Friendship for a Lonely World: St. Cardinal Newman’s Advice

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By Thomas Dompkowski, The Catholic University of America


Your friends and your job are your world. 

They listen to your problems, push you to grow as a person, and help you climb the ladder of holiness up to God. But you realize that the Truth is calling you away from them. You can no longer ignore the pull of the Truth. You need to leave your world behind. 

And it hurts. It really hurts. You don’t want to leave them, but you know that once you commit to your new way of life, you can’t turn back. They won’t take you back, however much they love you. You committed the unforgivable sin: you have joined the Catholic Church.

This was the situation of the Church’s newest saint: the Anglican convert John Henry Newman. And if you are a well-read Catholic or are obsessed with the British royal family, you’ll know that Newman was canonized this past October in St. Peter’s Square with Prince Charles in attendance. You’ll know that he studied and taught at the prestigious Oxford and was the instigator of the Church of England’s Oxford Movement to connect Anglicanism more with the early Church. You’ll also know that in his deeper dive into the writings of the Church Fathers, Newman discovered that the church he belonged to was not the church of the Fathers. His church was not the church of Apostolic succession, with proper authority to interpret Scripture, and it did not stress the partnership between faith and reason. All this was found in the Catholic Church. 

Compelled by the truth of his discoveries, Newman left everything he loved: his family, his friends, his beloved Oxford, and joined the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church in 1845. This was especially difficult for Newman because though he often kept to himself, he had cultivated many friendships with Anglicans at Oxford and elsewhere. 

This past October, I interviewed Dr. Ian Boxall of Catholic University about John Henry Newman for an article I wrote for my journalism class. Dr. Boxall, like Newman, studied and taught at Oxford and became well acquainted with Newman during his studies. It was Dr. Boxall who conveyed to me the story of Newman’s isolation. He commented that “friendship [was important] for someone who otherwise might be very solitary.” 

So, in addition to the myriad of his theological contributions, I think this 19th century English cleric can help us reflect on the importance of good friendships in our lonely world. 

You have probably heard it said: “You know, through social media, we are connected to people all over the world. And yet, we are more disconnected than ever.” 

This epidemic of loneliness, if it hasn’t touched your life, has definitely touched the life of someone close to you and you may not even know it. Why is it we are so disconnected? I think we want the perfect friendship without the effort. We plant the seed but don’t want to water it. We want to finish the race without running it. 

We start a friendship. It’s going good for a while. Then trials come, and we just say, “Eh, this isn’t working. I’ll just phase them out of my life. No harm done.”

But there is harm done. Pope Francis calls this attitude the culture of the ephemeral, or throwaway culture if you prefer. In Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father writes, “I think, for example, of the speed with which people move from one affective relationship to another. They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected and disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked.’” 

We cannot throw away people, or treat them like social media accounts, scrolling through their lives and not going any deeper. As Dr. Boxall told me in the Newman interview, “Deep friendships can change you, can challenge you, can knock off the rough edges.” And deep friendships take effort. 

Here are some insights which can help address the problem of loneliness and find good friends:

1) Cling to the Truth

Newman loved the Truth Who is Jesus Christ. He trusted in Him even when he himself was ostracized by his colleagues and friends at his conversion. We must do the same. We must first give all our worries, all our loneliness, everything to Him. Hold Him close and He will come close to you. Do not let Him go and He will not let you go. St. Peter says, “Cast all your cares upon him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).   

This point is lost on our secular brothers and sisters. They question what this Jesus can do for them. They doubt His power. We must show them that trusting in the Lord with all our hearts is the best remedy for the broken and solitary heart. The Psalmist says, “Even if my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me in” (Psalm 27:10). This is not delusional. We trust in Him Who loved us first and Who created us. “Be strong and steadfast; have no fear or dread of them, for it is the Lord, your God, who marches with you; he will never fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  

2) Reach out to Others

Make connections. Don’t wait for others to make contact. Our Lord did not wait for His apostles to come out to Him. He went out to them. “As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:18-20). 

Newman, as much as was possible in the 19th century, tried to maintain good relationships with his Anglican former colleagues. He could have given up, seeing that he was already socially ostracized. Dr. Boxall commented that Newman had “genuine love for those he left behind, even when they rejected him.” But he knew the power of good friends, despite even having fundamental differences. He knew friends would make him better. St. Maximilian Kolbe said, “God sends us friends to be our firm support in the whirlpool of struggle. In the company of friends we will find strength to attain our sublime ideal.” “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord” (Psalm 31:25).    

3) Forgive and be Forgiven

Pope St. John Paul II knows a thing or two about forgiveness. After being shot, he went to the cell of his would-be assassin and forgave him. He said, “We all need to be forgiven by others, so we must all be ready to forgive. Asking and granting forgiveness is something profoundly worthy of every one of us.” 

We have all made and will continue to make mistakes, especially in dealing with others. We will fall down, be angry, jealous, and selfish. But we must get up and admit that we fell down. We must ask for not only God’s forgiveness, but also our neighbor’s forgiveness, because our sin hurts not only our relationship with God, but also our relationship with others. Newman, as a Catholic priest, heard confessions and made confessions. He knew personally that anyone, even an ardent hater of the Church, can come home. Because he did.

So, if you know someone who tends to be lonely, tell them there’s a British priest who has been through it too. 

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