote. 

Citing the Gospel of Matthew, Newman points to the section after Jesus’ crucifixion where the saint writes that “tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”

“Can we suppose that Abraham, or David, or Isaias, or Ezechias, should have been thus favored, and not God’s own Mother?” Newman asked. “Had she not a claim on the love of her Son to have what any others had?”

“And is it conceivable that the law of the grave should admit of relaxation in their case, and not in hers?”

“Therefore,” he said, “we confidently say that Our Lord, having preserved her from sin and the consequences of sin by his passion, lost no time in pouring out the full merits of that Passion upon her body as well as her soul.”

Why is May the month of Mary?

May is chosen as the month of Mary, Newman writes in “Meditations and Devotions,” because of the elements of spring. 

“The first reason is because it is the time when the earth bursts forth into its fresh foliage and its green grass after the stern frost and snow of winter, and the raw atmosphere and the wild wind and rain of the early spring,” he wrote.

“It is because the blossoms are upon the trees and the flowers are in the gardens. It is because the days have got long, and the sun rises early and sets late. For such gladness and joyousness of external nature is a fit attendant on our devotion to her who is the Mystical Rose and the House of Gold,” he wrote. 

Even with some bad weather in May, the springtime nevertheless brings hope that warmer days are right around the corner, Newman wrote, adding that May is also the month of “promise” and of “joy.”

May “belongs to the Easter season,” which is filled with “frequent Alleluias, because Christ has risen from the grave, Christ has ascended on high, and God the Holy Ghost has come down to take his place,” he wrote.

Newman said that it is fitting that May belongs to Mary because it is a time that the Church rejoices “in his great providence to us, in our redemption and sanctification in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.”

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