When John Henry Newman was created a cardinal in 1879, he chose as his motto “Cor ad cor loquitor” — “Heart speaks to heart.” He borrowed the phase from the writings of one of his favorite saints, St. Francis de Sales, a 17th century bishop who was famous for inspiring conversions to the faith by his gentle personality and his friendship with those he converted.
In his “Treatise on the Love of God,” Francis de Sales tells his readers, “Mystical theology is to speak to God and to hear God in the bottom of our heart. This happens through secret aspirations. Eyes speak to eyes. Heart speaks to heart. And no one understands except the sacred lovers who speak.” Newman chose this romantic language of lovers because for him it combined the wisdom of the head and the wisdom of the heart.
This idea of heart speaks to heart describes perfectly John Henry Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Faith, which was a long and contemplative process for him. Newman was one of the most brilliant minds of his century. He was constantly questioning, forming and reforming his opinions about the Church, about the sacraments, and about the priesthood until he was finally received in the Catholic Church at Littlemore in Oxford.
The night before, he wrote to his friends, telling them about his decision. In one of the letters to a friend, who later would follow him into the Church and become Cardinal Manning, Newman wrote, “Father Dominic sleeps here tonight, and I will ask him to receive me into what I believe is the one true fold.”
That moment in the life of Newman came only after many hours of prayer. It was not a small decision for someone of Newman’s standing, and it cost him dearly. He lost many of his friends. His academic degree was taken away from him. And he had to leave Oxford after some 20 years. It was all very painful for him, but he was convinced that the Heart of Christ had drawn his heart to the one true Church.
At first, Newman did not know what he would do after his conversion. When he decided to become a priest, he could have joined the Dominicans or the Jesuits. His scholarship would have been an asset to any community. Instead, he decided to become an Oratorian. The Oratory was founded in the 16th century by St. Philip Neri, who was commonly referred to as the “second apostle of Rome.” He was a man like Francis de Sales, who helped people experience Christ through his personal friendship with them.
Cardinal Newman understood that study and scholarship were important, but also that a personal relationship was necessary in order to draw others to the Heart of Christ. St. Philip Neri helped him do this, so he brought the Oratory to England, first to Birmingham and then to London. Not to academic types that he was used to in Oxford, but rather to poor working-class people, whom he served as a simple parish priest. He became part of their everyday lives and established friendships with them.
There are countless letters from Cardinal Newman to his friends, asking about family situations, giving spiritual advice, promising his prayers and showing genuine concern.
His private chapel at the Birmingham Oratory said a lot about his spirituality. Over the altar was an image of St. Francis de Sales painted by a dear friend. The side wall was covered with photographs of Cardinal Newman’s friends, so that he could remember to pray for them when he offered Mass.
Parish life at the Oratory Church centered around the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Mass and confession because in those two sacraments in particular, we truly unite our heart with the Heart of Christ. There were spiritual conferences, popular devotions, especially to Our Lady, all full of beauty and emotion, all designed to excite the imagination and inflame the affections. It was Roman in every sense of the word so that people might come to the same experience of God that Newman had.
Today, Newman is one of the most read theologians. His works are studied by scholars, his homilies and meditations help feed our spiritual hunger, and the example of his life inspires so many of us to follow in his footsteps, inviting us to enter into the mystery of God by allowing Christ to penetrate our hearts, which are sometimes cold and sometimes self-centered, and allowing him to find a place there.
“Cor ad cor loquitor” — “Heart speaks to heart.” It is the message of St. Francis de Sales, of St. Philip Neri, of St. John Henry Newman, but more importantly, it is the message of Christ and of his Church. We, too, are called to unite ourselves to the Heart of Christ while on this Earth so that we might be united with him forever in the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. John Henry Newman, pray for us.
(Editor’s note: Father Cyprian P. La Pastina, pastor of St. Mary Church in Greenwich, delivered the following homily at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist at a Mass celebrating the canonization of Cardinal John Henry Newman on Sunday.)