Newman died 12 years before Escrivá was born, but their lives and legacies have striking parallels.
The saints are God’s friends who shine during their time on earth. They have a very large common denominator: their love for God manifested in prayer, good works, and love for neighbor. It is not surprising that saints have similarities, sharing certain attributes.
Some saints, however, have common elements in their numerator. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the next saint of the Catholic Church, was born in London almost 100 years before Josemaría Escrivá (1902-1975), born in Barbastro, Spain. The former was an English man to the T, the second a Spaniard to the core. What did they have in common?
Newman died only 12 years before Escrivá was born. They were both raised in stable Christian families of the middle upper socio-economic class. Newman’s father was a banker; Escrivá’s was the joint owner of a fabric store. But both fathers experienced economic reverses and hardships contributing to their untimely deaths when both future saints were in their 20s.
They had both received examples from their fathers of hard work, responsibility, honesty and other virtues, and upon the death of their parents they each became the head of their respective families. Both observed religious practice and piety in their homes as children. In the case of Escrivá, his father was thoroughly religious, while Newman’s father respected and observed religious duties. Both fathers wished their sons to pursue civil careers, but they acquiesced to their sons desires to become clergymen, with José Escrivá actually helping his son to do so. Newman learned piety in particular from his paternal grandmother and an aunt, while Escrivá from both of his parents.
With this foundation of virtue and religious faith, both young men did well in their studies, the first at Oxford, the second at the seminary of San Carlos in Zaragoza. Newman studied the classics in Greek and Latin. Escrivá instead studied the classics of Spanish literature. The former became a tutor at Oriel College and the latter supervisor of seminarians at San Carlos.
As youth they each felt the desire to grow in their love for God through prayer. Josemaria would spend many hours at night praying alone before the Blessed Sacrament in the seminary chapel. Their respective desire for Christian holiness led one to be ordained an Anglican clergyman and the other a Catholic priest, respectively. (Once a Catholic, Newman would also be ordained a Catholic priest).
In their preaching they both emphasized striving for personal holiness through prayer and the practice of the virtues. They both drew abundantly from the Scriptures as well as the Fathers of the Church, and spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul. The collections of homilies they left have inspired countless persons to a deeper Christian life.
As pastors both saints offered spiritual direction to many individuals who sought their help both in person and in writing. They helped these persons to find their vocations and to live these vocations out in the world or in religious communities. A characteristic of their spiritual life was passion for truth with the corresponding love for freedom, which was manifest in the guidance they offered people. They encouraged persons to act with a healthy spirit of freedom.
Both Newman and Escrivá understood the universal call to holiness of all men and women. They taught this repeatedly before it was common to hear of this truth pronounced years later in Vatican II’s constitution Lumen gentium. They explained how the laity need a solid formation in doctrine and piety to live out the faith in society and in order to build the Body of Christ. Both saints helped men and women of all walks of life to respond to God’s call and grow in holiness.
Both were educators, each responsible for the foundation of a university. In the case of Newman, it was the Catholic University of Ireland and in the case of Escrivá, the University of Navarra. Newman wrote about university education in the now celebrated Idea of a University. Escrivá’s writing on the subject (discourses upon confirming honorary degrees) though not widely known, are a rich source of inspiration. Both men were directly involved in the education for younger students, and Escrivá was responsible for the establishment of many elementary schools and high schools. Escrivá’s work has been the stimulus for 10 other universities.
Newman and Escrivá both wrote a great deal, even though the former left many more volumes of essays, sermons, and letters which have contributed to many different areas of theology, including fundamental theology and ecclesiology. Interestingly they each wrote a short book on the devotion to the Virgin Mary as well as various sermons on the Mother of God. In addition to this love for Mary, they both had devotion to their guardian angels. Newman even wrote a long poem in which his guardian angel is one of the protagonists.
As with all the saints, Newman and Escrivá accepted their personal suffering in a Christ-like manner. Even though each suffered in different ways they shared in one type of suffering. And this was being the object of jealousy and misunderstanding by fellow Catholics to the point of being denounced to the Holy See for alleged doctrinal errors.
One last characteristic that stands out in the lives of these two great men was their lifelong capacity for friendship. Both men formed and nurtured many friendships, with the enrichment found in these Christ centered bonds. They both understood the importance and necessity of friendship as great good in itself and for the sake of the apostolate.
Both Newman and Escrivá teach us about friendship with others, and ultimately about friendship with God through Christ, the all important friendship that sustains us throughout our life on earth as we make our way to the heavenly banquet to feast in the company of Christ and all His saints. Thus, these saints, an Englishman and a Spaniard with an unlikely similar numerator had much more in common than one might think.
Pope Francis will declare Newman a saint at a Mass of Canonization in Rome on Sunday, October 13, 2019.
Fr. Juan R. Vélez, priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, is author of Holiness in a Secular Age, the Witness of Cardinal Newman (Scepter Publishers, 2017).