We are told that four babies are born on earth every second. In the same moment, a comparable number of souls who have lived their allotted span in this world are leaving it behind as they are called to their final destiny in eternity. The flow of individual human souls in and out of this world is unending. New lives are unceasingly created, then after a brief sojourn here below, they are constantly passing into the eternal habitations, after they have come before the judgement seat of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Herein lies the innate transience of our temporary life on earth. Herein lies the futility of any attempt to reset the sociological and economic switches of our ever shifting world. We are too small, and our passage is too rapid. The 20th century astronomer Carl Sagan memorably called our home planet the ‘pale blue dot’, when seen against the vastness of the cosmos. We all inhabit this pale blue dot for a short-term stopover, on average some three score years and ten.
We come onto the stage of this material world for a brief interlude. None of us is on stage long enough to have any real understanding of the whole story. Throughout our allotted span we all wait for our cue to leave the stage. We leave the stage, and then we come face to face with the story’s true author, our Lord Jesus Christ. When we come face to face with Him, the true protagonist, perhaps then at last we start to understand more accurately what a very minor walking-on part we had each been given.
St John Henry Newman had a clear understanding of the religious purpose of his life. The purpose was clear, but he knew that living it would never be neat and tidy. He knew that his quest for God had to be pursued in a complicated and messy world. And after his conversion in 1845 he soon discovered that even God’s Holy Church, in its human aspect, could be surprisingly complicated. St John Henry took the secular and material world as it was. He did not seek to promote what some people call ‘a better world’ or even a purer Church. He involved himself in secular matters only insofar as he needed to, in order to preserve the one thing necessary, the better part. That better part was his intimate personal relationship with the only begotten Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.
St John Henry shows us that Christianity is a person to person religion, but it is never subjectivist. His personal love for a personal God was matched by his firm grasp on the objectivity of the faith. He often reminds us that the one true religion is based on a non-negotiable revelation from outside this ever changing kaleidoscopic world. He put it as follows in his Grammar of Assent, published in 1870.
“The matter of revelation is not a mere collection of truths, not a philosophical view, not a religious sentiment or spirit, not a special morality, – poured out upon mankind as a stream might pour itself into the sea, mixing with the world’s thought, modifying, purifying, invigorating it; – but an authoritative teaching, which bears witness to itself and keeps itself together as one, in contrast to the assemblage of opinions on all sides of it, …. one doctrine, discipline, and devotion directly given from above.”
This is a clear yardstick which should help us to be on our guard against so much of the secularist garbage that nowadays assails us. Secularist ideologies are especially pernicious when they purport to be based on the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The transience of human life and the inescapable contingency of our world have clear implications for the pastoral ministry. Those who serve, and those who are served, are not going to be here for ever. Both sheep and shepherds are only passing through. Pastoral care must therefore be geared primarily towards the individual, not to the collective, or the herd. Sheep do not often stand still. Individually they roam around, and then, individually, they die. The supernatural graces that God’s people require are individual graces and personal graces, and they are needed in real time. The salvation of human souls is to be worked out here and now, in a messy fallen world. We do not have the luxury of waiting around for the future construction of a humanist utopia. Now is the only time available in which to prepare for our entry into heaven. And remember this; for getting into heaven, there are no group tickets.
The Marxist obsession with structures and aggregates is now seriously weakening the Church’s mission to save individual souls. It is thus timely for St John Henry Newman to help us recover the personalist dimension of the one true religion: what it means to be personally in love with God; what it means to be personal disciples of the Nazarene. My dear brethren, please beware of theoreticians who drone on about building a better world, as if that were the purpose of Christianity. There is a litmus test that can help us to recognize false prophets and empty teaching. More often than not, their shallow discourse shows no heartfelt personal love for the Master, no warm personal devotion to His Holy Name. The Holy Name of Jesus is the only true meaning of every human life, the only complete explanation of why any of us is here.