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Holiness within our reach, says Newman expert

Sister Kathleen Dietz, FSO, attends the canonization of St. John Henry Newman on Oct. 13 in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Sister Kathleen will talk about the saint’s life and ministry Nov. 17 at Holy Angels Parish in Basehor.

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

What is your idea of holiness? And how can you strive for holiness with everything that’s going on in your life?

That’s a question Sister Kathleen Dietz, FSO, hopes to address when she brings St. John Henry Newman and his teachings to life Sunday afternoon, Nov. 17, at Holy Angels Parish in Basehor. 

Saint John Henry was a 19th-century theologian, educator and philosopher who converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism and eventually became a cardinal. 

All his life he desired simply to find truth, follow it and do God’s will.

 “And, of course, he failed many times like we all do because we’re all sinners,” said Sister Kathleen. “But he persevered through a lot of setbacks. 

“That’s why I think he’s really relevant today.”

Sister Kathleen currently serves as the vice chancellor of the Diocese of Erie in Pennsylvania and is a recognized expert on St. John Henry Newman.

She received her doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome with a dissertation on Newman’s ecclesiology. 

Her community, The Spiritual Family “The Work,” promotes Newman’s work and has had a Newman library in Rome since 1975.

Sister Kathleen attended the saint’s canonization by Pope Francis on Oct. 13.  

“It was, of course, thrilling,” she said. “And I’m just happy that Newman is getting better known — not just intellectually, but also as a saint.

“And that’s exactly what Father Richard wants me to talk about when I get to Kansas City.”

Father Richard McDonald, pastor of Holy Angels, first came into contact with The Spiritual Family “The Work” years ago when he attended a symposium in Rome on St. John Henry Newman.

“The order was the catalyst organizing group that put on this phenomenal academic symposium,” he said. 

Though he did not meet Sister Kathleen at the symposium, Father McDonald did encounter the future Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II there. 

Later, as a student in Rome, he met Sister Kathleen.

“I didn’t have her in classes,” he said.  “I was at the Gregorian, but we became friends because of our mutual friends.”

They stayed in touch over the years.

“And now, I’m very happy to have the opportunity to speak at his parish,” said Sister Kathleen. 

Many Catholics have the idea that to emulate a saint’s holiness would require extraordinary power or sacrifice.

Sister Kathleen hopes her presentation on St. John Henry Newman will help people realize holiness is within their reach.

“You couldn’t call his life ordinary,” she said, “but he lived, in a sense, a normal, very busy life, juggling many things. 

“He was a writer; he was involved in the politics of religion of the day. He wrote a couple of novels, he read novels; he loved music and played the violin. 

“And all that he was striving for the entire time was holiness.”

Saint John Henry Newman is considered by many to be the greatest English prose stylist of all time and one of the greatest intellects of the 19th century.

“In that way,” said Father McDonald, “he speaks to our hearts, to our imaginations and to our minds.”

But beyond his intellectual greatness, the saint is also known for his compassion and closeness to the poor, his ability to relate to all people and his constant thirst for learning.

“He has that childlike sense of wonder while opening himself to everything that he possibly could intellectually,” said Father McDonald. “So, he has that great balance we all should have of wonder and intellectualism.”

And most of all, he had a holiness we can all achieve.

“Our lives have become super busy,” said Sister Kathleen. “We think we can’t find the time.

“I think Newman has the ability to tell us it’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of focus.”

Through St. John Henry Newman we can learn to focus on holiness in our busy lives.

“He speaks to us across the centuries,” said Father McDonald. “And he is definitely, especially now as a canonized saint, a friend that we can look to.”

Sister Kathleen agreed.

“And I’m really looking forward to trying to bring that out to people,” she said. “So they find in him somebody they can emulate.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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