2 The Diakonia of Truth: The Thought of John Henry Newman and the Life of the Seminary in the Third Millennium – Opening Conference, Fall 2008

Brothers and sisters, welcome to a new formation year. We are truly blessed this year to welcome so many new students, both seminarians and lay students, as well as our returning students. God has truly touched our lives with his amazing bounty. We will all have the opportunity to be a blessing for one another.

During his recent pastoral visit to the United States, Pope Benedict had the opportunity to address the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities at Catholic University of America. In the course of that talk, the Holy Father observed that the crisis of faith, so prevalent in contemporary Western culture, is very much a product of what he terms the crisis of truth.

Who of us engaged in the daily task of pastoral care can doubt that the crisis of faith is real? Mass attendance is dropping. Celebration of the sacraments is decreasing. The Church in the U.S. has been sorely tested in its challenge to meet the spiritual needs of a changing demographic profile. Vocations continue to be unstable. More philosophically, Catholics are less likely to either understand or believe central tenets of the faith.

According to Pope Benedict, the malaise of faith we experience in our culture today is ultimately tied to a crisis of truth. In a postmodern cultural and political environment, the crisis of truth is acute. Nothing is held as definitive and true, nothing seen as lasting or even crucial. The cult of relativism has so inundated our common thinking that even the most spiritually aware Christians cannot help but experience its ramifications in an intense and personal way.

In the midst of this crisis, however, there is a beacon of hope. This hope lies in the very nature of the human person as one who seeks the Truth. We want to know the Truth, even when we no longer have the language to speak of this longing or when the structures of our culture cannot support it.

We desire the Truth, and when we earnestly seek Truth, we will invariably discover the source of that Truth, Jesus Christ. The Church then, and particularly its houses of formation, must remain in the service of Truth, the diakonia of Truth. The Holy Father’s choice of the Greek word diakonia to describe this mission is telling. It is an active, rather than reflective, term.

Service in the loose sense requires us to do something. The diakonia of Truth is a call to action, a call to work for a better world through bold proclamation and tangible work. It is a call to renewal, a call to a new renaissance of belief, a clarion call for us to take up the mantle of evangelization and be proud of our Catholic heritage, our spiritual treasures, our theological foundations.

Many of the pope’s reflections on these questions are drawn from the Holy Father’s extensive study of the philosophical and theological works of John Henry Newman. Of course, I have rather a decided preference for the work of Newman myself. Newman offers us insight into the nature of this understanding of the diakonia of Truth, and, by extension, our formational apostolate in this School of the Lord’s Service.

In my presentation today, I would like first to comment on Newman’s understanding of the nature of Truth, and then to apply these principles to our work at Saint Meinrad. This last section will hopefully form a kind of manifesto for my vision of the future of the School of Theology. First, Newman.

The Pursuit of Truth in the Thought of John Henry Newman

The public career of John Henry Newman, in many ways, can be summarized as the pursuit of the rather biblical question: What is Truth? Newman worked and taught in a time not unlike our own, when the very foundations of knowledge and the very possibility of Truth were being called into question by developments in philosophy, the natural sciences, culture and politics.[1]

Reflections on Truth pervade all of the works of Newman. His great philosophical work, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, is his most systematic, but certainly not his first contribution to this area of thought.[2] Newman’s treatment of Truth is also significantly presented in his landmark work The Idea of a University, which was originally published in 1854.

Newman’s creative contribution to our understanding of the pursuit of Truth has four distinct components. The first is the somewhat simplistic insight that Truth is complex. The second is that the pursuit of Truth is always imbued with a moral aspect, a place in a life of action. In other words, knowledge is not passive; it has consequences.

The third is that Truth is a product not of individual and isolated reflection, but of the life and vigor of the community. And the fourth is that Truth, in its ultimate sense, is a particular Christian truth.

First, Truth is complex. Truth, for Newman, begins with the insight that nothing comes to us immediately and directly; we have to work for what we know. Coming to know something is a process that involves a great complexity of insights, some rational and scientific, some historical, some emotional, and some whose origin may remain mysterious.

In other words: “The idea which represents an object or supposed object is commensurate with the sum total of its possible aspects, however they may vary in the separate consciousness of individuals.”[3] For Newman, this development involves a kind of peripatetic process, that is, a purposeful consideration and reconsideration of various points of view and opinions from various disciplines.

Some of the factors that contribute to this walking around an object include abstract definitions and notions. In the Christian context, these certainly include specific doctrines and teachings of the faith. But knowledge of Christianity, as knowledge of anything, is not merely the grasping of abstract concepts. Truth, then, for Newman is always the product of an elaborate process of construction:

There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of Truth, no one term or proposition which will serve to  define it.[4]

For Newman, this desire for Truth was a natural instinct in the human person. It necessitates a kind of formation, which extends beyond cognition and presses on to a reality that cannot be reduced to the simplistic categories of argumentation. As Newman says in The Idea of a University:

We know, not by a direct and simple vision, not at a  glance, but, as it were, by piecemeal and accumulation, by  a mental process, by going round an object, by the  comparison, the combination, the mutual correction, the  continual adaptation, of many partial notions, by the  employment, concentration and joint action of many  faculties and exercises of the mind.[5]

If this is the way knowledge is attained, the process of formation must somehow emulate and facilitate this process. This is the essence of formation, a process built up over time and strengthened by accumulation. There is a subtlety in the construction of Truth that is illusive to those who strive for easy answers.

Truth is complex because the world is complex and the God who created the world is complex and, therefore, it is not only foolish but futile to seek simple answers in the face of overwhelming complexity. Indeed, all simple and straightforward answers will be intuited by the person as shallow and useless.

In several places in his vast writings, Newman contrasts this complex pursuit of Truth with the spirit of heresy, a spirit all simple and straightforward. For Newman, heresy, and indeed all sin, is a failure of the imagination, a failure, in a sense, to shake things up and to realize this complexity. It is a kind of “bad faith” that chooses ready-made answers to complex questions over the inconvenience of living into mystery. “The world overcomes us, not merely by appealing to our reason, or by exciting our passions, but by imposing on our imagination.”[6] Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is precisely the triumph of imagination.

Second, the acquisition of Truth for Newman is never passive, as the writing on a tabula rasa. Rather it is attained through a sense of earnestness in the seeker. “It is obvious that to be in earnest in seeking the truth is an indispensable requisite for finding it.”[7] The pursuit of Truth produces restlessness in the seeker that cannot be satisfied and yet the perception of the object as something great, indeed ultimate, generates the energy for further pursuit.

For Newman, authentic ideas and truths must be what he termed “living”: “When an idea, whether real or not, is of a nature to arrest and possess the mind, it may be said to have life, that is, to live in the mind which is its recipient.”[8]

Knowledge worth having is generated not through the processes of syllogistic Reason, or in the armchair reflections of amateur philosophers, but in the lived experience, that is, the daily activity of the person. Truth is not an isolated pursuit, but one that unfolds in every aspect of the human person.

The witness of experience, the vicissitudes of youth, the example of other people, the chance encounter with nature, a powerful experience of art, the poetic imagination, all of these have the same power to inform as the pages of a book. All of these things are assimilated over time, often in ways we control, manipulate and understand, but often as a result of simply being in the world.

As Pope Benedict remarks: “Truth means more than knowledge; knowing the Truth leads us to discover the Good.”[9] There are no truths that are simply good to know. The perception of Truth changes lives; it necessitates conversion and movement, which, in turn, propels the learner, the believer, toward increasing knowledge and Truth. If such an energy is lacking, we do not know the Truth.

Third, for Newman, the pursuit of Truth always takes place within the context of the community. Truth, for Newman, is never privatized. It needs the presence of others to inspire and augment its development. It thrives only in a critical and mutually corrective atmosphere. Just as the perception of Truth necessitates action, so this action necessarily has ramifications in the life of the community.

Here his stance is in direct opposition to that of the enthusiastic religion of his evangelical contemporaries. There is no privatized Revelation or Truth. “Truth is not the heritage of any individual, it is absolute and universal; mankind ought to seek and profess it in common.”[10] Indeed, for Newman, Truth can be acquired only in a context. Therefore, in Newman’s estimation, there is always the need to, in a sense, “grow where one is planted.” That is to say, the community provides the proper arena for growth and there is no need to look beyond it for confirmation of the Truth, yet unrevealed.

Finally, the fullness of Truth is manifested in the active living of a life of faith. Secular learning and institutions of education can benefit from Newman’s insights only to a certain point, because Newman was convinced that the fullness of Truth is not open to all. Indeed, “She refuses to reveal her mysteries to those who come otherwise than in the humble and reverential spirit of learners and disciples.”[11]

Truth, however, is instinctual in the hearts of those who believe and practice faith. Faith, Christian belief and practice, however, are not to be understood as another aspect of knowledge, or even of the highest knowledge. For Newman, Christianity is the ground of knowledge. For Newman, the object of pursuit in the context of Christian faith is the Truth of the divine reality, the central aspect of which is the matter and form of revelation.

God as divine reality is, in Newman’s estimation, not only the source of Truth, but the only goal of Truth finally worth pursuit. This in no way denigrates any other branch or discipline of learning; in fact, it enhances the disciples by making them essential components in the construction of the Great Truth, the divine reality.

But herein lies the paradox for Newman. The nature of this divine reality is its very inexhaustibility, that is, what we know when we know God is the infinite itself and pursuit of God is the ultimate pursuit in that it can never be exhausted. What it yields is the same paradox one encounters in education. For the educated person, the more one knows, the more one knows what one does not know. The horizons shift and the pursuit is endless.

The paradox of God is the same. The more the believer “knows” God, the greater, deeper and broader the divine reality becomes. God is not something to be grasped; rather God is the energy, as it were, of grasping, one with which to be in relationship.

“[This pursuit of God] becomes an active principle within [believers], leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself, to an application of it in various directions, and a propagation of it on every side.”[12] In this way, the Incarnation, with its inherent and irresolvable tension, becomes the central teaching of Christianity, the core of its parabolic life.

The Incarnation [is] the central aspect of Christianity, out of which the three main aspects of its teaching take their rise, the sacramental, the hierarchical, and the ascetic. But one aspect of Revelation must not be allowed to exclude or to obscure another; and Christianity is dogmatical, devotional, practical all at once; it is esoteric and exoteric; it is indulgent and strict; it is light and dark; it is love, and it is fear.[13]

Newman understands Truth as complex, active, communitarian and, necessarily, Christian. How do these insights touch upon our work here at Saint Meinrad?

The Diakonia of Truth

Newman’s life’s work was the relentless pursuit of Truth. His energy, his intellect, his creativity were all at the service of this Truth. He lived and died by this Truth and this Truth had a name. Jesus Christ. How does this diakonia of Truth translate into our context?

In our School of Theology, how do we serve the Truth? My observations here concern this school, but they might apply to any school or parish or diocese in the world, if fact, everywhere that Christ is proclaimed as Lord, which is, of course, everywhere.

First, I would say that we must constantly keep before our eyes the primary mission of the school. The mission statement to serve the Church through the quality formation of priests, permanent deacons and lay ministers is, ultimately, at the service of a greater mission and that is the primacy of the evangelical charge: “Go forth and baptize all nations.”

The first mission of this school is to save souls by drawing them ever more profoundly into the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the reason for this school. We are at the service of this primary mission. Everything we do here, everything we say, the very fiber of our buildings and our beings must be intentionally driven by this goal. We must have a zeal for souls if this school is to succeed.

In all that we say and do, we must maintain a constant vigilance that the great goal of our lives, expressed by St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians, “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me,” is fulfilled. We can be the best educators, the best preachers, the best administrators, but if we do not live ever more deeply into Christ, we have failed to provide the world what it most deeply needs and we have failed to be honest about who we truly are.

The diakonia of Truth necessitates that the first things remain first. As Pope Benedict remarks: “Every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and Truth.”[14]

Second, growth is not optional. John Henry Newman’s understanding of Truth, as presented here, requires a constant search and a constant outlook for opportunities for growth. Our Benedictine spiritual heritage likewise proclaims this in the monastic vow of conversatio, conversion.

For the disciple of Jesus, conversion is not optional. What is true for the disciple is likewise true for the institution. Stagnancy is not a quality of discipleship. Resting on one’s laurels offers no tribute to the God who is constantly calling us to greater depth of relationship, greater heights of spiritual insight. Our mission in this school is to respond to the needs of the Church.

The Church is the living body of Christ and, for Newman, “to live is to change.”[15] In our times, this is an increasing challenge. Globalization, new technologies of communication and a vast infrastructure of relationship promote an almost constant alternation in the landscape of the Catholic Church.

We are called to respond to exponentially expanding challenges. In this regard, the School of Theology that is not staying five years ahead of the learning curve is already behind. The men and women who are preparing for service in the Church today will find, when they leave Saint Meinrad, a very different Church even from the one they live in now.

In the divine economy, when we are satisfied with what we have attained, then we must remark that what we have attained is not the living God, but an idol. The seminary that grasps tenaciously to past structures, past programs, past ideals is worshiping the false idol of nostalgia and not the living God. 

If we are to invoke the signs of the times, then we must be willing to attend to the signs of the times and not live as though we are immured in past decades. No matter how febrile those eras were, they are past. As the author William Faulkner once remarked: The past is not dead, it isn’t even past, if it is pointing to the horizon and not to the trenches. Pope Benedict says: “God’s love can only unleash its power when it is allowed to change us from within … Only then can we let it ignite our imaginations and shape our deepest desires.”[16]

Third, while change in not optional, likewise, change for the sake of change is not desirable. Sensitivity and receptivity are necessary components of the diakonia of Truth. “God’s revelation offers every generation the opportunity to discover the ultimate truth about its own life and the goal of history”[17] These words of Pope Benedict acknowledge the necessity of understanding what is happening in the Church, and not only understanding but being receptive to the action of the Holy Spirit.

Past generations had particular needs, particular outlooks, a unique vision of the Church. Because the Church is a living body, these particularities do not negate in any way the Church’s universal message or the solidity of its Tradition. As the pope says, every generation responds differently to the Truth, making it beautifully its own, embracing it in its own arms.

In our present Church, for example, we live with a number of tensions regarding what we might term generational preferences and interests. In his homily for World Youth Day, Pope Benedict asked an important question: “What will you leave to the next generation? Are you building your lives on firm foundations, building something that will endure?”[18]

It is a question for every generation. They must build and they must build on their terms. Succeeding generations, if we are truly to maintain our ecclesial identity, must be sensitive to and respond to the voices of the young. Here is what the Holy Father charged the youth with in the same homily: “The Lord is asking you to be prophets of this new age. Messengers of his love, drawing people to the Father and building a future of hope for all humanity.”[19]

They will do it in a totally unique and compelling way. Let me put it bluntly. Young Catholics today do not think about the Church in the same way as their spiritual parents. A sensitivity to the signs of the times means listening to their voices and hearing in those voices agents of the new evangelization. But it also means a true respect on the part of the young for the wisdom of older generations.

Sensitivity and response to new ecclesial realities, be they generational or hierarchical or theological or pastoral, ensures that the necessity of conversion has direction and that direction is toward the mission goal of evangelization. That conversion and that direction are always within the context of respectful relationships. When charity breaks down in a community, Truth is no longer served.

What is necessary to attain this sensitivity and receptivity? In the words of St. Paul, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”[20]

Fourth, we must realize that everything is formation. As John Henry Newman points out in his observations on the nature of Truth, every truth intersects with every other truth. As Pope Benedict observes: “Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.”

All pursuits of Truth have consequences and form a divine matrix, which supports and sustains not only authentic discipleship, but authentic humanity. The crisis of faith, as Pope John Paul pointed out in the Theology of the Body, is also a crisis of the human person. Human persons in a postmodern world feel isolated not only from their environment, and from each other, but also from disparate aspects of themselves.

The integration of the person necessitates the eradication of any vestiges of internal schizophrenias that divide the human persons into spiritual, social, intellectual and political units, operating as it were on parallel tracks. If there is a byproduct of the crisis of faith and the crisis of Truth, it is the anthropological subdivision that allows us to separate ourselves into manageable units.

But this is alien to the human person; it is destructive. If we seek integration in the person, we must also mirror that integration in the institution. Everything is formation. Pope Benedict makes the following observation: “Being ‘sealed with the Spirit’ means not being afraid to stand up for Christ, letting the truth of the Gospel permeate the way we see, think and act as we work for the triumph of the civilization of love.”[21]

If true unity in society can never be founded upon relationships that deny the equal dignity of the other persons, then no stone can be left unturned in rooting out even the most obscure aspects of our common life that send mixed messages about the efficacy of the Gospel charge.

The way we study, the way we live, the way we pray, the way we worship, the way we recreate, the way we serve, the way we eat, the way we communicate, all of these disparate elements must form a seamless garment of evangelical purpose. The principle that everything is formation challenges us, as a school, to examine our lives and our work to root out even the most inadvertent hypocrisies.

This is a particular insight of the Benedictine ethos of Saint Meinrad. In the holy Rule, we are told that the vessels of common work should be treated with the same dignity as the vessels of the altar. We attend again to the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians: “Whatever you do in thought, word or deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving glory to God the Father through him.”[22]

As Pope Benedict writes: “The public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom.” Here we find a decided intersection between the orientation of our faculty toward the munus docendi and their concomitant orientation toward the munus sancficicandi. Our duty to teach and our duty to sanctify is one duty in service to the Truth.

Finally, I would like to point to a virtue, which, in my opinion, ties the whole together. In many ways, I would like to propose this single word as a hallmark of what we have achieved and what we can continue to achieve in the pursuit of the diakonia of Truth. It is the Greek word arête. Loosely translated, it means habitual excellence. Arête is a significant part of the paideia of ancient Greeks: the training from childhood to maturity.

This training in arête included: physical training, mental training, moral training and spiritual training. It was, in short, the preparation of the whole person for the assumption of authentic humanity. Excellence, in our context, cannot be accidental. It is purposeful and driven.

Each person here, no matter what role he or she may fulfill, is called to fulfill that role with integrity and excellence. Excellence that is habitual, continual and purposeful fulfills in us, as individuals and as a community of faith, a sense of self-esteem worthy of the dignity of the sons and daughters of God.

Mediocrity, half-heartedness, a spirit of mendacity have no place at Saint Meinrad. We are called to nothing less than the excellence of sanctity, growing in holiness and fulfilling our destiny in Christ. I would like to repeat some remarks I made to our new seminarians a few days ago. I think they bear repeating in that they summarize much of what I have said: In welcoming you back to this faith community – whether you are a seminarian, lay student, professor or staff member – I am welcoming you into the greatest challenge of your lives. I join you in this challenge. It is the challenge to become truly who we are, to become nothing less than saints. I am challenging us to become saints.

Can we achieve it? No we cannot, but God can achieve it through us and in us. His grace is sufficient for us. His grace is sufficient for this school. God has called us here today, to begin this new year, this new chapter in our lives. God has called us and God does not give us a vocation that He does not give us the grace and freedom to live.

Our task here is to fearlessly proclaim the Truth of the Catholic faith with excellence. When this spirit of arête permeates this school and the minds and hearts of all who live, study, pray and serve here, then we can change the world. By the grace of God, we can change the world. The crisis of faith means nothing, nothing at all, in the face of fully committed Christians dedicated as we are to the diaknoia of Truth.

My brothers and sisters, our new formation year is under way. I am humbled to be your rector. I am proud of this School of Theology, its faculty, staff and its students. God has given us much, and to those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. Let us begin in his grace under the protection of Our Lady, the Seat of Wisdom.

  1. For a detailed, if somewhat colorful and at times biased, account of 19th-century religious thought see: Wilson, A. N. (1999) God’s Funeral, Little, Brown and Company, London. See also Qualls, B. (2000) In A Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (Ed, Levine, G.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 119-138.
  2. The best commentary on this seminal work is Merrigan, T. (1991) Clear Heads and Holy Hearts: The Religious and Theological Ideal of John Henry Newman, Peeters Press, Louvain.
  3. Newman, J. H. (1845) An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Longmans, Green and Co., London. 35.
  4. Ibid. 36.
  5. Newman, J. H. (1852) The Idea of a University, Longmans, Green and Co., London. 152.
  6. Newman, J. H. (1868) Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford, Longmans, Green and Co., London. 123.
  7. Ibid. 8.
  8. Newman, J. H. (1845) An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Longmans, Green and Co., London. 37.
  9. Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Presidents of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC. 2008.
  10. Newman, J. H. (1845) An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Longmans, Green and Co., London. 51.
  11. Ibid. 10.
  12. Newman, J. H. (1845) An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Longmans, Green and Co., London. 37.
  13. Ibid. 37.
  14. Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter: Spe Salvi, 4.
  15. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 206.
  16. Pope Benedict XVI, World Youth Day 2008: Eucharistic Celebration, Origens, v. 38:11, August 14, 2008.
  17. Pope Benedict XVI. Address to the Presidents of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
  18. Pope Benedict XVI, World Youth Day 2008: Eucharistic Celebration.
  19. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 206.
  20. I Thes. 5:19-22.
  21. Pope Benedict XVI, World Youth Day 2008: Eucharistic Celebration.
  22. Col. 3:17.

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