“How unspeakably cold is the idea of a Temple without that Divine Presence!”


The UK’s best Catholic weekly, the Catholic Herald print edition (not online), had a great piece by the renowned Newman scholar, Fr. Ian Ker about Newman’s conversion and the Real Presence in Catholic churches.

Here it is in toto:

‘Awful and real’

Before Newman’s conversion, he avoided Catholic churches.
Then he discovered what made them unique

The story of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism is not quite the same as his subsequent discovery of Catholicism. There were then very few Catholic places of worship, and, in any case, to avoid the charge that the Oxford or Tractarian Movement was really just a preparation for conversion to the Church of Rome, Newman had carefully avoided Catholics and Catholic services, even when he was on his Mediterranean tour of 1832-3 and when he could hardly avoid being exposed to both.

And so it was that the feature of his new religious life as a Catholic that most struck him came as a complete surprise – namely, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic churches. He wrote in a letter to a close friend, herself about to become a Catholic a few months later:

We went over not realising those privileges which we have found by going. I never allowed my mind to dwell on what I might gain of blessedness – but certainly, if I had thought much upon it, I could not have fancied the extreme, ineffable comfort of being in the same house with Him who cured the sick and taught His disciples … When I have been in Churches abroad, I have  religiously abstained from acts of worship, though it was a most soothing comfort to go into them – nor did I know what was going on; I neither understood nor tried to understand the Mass service – and I did not know, or did not observe, the tabernacle Lamp – but now after tasting of the awful delight of worshipping God in His Temple, how unspeakably cold is the idea of a Temple without that Divine Presence! One is tempted to say what is the meaning,  what is the use of it?

It is remarkable how it was the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic churches that more than anything else impressed and moved Newman, even more than the Mass itself. And it tells us something very important not only about Newman but also about a central aspect of the impact of Catholicism on the imagination of the 19th-century English Protestant convert. Thus Newman is not only making a devotional and spiritual point when he writes to an Anglican friend:

I am writing next room to the Chapel – It is such an incomprehensible blessing to have Christ in bodily presence in one’s house, within one’s walls, as swallows up all other privileges … To know that He is close by – to be able again and again through the day to go in to Him …

Newman is saying something very  significant about objectivity and reality.

For it was that concrete presence of Jesus in a material tabernacle which, for Newman, above all produced that “deep impression  of religion as an objective fact” and which so impressed him about Catholicism. He admired “every where the signs of an awful and real system”.

When Newman arrived in Italy a year later to prepare for the priesthood, he was immediately and vividly aware of a reality that powerfully impinged on his imagination, but of which he had been oblivious on his previous visit. Arriving in Milan, he immediately noticed that he had now an added reason for preferring classical to Gothic architecture, since its simplicity meant that the high altar stood out as the focal point of the church, with the result  that the reserved Sacrament had particular prominence – for “nothing moves there  but the distant glimmering Lamp which betokens the Presence of our undying Life, hidden but ever working”.

His almost obsessive preoccupation with this “Real Presence” was more than simply devotional: “It is really most wonderful to see this Divine Presence looking out almost into the open streets from the various Churches … I never knew what worship was, as an objective fact, till I entered the Catholic Church.”


For what Newman had discovered  was that the objectivity of the worship  which so impressed him only reflected the objectivity of Catholicism, which he came to believe was a quite different religion from Anglicanism or Protestantism. Now he was delighted to find, as he thought, “a real  religion – not a mere opinion such that you have no confidence your next door neighbour holds it too, but an external objective substantive creed and worship”.

Newman’s fascination with the  reservation of the Sacrament reflects  his celebrated philosophical distinction between the notional and real, notions  being intellectual abstractions and the real what we personally and concretely experience. Catholics, he insisted, worshipped not dogmatic definitions but “Christ Himself”, believing in the “[Real] Presence in the sacred Tabernacle not as a form of words”, or “as a notion, but as an Object as real as we are real”.

Fr Ker’s Newman on Vatican II (2014) was reissued this year in paperback by OUP


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Malta says:

    I don’t think it’s good to impute assumptions on a long deceased, holy Cardinal on a Council which formed documents in a revolutionary period of Church history. I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t like the Novus Ordo, but now I’m making my own assumption.

  2. RAve says:

    In college I loved being Catholic but also enthusiastically engaged in some Bible study with protestants and even went on a seaside retreat at a protestant retreat center. I was always very mindful of my Catholic beliefs (many thanks to my guardian angel). I noticed with extreme clarity that the empty chapel was empty. It was just a room where people sometimes gathered to pray. I felt very sad for my protestant brethren and overwhelmingly grateful to God for being Catholic and having the Eucharist and tabernacles. This was circa 1987 before adoration he made a comeback. Somehow God had led me to a campus ministry of where Eucharistic adoration was encouraged and then God drove it home to me in His powerful yet sublime way. pGfWabf

  3. teomatteo says:

    ” One is tempted to say what is the meaning, what is the use of it?” — Newman
    This reminds me of a comment attributed to Flannery O’Connor re the eucharist. She put it …. shall we say… a bit differently than Cardinal Newman.

    [Right! In 1995 O’Connor wrote in a letter, rather pointedly: ““I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life). She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
    Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”]

  4. JARay says:

    Last Friday as I sat in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (yes, I have to sit now!), my thoughts turned to that wonderful book written by Robert Cardinal Sarah called “The Power of Silence”, I thought that I would really try silent prayer. I said not a word. But, in the silence I’m sure that I heard the words of God come into my comprehension. No words at all were spoken by either of us and yet I learned something of which I had felt was quite correct, but I was wrong. I clearly learned that my previous judgement was actually wrong. I am certain that God spoke to me and corrected me, although no words were spoken at all.
    Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is a wonderful gift which we Catholics have and I pity those of other religions who have no idea what a blessing is this gift to be found in the Church of Jesus Christ.

  5. Sandy says:

    How true is the title you have here, Father! I will never forget my first deeply spiritual experience sitting before the tabernacle in an empty church after a grade school classmate did something quite rude to me. The experience remains with me to this day, and that was decades ago! Is it any wonder that those who want to change/destroy the Church moved the tabernacles? Reverence is gone, even in people my age who should know better; what happened to them? I owe so much to my consecration to Mama Mary who guides us in very powerful ways. The more we love her, the more we will love her Son!

  6. LeeGilbert says:

    Whenever I have had occasion to visit a Protestant church, I’ve always been struck by how utterly empty it is. Really, quite aside from the doctrinal issues, what could possibly motivate anyone to go to such an empty space on a Sunday morning?

    Perhaps this in itself explains the 1000 watt welcome one receives, and the intense lovebombing that seems almost a mark of Protestantism. Perhaps they feel the need to make up with human warmth the lack of the Presence of God.

  7. hilltop says:

    My own sense of “The Abomination of Desolation” is the absence of the True Presence upon the altar, perhaps by invalid consecrations, invalid priests, or illicit masses or combinations of these.
    When that absence is made common by intention or by accident, I fear for man.
    I welcome correction by worthy minds…

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