Saint John Henry Newman: Faith, Holiness and Imagination

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Nicolas Steeves, SJ

 Nicolas Steeves, SJ / Church Life / 10 December 2019


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The Cerdagna plateau in the Catalan Pyrenees has villages with Romanesque churches that are as solid and dark as a mother’s womb. Often they are decorated with beautiful, ornate Baroque retablos, with high, golden, twisted columns and filled with statues of saints from different eras and various states of life. There, on the altarpiece of Saint-Martin d’Hix, one can contemplate not only the patron saint and Our Lady, but also Isidore the farmer, Francis Xavier, Anthony the Abbot, Saint Roque and some anonymous saints.

Those who celebrate baptism there can easily link the sacrament of faith with the universal vocation to holiness affirmed by the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium. Holiness is imagined as that “ordinary horizon” Pope Francis often highlights: “We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”[1]

Thus, from generation to generation, a “middle class of holiness” is formed.[2] The sculptors of the retablos anticipated with their imagination what, three centuries later, the Magisterium of the Church would express in words. It is not uncommon in the history of faith and the Church, in fact, for images to precede writings, just as biblical metaphors and liturgical celebrations often poetically foretell the necessary precision of canonical dogmatic formulas.

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