It's called the dies natalis - the day of birth. For saints it refers to their birthday in heaven or, in the eyes of the world, the day of their death upon earth. When assigning feast days to saints, the Church usually chooses the dies natalis; for example, the feast day of soon-to-be canonized Brother André of Montreal is Jan. 6, the day of his death in 1937, even though that day is also the great solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.
So it was something of a surprise when it was announced last month that the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman would be Oct. 9 - which we will celebrate for the first time this week.
Newman died on Aug. 11, which is the feast day of St. Clare of Assisi, but many days have multiple saints, as there are thousands of saints and only 365 dates. So he could have been given Aug. 11 too. As it is likely that Newman will be canonized, declared a doctor of the Church and be added to the universal liturgical calendar, there was no doubt a desire to find a day of his own, as it were, without any other prominent saint already assigned.
The Church chose Oct. 9 because it was that day in 1845 that Newman was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. There are precedents for choosing an important date in the saint's life, rather than the dies natalis. Blessed John XXIII's feast falls two days after Cardinal Newman's, on Oct. 11, the day that he opened the Second Vatican Council with his landmark address, Rejoice Mother Church!
Conversions to the Catholic faith are overwhelmingly prompted by personal connections - marrying a Catholic or having close Catholic friends. Yet Newman's conversion was, as far as it is possible to say, purely intellectual. He had no Catholic friends, because at that time at Oxford there were no Catholics. He became Catholic solely because he believed the Catholic faith to be true, and the Catholic Church to be in full continuity with the Church that Jesus Christ founded.
Another great convert cardinal, Avery Dulles, was also an intellectual convert. When he decided to become Catholic in 1940, he had never met a Catholic priest, so he walked into a Catholic bookstore near Harvard and asked the clerk how one went about entering the Church.
A conversion feast day has particular relevance today, especially on campus. The students who come around to our Newman House at Queen's University may have had a Catholic upbringing, but each of them has to make a decision on whether to remain, or sometimes become, a practising Catholic. Converts remind us that the faith ought not be merely a cultural tradition, or a mark of ethnic identity.
In Newman's day, to choose to be Catholic meant being driven out of the majority anti-Catholic establishment culture shaped by the Church of England.
Choosing to be a faithful Catholic today means opting out of the skeptical and sometimes hostile culture of secular fundamentalism and moral relativism. The intellectual integrity and courage of Cardinal Newman should inspire us today. The choice that faced converts more than 150 years ago is faced by almost all young Catholics now: Is the Catholic faith true, and if so, am I willing to order my life in accord with it?
At the heart of Newman's conversion was the question of the Church. Was the Church of England a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, but still in communion with the Church of the apostles and fathers? Or was it a "paper church" as he later came to call it, definitively separated from the Catholic Church? Upon his conclusion that the latter was true, he knew that he had to leave Anglicanism.
In an ambience marked by religion "lite," there are many who desire to have Christ, but not the Church, as if it were possible to separate the head from the body.
Decapitated Catholicism can be popular, often with those who wish the sentiments of the heart without any truth to worry their head.
Newman, who chose as his motto heart speaks unto heart, knew that the heart has to go with the mind, the body with the head, the flock with the shepherd, the Church with Christ.
On these two matters - the primacy of truth and the necessity of the Church - the choice Newman made is the choice that our culture forces us to make today. For that reason, Newman's conversion feast day is a providential gift. We all must be converts now.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org