Discover England’s inspiring Catholic revival text
The date is 1852. The Catholic Hierarchy, provoking much protest about ‘papal aggression, was restored two years earlier. St John Henry Newman had become a Catholic only seven years earlier. He was invited to address the first synod of the Westminster archdiocese, convened by Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, held at St. Mary’s College in Oscott in 1852.
He preached his sermon at the Mass of the Holy Spirit celebrated on July 13 (one of the designers of the new St Mary’s Oscott in 1838 was Augustus Pugin, whom we shall hear more about in a follow-up article). In the month before Newman had been found guilty of libel in religious controversies that ended up in court. Here was an ex-Anglican, recently arraigned in court, at a time when being Catholic was still a matter of deep controversy, speaking to the first synod of the Archdiocese of Westminster. Prudence and care may have been thought advisable.
What Newman delivered in the face of this has become known as ‘The Second Spring’, a phrase used in the sermon. It is the most audacious and singular re-casting of English history in light of what he had come to accept as the truth of the Catholic Church. It was not just a ‘revision’ of an accepted post-Reformation religious narrative; it was a rallying call and a template for the reconversion of England that reverberates to this day. It had bearing on so much that followed: the confidence of the late Victorian church: the establishment of our current Guild, the restoration of the shrine at Walsingham. It wedded the most sublime love of country to the purposes and workings of divine providence. It was nothing less than a re-writing of the national narrative.
Newman does this with exceptional verbal, literary, and oratorical skill, linking the cycle of nature – flowering, fruit, harvest, decay, or spring, summer, winter, and then spring again - to the story of the church in England and also to the essential Christian story of sacrifice, death, resurrection and new life. In doing so he draws on a tale of recovery and restoration that had been a deep and abiding influence on English life, culture and characters in the 100 years before 1852, and this is the ‘Romantic revolution’ in both sentiment and thought in Europe. He tapped into and drew on many of its specific manifestations through its poets, its architects, and its thinkers. It is this “pre-history” of the sermon and its living impact that I would like to examine.
What did his sermon say? It drew on the cycle of nature: Spring passes into summer, and through summer and autumn into winter, only the more surely, by its own ultimate return, to triumph over that grave, towards which it resolutely hastened from its first hour.
He then compares it to the moral nature of man – youth, maturity, old age, decay: Thus man and all his works are mortal; they die, and they have no power of renovation.
He goes on to compare it to civilisations – Babylon, Tyre, Carthage and Rome: Thrones are overturned, and are never restored; States live and die, and then are matter only for history.
But then he states the “phenomenon” in front of them contradicts all this:
‘The past has returned, the dead lives. Thrones are overturned, and are never restored; States live and die, and then are matter only for history. Babylon was great, and Tyre, and Egypt, and Nineve, and shall never be great again. The English Church was, and the English Church was not, and the English Church is once again. This is the portent, worthy of a cry. It is the coming in of a Second Spring’.
He draws on the central Christian story itself of suffering, death and resurrection, specifically detailing the near extinction of the church at the time of the Reformation and its nigh-miraculous re-birth in their time.
‘Shall the past be rolled back? Shall the grave open? […] We are engaged in a great, a joyful work […] To set up the Church again in England’.
‘Arise Jerusalem’ he said (note that the poem by William Blake of that name was published in 1808) and drawing on the imagery from the Song of Songs, invoked our Lady ‘Arise, Mary, and go forth in thy strength into that north country, which once was thine own, and take possession of a land which knows thee not.’ There is almost a direct line from this to Pope Leo XIII’s words to the founders of our own Guild in 1887 at the restoration of the shrine ‘When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England’.
It is said that at the end of the sermon, Cardinal Wiseman wept. It must have meant so much to him, as his declaration of the establishment of the hierarchy in England had been met with such criticism, to hear this son of the Church of England embrace his act in such thrilling language. The phrase ‘Second Spring’ has entered the language to denote this sermon of 1852, and the re-birth of the Catholic Church in England.
It remains a thrilling revival text that should inspire any working for the evangelisation of England today. Why not read it for yourself?