Sister Mary Emmanuel Alves, FSP, never thought John Henry Newman would—or even could—inspire her. “Newman wrote the book entitled University Sermons; he was a high-class theologian,” she remembers with a twinkle in her eye. “Definitely not for me!” she thought. “Give me the Curé d’Ars instead, this Newman will be over my head.”
That all changed when she came across a quote from Cardinal Newman that shed light on her life at a particularly difficult time:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.
“I met him through that quote,” Sister Mary Emmanuel says, and she is smiling at the memory. “I just had to find where he said it, so I located a copy of Parochial and Plain Sermons—it turned out the quote I was looking for wasn’t there, but I started reading anyway. And as I was reading, I kept thinking, ‘My goodness, I understand the man!’ I kept reading, I had to go back and re-read what he said several times because there are so many layers of meaning to everything he writes.”
She started reading Newman, and kept reading Newman. “What attracts me to him,” she says now, “is his laser-focus on the invisible world, his relentless search for light in a dark world, and his continuous awareness of being in the presence of God.”
Sister’s books by Newman are well-thumbed, marked with notations, filled with colorful sticky notes; this is clearly where she turns, again and again, for strength and inspiration. “Most people live good lives,” she says. “They go through their days, but they don’t know that God has an eternal purpose for their lives and why he put us here. Newman says, ‘God leads us by strange ways’ and it’s true: so many people are taking the wrong way simply because they do not know. But if you read Newman… what he says transcends the ages, it transcends errors, it transcends public opinion. Many doubters have found their way to God through Newman. He is a man for our times because his sources are the timeless wisdom drawn from the Scriptures and Fathers of the Church.”
So Newman really is, at the end of the day, someone who can speak to anyone and everyone. “There’s a beautiful chapter on finding God and sanctity in our daily rounds,” says Sister Mary Emmanuel. “We’re all engaged in the exhausting cycle of everyday routine. But Newman wanted to help people see God in their daily rounds. Each day is to bring forth its own treasure. He speaks of the sacrament of the present moment. Keep your mind on what you’re doing, and God is there with you in that moment.” Newman wrote, “Look out for his presence in everything that happens, however trivial.”
“Mark my words,” Sister says, “he will eventually be a doctor of the Church. He is for everyone: theologians, philosophers, and even for those of us who have not studied extensively. Newman has taught me to be continually aware of what he calls “the secret supernatural system going on under the visible scene.” It is faith that sees it and love that chooses it.
John Henry Newman’s canonization is an excellent opportunity to start reading more of his work and learning about his life. “I don’t want people to be afraid of him,” says Sister Mary Emmanuel. “Give him a chance. There is so much to understand. God wants you to understand why he gave you this life, and Newman can help with that. You will find the peace you’re looking for!”