This reflection was originally published in 2019.
Today, October 13, the Catholic Church will canonize Cardinal John Henry Newman.
The 19th century Englishman was one of the most famous and controversial Catholic converts in history. Known for his brilliance as a theologian, educator, teacher, poet, priest, and pastor, Newman was an apologist extraordinaire, particularly for his explanation of how Catholic doctrine develops over time. And due to the influence of his book, The Idea of a University, Catholic centers at colleges across the United States are named after him.
But Newman is also acclaimed for something more modest, yet desperately needed in our world, which is so marked by loneliness: he’s known as an apostle of friendship.
Friendship is an eminently Catholic thing. Many of the saints are known for having and being faithful friends. Think of Francis and Clare, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, or even friends at the very beginning of Christianity: Paul and Barnabas.
St. John Chrysostom praised friendship with lofty words: “A friend is more to be longed for than the light… for it were better for us that the sun should be extinguished, than that we should be deprived of friends…”
Newman is recognized as an apostle of friendship because of the many relationships he fostered throughout his long life. Friendship, for him, was the same as friendship for us: it arose from common loves and interests. Most important, his friendships were rooted in his love for the truth.
His friend John William Bowden enjoyed playwriting, just as he did. So they wrote together. Other friends were former students. Newman put effort into maintaining his friendships, even keeping up with his friends over many decades. He was a good friend who enjoyed loving and being loved by his friends.
The title “apostle of friendship” could aptly be applied to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, too. She had many close friendships, especially with Julianna Scott, Elizabeth Sadler, and her sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton.
From Mother Seton, we learn what we also learn from Newman: Friendships are holy in their naturalness. They are marked by natural, human affection. And they are founded on truth.
Even a cursory glance at St. Elizabeth Ann’s correspondence as a young woman shows what delight she took in her friends.
In 1797, writing to Elizabeth Sadler, she lamented their physical distance from each other, and spoke of the “melancholy of regret which thoughts of absent friends inspire.”
She was effusive in telling her friends about her desire to be with them and enjoy life together. In 1800, to Rebecca, she wrote, “There are many persons very dear to my Heart, but the moment I saw this blessed Sun this Morning (with Kit [her daughter] in my arms) dear Rebecca came at once in my thoughts, and if there had been a wish to name, it would have been to have you with me.”
That same year, she closed a letter to her beloved Julia with this unrestrained assurance of affection: “Rest assured Julia that I love you in my heart, from my Heart, and with my Whole Heart.”
What made both Newman and Mother Seton such wonderful friends? We could highlight one human factor, and one spiritual.
On the human level, both John Henry Newman and Elizabeth Ann Seton recognized that friendship requires time and effort. Both were generous in their letter writing. And when we look at Elizabeth’s life, we can see that this implied sacrifice.
When Elizabeth’s father-in-law died, and she and her husband William became the foster parents of his young step-siblings, Elizabeth’s daily schedule was stretched to the limit. Nevertheless, she kept up her friendships. In fact, in the letter to Julia Scott mentioned above, the bulk of the text is Elizabeth’s apology for failing to write for such a long time.
We learn from Mother Seton that if we want to enjoy the “light” of “genuine friends,” we must be ready to prioritize them. We also learn to see friendship in its true light, as a created gift not meant to eclipse the Creator.
For example, to Rebecca, Elizabeth wrote, “You well know how much I value your Society and affection but we are not always to have what we like best in this world, thank Heaven! For if we had, how soon we should forget the other ,-the place of endless Peace, where they who were united by Virtue and affection here, will surely enjoy that union so often interrupted while on their journey Home.”
Elizabeth wrote to Julia about her faith as well. In 1802, explaining her growing religious sentiment, Elizabeth writes of her wish for Julia to love God as she herself does, and to elevate their friendship to a spiritual level. She wrote:
“Religion does not limit the powers of the affections, for our Blessed Savior Sanctifies and approves in US all the endearing ties and connections of our existence, but Religion alone can bind that cord over which neither circumstances, time, or Death can have no power.”
Elizabeth concludes by assuring Julia that her faith has done nothing to diminish her love: “Bless you again and again my Julia. I never loved you so well as at this moment while I speak my heart freely to you – your friend forever.”
For saints such as John Henry Newman and Mother Seton, true friendship was part of holiness—one more way to love the Creator and fulfill Jesus’ command of love.
A devotion of Newman’s sheds further light on this truth. Not only was friendship something he enjoyed, it was something he saw lived out by the model for us all — Our Lady:
O Mary, I wish I could see how you used to behave towards father and mother, especially towards St. Anne; and then how you behaved towards the priests of the temple; and then towards St. Joseph; and towards St. Elizabeth, and St. John Baptist; and afterwards towards the Apostles, especially towards St. John. I should see how sweet and lovely you were to every one of them; but still your heart was with Jesus only. And they would all feel and understand this, however kind you were to them.
May Newman’s prayer, so exemplified in Mother Seton’s life, be our own: That we might fix our hearts on our one true Love, and from that love, be generous in giving and receiving the affection of many friends.
KATHLEEN N. HATTRUP is the Spirituality and Church News editor for the online publication Aleteia. She has been working in Catholic media as an editor and translator for 15 years, and writes for the National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and other publications.
Image: John Henry Newman, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1881