Cardinal Newman, Personal Influence, and How Truth is Spread


How did the ancient Church spread the Truth of Catholicism so successfully?

We’re all about the new evangelization these days, but it’s a good idea to understand how evangelization worked in the past.

After all, authentic renewal is never a complete break from what came before. It’s about understanding and updating it to work for today.

Before we get into that, here’s a little background. This post is the major content of a keynote I did for a dinner at the Nashville Diocesan Catechetical Conference.

I hit on Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and his ideas about the power of personal influence a while back. I was expanding on the “Enrichment of Faith” concept Fr. Michael Gaitley outlines in his book The ‘One Thing’ Is Three.

Since then, I looked up Gaitley’s source on Newman, Dr. John Crosby, who was my professor at Franciscan. Dr. Crosby’s book Personalist Papers has an amazing treatment on the personalist approach of Cardinal Newman that I’m fascinated with.

I think you’ll find this discussion of Cardinal Newman’s thought indispensable in implementing an evangelizing catechesis.

Propagating the truth

Early in his career, Cardinal Newman wrote a sermon titled, “Personal Influence: The Means of Propagating the Truth.” This was the essence of his “apostolate of personal influence” developed more later in The Grammar of Assent.

How is it possible, he asked, that the Church has grown and prospered all these centuries through such adverse conditions? It wasn’t miracles, or the visible existence of the Church, or an inherent moral quality in people that helped them recognize excellence.

He concluded that “it has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men as…are at once the teachers and patterns of it.” It’s the catechists, their presence and personal example, that has been the deciding factor for spreading the Catholic Faith throughout the world.

Experiencing the concrete

In 1850, there was an outbreak of anti-Catholic sentiment in England. This coincided with the reestablishment Catholic clergy after hundreds of years absence. Newman championed the cause against this anti-Catholicism through a series of apologetical lectures.

In one of these lectures, Newman discussed the phenomena of “metropolitan opinion” vs. “local opinion.” Metropolitan opinion was a generalized idea of Catholic clergy based in misinformation and stereotyping. It was centered in London where people didn’t personally know Catholics. Local opinion existed in the neighborhoods where Catholic clergy lived and people did know them.

Using a tone of satire, he emphasized the difference between the two:

”The Birmingham people will say, ‘Catholics are, doubtless, an infamous set, and not to be trusted, for the Times say so, and Exeter Hall, and the Prime Minister, and the Bishops of the Establishment; and such good authorities cannot be wrong; but somehow an exception must be made for the Catholics of Birmingham…Priests in general are perfect monsters; but here they are certainly unblemished in their lives, and take great pains with their people. Bishops are tyrants, and…cut throats, always excepting the Bishop of Birmingham, who affects no state or pomp, is simple and unassuming, and always in his work.”

What’s the difference? Personal influence.

I experienced this when I traveled in the Navy. I had all kinds of ideas about what people from other countries were like and how they were different. But when I got to know them, I realized they were just like me.

The experience of the concrete individual is the important part. Distance creates an abstract idea, a generalized notion. The concrete demands personal engagement. It changes the way you think and act. It’s much harder to hate someone you’ve met and experienced as opposed to a stereotype.

Real assent

This power of the concrete is what Newman called “real assent.”

He warned against universals. They have the tendency to drain the concreteness out of things.

Universals create what Newman called notional assent or purely intellectual assent. He wanted real assent or experiential assent. This is an assent born of the encounter with the world in all it’s concrete reality.

Newman always sought to convert notional assents to real assents. To do this, he might begin with a general, theological presentation of some truth, but then lead his audience to experience the topic concretely. He would get them to feel how it applied to them personally, not just generally.

He also did this by being present in his words and letting himself shine through. Newman lived in his writings, speeches, and homilies. He didn’t just speak about abstract truth…he gave witness to that truth by explaining how he personally came to it. This personal element was his means of drawing people out of the notional.

Why can religious renewal come from real assent? Because notional assent doesn’t affect people. Their lives remain unchanged.

We’re moved to action more through concrete experience than though intellectual abstraction. Universals and general notions leave us as spectators. The more we apprehend the world and other persons in all their concreteness, the more personally engaged we become and the more capable of personally acting.

The personal encounter of faith

I think what this comes down to is faith comes from an encounter with another person. Ultimately, faith comes from an encounter with the Living God.

That’s why Blessed John Paul II said catechesis should aim at bringing people in communion and intimacy with the person of Christ. Without that personal encounter with Christ, it’s all just a bunch of words. Logical, reasonable, deep, interesting perhaps…but just one theory among others.

Christianity becomes like the metropolitan opinion of Newman’s anti-Catholic contemporaries. It’s not concrete…not real. It’s abstract and distant. It doesn’t affect you personally, so you don’t give much credence to it.

The personal encounter of prayer

I also think about Teresa of Avila and the essence of Carmelite spirituality.

The goal in prayer is personal encounter…real, tangible encounter with God through mystical experience. In contemplative prayer, a person actually comes to know God on a deeper level. They experience God as he is…they experience love.

Once that happens, the real work of grace in the soul begins. Everything else was preparation. This is the encounter where saints are made. A person is so taken over by God they no longer want any will of their own. They only want to sacrifice and suffer for that love and give themselves away to it.

Saints aren’t made by force of will, but by a transforming union with God forged in the heights of contemplative prayer.


You, the catechist, are a vital part of the evangelization process.

Effective catechesis that changes hearts depends on your personal witness and influence. You must let your faith and love for Christ shine through in your teaching.

Don’t just present the facts of the Faith. Theological truth is important, but you can’t stop there. You have to bring it down to the personal, help your students understand what that truth means in their own lives.

If you don’t, the Faith will remain notional, lifeless, abstract. They’ll simply observe Catholicism as a spectator but never a participant.

This, I think, is the crisis in the Church today. The majority of faithful have never learned to engage the Faith personally. They remain unaffected by it, their lives unchanged, because they’ve received it in a merely notional way.

We need to make Blessed John Henry Newman’s apostolate of personal influence our own. Like him we need to fight against the notional in everything we do…in our teaching, our catechesis, adult education, homilies, everything. We must constantly work to make faith real, concrete, and personal.

Only then, like Cardinal Newman, can we truly expect religious renewal.

Image credit: John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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  1. Marc, You raise many interesting posts that are each open to much further dialogue than this little comment box will allow me. I agree with you about the importance of making a personal connection to others and of having ones witness serve as a means of sharing the faith. The “new evangelization” can often remain a promoter of notional assent if this personal connection is not made. As you have said…. “This, I think, is the crisis in the Church today. The majority of faithful have never learned to engage the Faith personally. They remain unaffected by it, their lives unchanged, because they’ve received it in a merely notional way.” Another threat to fostering “real assent” is that those imbued with the faith and desire to share it remain motivated by their own intellectual assent and have not yet experienced a deeper encounter with our Lord. In order to fight against the notional in all that we pursue we must work to make our own personal relationship with the Lord even more personal and concrete.This work must be ongoing and continual.
    We must surrender before we can serve, listen to Him before we speak, and only then will anything we do be effective. Evangelization is what happens when we are focused and busy serving the Lord and living as He has called us. It is He who works through us to open hearts and minds alike to a deeper relationship.

    • Really great point Celeste. We really have to fight for our own deeper conversion in order to make this work. If we don’t have any faith or zeal ourselves, how can we expect our students to seek it. There’s no example, no witness at all. And, of course, when I say you should let your personality shine through, that doesn’t apply if you’re not converted and will lead your students away from God by sharing about what you don’t believe. Sharing your honest struggles could be good, but not your dissent.

      I was once part of a diocesan team that traveled to different parishes and schools giving methodology training. At one school we got into an argument with the Catholic school teachers regarding teaching what the Church teaches on certain sensitive subjects. The teachers argued they didn’t believe in those teachings and wouldn’t teach them. The director asked that, at the least, they could just teach what the Church teaches even though they didn’t believe it. They refused. While I admire their integrity, that is not a good situation on so many levels. This is part of our problem…and not just in Catholic schools. Everywhere! In many places the people charged with passing on the Faith are not witnesses to the Faith themselves. This makes convincing students and changing hearts extremely difficult.

      • Marc,
        Keep up the great work for our Lord. That is an interesting and concerning point you brought up about the Catholic educators,I would love to have a word (or few) with them 😉 – haha

  2. “Without that personal encounter with Christ, it’s all just a bunch of words.” Yes. I think that the main takeaway from catechetical time is often the personal witness of the catechist more than it is the knowledge.

    • You do that so well too. I’ve many times used that example you told me about telling your students you went to confession. That’s the best personal witness possible and exactly what this is talking towards.

      • Funny you bring that up; I was plugging confession last Wednesday via David confessing to Nathan, and a couple of the kids asked for the Act of Contrition on a piece of paper. So I’ll be handing out a prayer sheet with that on it. In class the AofC is called My Favorite Prayer.

  3. Of course this brings up my favorite mystery: many (most?) of those whom I believe can make an effective personal witness won’t be catechists.

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