It was not, as is often the case, a simple and immediate conversion. Rather, as Pope Benedict XVI observed when he beatified Newman, it consisted of three, distinct phases. The first is, in part, a response to the secular world: it is basically the thought that there exist “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator”. In effect, this was a conversion to a properly Christian way of thinking, which we are increasingly alienated from due to the contrary assumptions that secular thinking makes. For “modern man”, reality is defined by the empirical: that which science can tell us. For the Christian, reality is defined by the spiritual: God and one’s soul.
This truth applies not only to our own, physical existence in this world, but also to every person around us and, indeed, to the entire world that surrounds us. It leads to the understanding that the meaning of things is given by God; their existence itself is guaranteed by God, rather than by the laws of nature (which are themselves an expression of God’s will). And so, the second of Newman’s conversions is summed up in his insistence that it is not enough to hold one’s faith as an abstract state of consciousness: Christianity means “’looking to Jesus’ (Heb 2:9) … and acting according to His will.” It is a trusting in the Lord to lead us concretely through along the path of life, perhaps best summed up by Newman’s hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light”.
The third conversion was, in a sense, the most difficult. If there was a stigma attached to the rejection of his own, Anglican Church, it was increasingly counter-cultural to profess adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. As Benedict XVI noted, this step involved giving up his rank, profession and many of his academic and personal ties; and yet Newman resolutely took this step in October 1845. If it was a step that involved a great interior struggle; it was also a step that finally brought a peace to his mind. Despite the corruption, divisions and imperfections that Newman saw vividly in the Catholic Church, he understood that these were not relevant to the question of faith. For in the Church, Newman saw the same objectivity that he identified in God: the reality of the Church as the real and living, Body of Christ. The Church, with its frail and human outward appearance, is the real place of God’s presence, that the Creator made for Himself upon entering into the world. In that Church, Newman “found a power, a resource, a comfort, a consolation in our Lord’s Real Presence, in communion in His Divine and Human Person, which all good Catholics indeed have.”