Blessed John Henry Newman,

the Eucharist and the Sacraments

Mark McIntyre looks at Newman's writings on the Eucharist and his understanding of sacramental doctrine


Some of the biographies of John Henry Newman can generate deep emotion in the reader. For instance when, long after his reception into the Roman Catholic Church, Newman pays a private visit to Littlemore and is spotted by a farmer. Newman is leaning over the church wall with tears in his eyes. The farmer returns home and simply says, `Parson has come back again!' (L. Bouyer, Newman, His Life and Spirituality). Equally, on the day of Newman's ordination as a deacon, he reflects, in the Autobiographical Writings: 'It is over. I am thine, I seem quite dizzy, and cannot altogether believe and understand it... my heart shuddered within me, the words 'forever are so terrible'. Here at the point of ordination is an understanding of sacramental action, even if later he would question his own developed sacramental understanding of what was happening at his ordination as an Anglican.

Moment of realization

Also as he prepared for his ordination as a priest he wrote, `Make me thy instrument, make use of me, when thou wilt and dash me to pieces when thou wilt, Let me living or dying, in fortune and misfortune, in joy and sadness, in health and Sickness, in honour and dishonour, be Thine'. This moment of Newman's realization is surely echoed in the better moments of all those called to serve as deacons and priests. Even here then, in 1823-4, John Henry Newman surely sees the ontological change that comes through ordination, and we can identify a sacramental understanding of what he is experiencing through this sacrament. However even prior to ordination, Newman shows a great awareness of the importance of the sacraments, especially that of Holy Communion.

Receiving worthily

Newman had made his first Communion on 30 November 1817. At the time Newman went up to Oxford and Trinity College, it was the custom for all the college to attend Holy Communion on the feast of Trinity Sunday. It was significant enough for him to note it in his diary. It was also the custom in the evening after receiving Communion in the morning for the 'men to get dead drunk Newman hated this custom and had written for his own benefit a sermon on 'unworthy communions'. Written at the time when he was a young Evangelical. Also in the Plain and Parochial Sermons, Newman preaches on 'Attendance at Holy Communion'. Newman was scandalized by the heavy drinking and partying after the college had just been to Communion on Trinity Sunday. The emphasis on worthily receiving of the Sacrament is strong again in this particular sermon:

'Now it is plain when it is that persons are in danger of receiving it fearlessly and thoughtlessly; not when they receive it for the first time, but when they have often received it, when they are in the habit of receiving it. This is the dangerous time, When a Christian first comes to Holy Communion, he comes with awe and anxiety. At least, I will not suppose the case of a person so little in earnest about his soul, and so profane, as to despise the ordinance when he first attends it. Perhaps he has no clear doctrinal notion of the sacred rite, but the very title of it, as the Sacrament of his Lord's Body and Blood, suffices to make him serious. Let us believe that he examines himself, and prays for grace to receive the gift worthily; and he feels at the time of celebration and afterwards, that, having bound himself more strictly to a religious life, and received Divine influences, he has more to answer for But alter he has repeated his attendance several times, this fear and reverence wear away with the novelty. As he begins to be familiar with the words of the prayers, and the order of the Service, so does he both hear and receive with less emotion and solemnity. It is not that he is a worse man than he was at first, but he is exposed to a greater temptation to be profane. He had no deeper religious principle when he first communicated than he has now (probably not so deep), but his want of acquaintance with the Service kept him from irreverence, indifference, and wandering thoughts; but now this accidental safeguard is removed, and as he has not succeeded in acquiring any habitual reverence from former seasons of communicating, and has no clear knowledge of the nature of the Sacrament to warn and check him, he is exposed to his own ordinary hardness of heart and unbelief, in circumstances much more perilous than those in which they are ordinarily displayed, If it is a sin to neglect God in the world, it is a greater sin to neglect Him in church. Now is the time when he is in danger of not discerning the Lord's Body, of receiving the gift of life as a thing of course, without awe, gratitude, and self-abasement. And the more constant he is in his attendance at the sacred rite, the greater will be his risk; his risk, I say; that is, if he neglects to be jealous over himself, to watch himself narrowly, and to condemn and hate in himself the faintest risings of coldness and irreverence; for, of course, if he so acts, the less will be his risk, and the greater will be his security that his heart will not betray him, But I speak of those who are not sufficiently aware of their danger, and these are many.

Newman is clear about how Christians are to approach the Sacrament. He says that when we first approach the Sacrament that we do so in awe and anxiety — even if the Christian has little understanding of the doctrine, he should at least be in awe of the very title of the Sacrament — of the Lord's body and blood. He speaks of the need for careful and thoughtful preparation; we might say examination of our conscience and prayer. Then he warns about becoming overly familiar with Holy Things. How easy is it for any of us to fall into that trap, becoming overly familiar so that the Mass becomes a routine?

Daily sustenance

Newman goes on in this sermon to talk about another danger, that of forgetfulness, 'forgetting that we have communicated He says, We are diligent in preparation, we are careless in retrospect; we dismiss from our memory what we cherished in our expectations; we forget that we ever hoped and feared. Again Newman says that this daily food for us should make a difference and is the sustenance for us, and he quotes St Paul, 'Till Christ be formed in us perfectly'. In Newman's mind there will be a time when sacraments will cease, but until that time they are the means by which we are nourished and changed. Here, at the height of his Anglican preaching, it is this encounter with Jesus in the sacrament that Newman challenges us with — good and careful preparation and remembering who it is we receive.

Real Presence

In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman writes:

I have learned it from the Fathers: I believe the Real Presence because they bear witness to it, St Ignatius calls it the medicine of immortality': St Irenæus says that our flesh becomes incorrupt, and partakes of life, and has the hope of the resurrection; as 'being nourished from the Lord's Body and Blood;' that the Eucharist is made up of two things, an earthly and an heavenly': perhaps Origen, and perhaps Magnes, alter him, say that, It is not a type of our Lord's Body, but His Body: and St Cyprian uses language as fearful as can be spoken, of those who profane it. I cat my lot with them, I believe as they.'

Development of doctrine

Newman's argument is that it is not simply the Scriptures that bear witness to Christian doctrine, the sola scriptura of the Protestant understanding, but it is also the Tradition of the Church. Doctrine can legitimately be developed in the life of the Church. This development though will also be consistent and recognizable as faithful to the Christian tradition. From this we can say two things at least. Firstly, that it is wrong to assume that because Jesus says, `Do this in memory of me', that it is his assumption that we would celebrate the Passover as the act of Christian worship! It is an obvious statement, but it does mean that there can be legitimate, liturgical development in the recalling of the Last Supper and the celebration of the Mass. Our liturgical tradition offers something of a stylization of the Last Supper, because we are bringing together the Last Supper and the sacrifice of the Cross in one celebration, the making present of the sacrifice. Secondly, Newman's understanding of doctrinal development also gives us the clue as to where he would part company with the Protestant Reformation. For the Protestant understanding of simply 'recalling the death until he comes again' is clearly at odds with Newman's understanding of the development of doctrine. A Protestant interpretation of memorial means a clear break with what the Church believed and had come to believe about the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Newman clearly says that he had come to believe in the Real Presence after reflecting on the Fathers of the Church, 'Because they bear witness to it: He recognizes that through the Holy Spirit our understanding of doctrine has a traceable and logical line of legitimate development.


Newman also came to an understanding of the sacramental doctrine through the works of Bishop Joseph Butler on The Analogy of Religion. This was a popular concept in the Romantic literary period and it is when words and poetics were used to convey a deeper meaning or, in theological terms, an outward visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It was seen as the supernatural interpretation of the natural world from which an understanding of the Christian sacraments was derived. Newman says that through John Keble's The Christian Year he came to see the intellectual truth of the sacramental system. Material objects can symbolize and point beyond their natural reality or, as Newman says, the doctrine that material phenomena are both types and the instruments of real thing unseen'. This view of The Christian Year puts the understanding of Analogy at the heart of Tractarian poetics and aesthetics. A characteristic of the Oxford Movement is that it gives us this very high view or Catholic view of the sacraments which also interestingly fitted well with the literary and poetics of the time.

Evocation of the eternal

Newman is able to say, through his novel, Loss and Gain, this of the Mass itself:

It is not a mere form of words — it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth, It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, bore whom angels bow and devils tremble, This is that awful event which is the scope, and the interpretation, of every part of the solemnity. Words are necessary, but as means, not as ends; they are not mere addresses to the throne of grace, they are instruments of what tis far higher, of consecration, of sacrifice. They hurry on, as if impatient tofulfil their mission.'


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