Cathedra Sempiterna


When did ever any power go to war with Peter, material or moral, civilized or savage, and got the better? When did the whole world ever band together against him solitary, and not find him too many for it?

Deeply do I feel, ever will I protest, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that, in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christ's flock. The voice of Peter is now, as it ever has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in its own province, adding certainty to what is probable, and persuasion to what is certain. Before it speaks, the most saintly may mistake; and after it has spoken, the most gifted must obey.

Peter is no recluse, no abstracted student, no dreamer about the past, no doter upon the dead and gone, no projector of the visionary. Peter for eighteen hundred years has lived in the world; he has seen all fortunes, he has encountered all adversaries, he has shaped himself for all emergencies. If there ever was a power on earth who had an eye for the times, who has confined himself to the practicable, and has been happy in his anticipations, whose words have been deeds, and whose commands prophecies, such is he in the history of ages, who sits from generation to generation in the Chair of the Apostles, as the Vicar of Christ and Doctor of His Church.

It was said by an old philosopher, who declined to reply to an emperor's arguments, "It is not safe controverting with the master of twenty legions." What Augustus had in the temporal order, that, and much more, has Peter in the spiritual. When was he ever unequal to the occasion? When has he not risen with the crisis? What dangers have ever daunted him? What sophistry foiled him? What uncertainties misled him? When did ever any power go to war with Peter, material or moral, civilized or savage, and got the better? When did the whole world ever band together against him solitary, and not find him too many for it?

All who take part with Peter are on the winning side. The Apostle of Christ says not in order to unsay; for he has inherited that word which is with power. From the first he has looked through the wide world, of which he has the burden; and according to the need of the day and the inspirations of his Lord, he has set himself, now to one thing, now to another, but to all in season and to nothing in vain. He came first upon an age of refinement and luxury like our own; and in spite of the persecutor, fertile in the resources of his cruelty, he soon gathered, out of all classes of society, the slave, the soldier, the high-born lady, and the sophist, to form a people for his Master's honour. The savage hordes came down in torrents from the north, hideous even to look upon; and Peter went out with holy water and with benison, and by his very eye he sobered them and backed them in full career. They turned aside and flooded the whole earth, but only to be more surely civilized by him, and to be made ten times more his children even than the older populations they had overwhelmed. Lawless kings arose, sagacious as the Roman, passionate as the Hun, yet in him they found their match, and were shattered, and he lived on. The gates of the earth were opened to the east and west, and men poured out to take possession; and he and his went with them, swept along by zeal and charity, as far as they by enterprise, covetousness, or ambition. Has he failed in his enterprises up to this hour? Did he, in our fathers' day, fail in his struggle with Joseph of Germany and his confederates – with Napoleon, a greater name, and his dependent kings – that, though in another kind of fight, he should fail in ours? What grey hairs are on the head of Judah, whose youth is renewed as the eagle's, whose feet are like the feet of harts, and underneath the Everlasting Arms?

"Thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and formed thee, O Israel. Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, and called thee by thy name! Thou art Mine.

"When thou shalt pass through the waters, I will be with thee, and the rivers shall not cover thee.

"When thou shalt walk in the fire, thou shalt not be burned, and the flame shall not kindle against thee.

"For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.

"Fear not, for I am with thee, I am the first, and I am the last, and besides Me there is no God."

- Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.

It is not altogether irrelevant to mention here that in January, 1856, Dr. Newman, having occasion to go to Rome on business of very great anxiety, he at once, on alighting from the diligence, went with Father St. John to make a visit of devotion to the shrine of St. Peter, going there the whole way barefoot. The time was the middle of the day, when, as was the case in those years, the streets were very empty, and thus, and screened by his large Roman cloak, he was able to do so unrecognized and unnoticed – nor was it ever known except to Father St. John and another.

His friend Dr. Clifford (the Hon. William J. H. Clifford, late Bishop of Clifton), who with his father Lord Clifford, had travelled with him from Siena, and with whom he dined that day in Rome, knew nothing of this until it was mentioned to him on occasion of his preaching the Cardinal's funeral sermon in 1890.




Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. "Cathedra Sempiterna." from Discourses on the scope and nature of university education (Cambridge, U.K. & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1852): 22, 25-28.

This article reprinted with permission from Bob Elder, editor of the Newman Reader, an online resource of the writings of Cardinal Newman. The purpose of Newman Reader (NR) is to make the written works of Cardinal Newman available in as complete and accessible a manner as resources allow. Bob Elder may be contacted here. All rights reserved.


Blessed John Henry Newman was born in London, 21 February 1801, and died Birmingham, 11 August 1890. As Vicar of St. Mary's Oxford he exerted a profound spiritual influence on the Church of England. Joining the Catholic Church in 1845 he founded Oratories of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham and London, was the first rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, and was made Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Through his published writings and private correspondence he created a greater understanding of the Catholic Church and its teachings, helping many persons with their religious difficulties. At his death he was praised for his unworldliness, humility, and prayerful contact with the invisible world. He was declared Venerable on 22 January 1991. John Henry Cardinal Newman is the author of many books including, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, The Church of the Fathers, The Idea of a University, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Copyright © 2000-2010 Bob Elder

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