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Special Report - January 2020

On October 13 in Rome, Pope Francis declared John Henry Newman (1801-1899) a saint.  He had been beatified in 2010 by Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who, from his early years as a seminarian, had been a Newman admirer.

Pope Benedict became fascinated, in particular, with Newman’s theology of individual conscience.  Like Newman, Pope Benedict’s theology was shaped by the Fathers of the Church rather than by scholastic philosophy.  In a lecture delivered in 1990 on the first centenary of Cardinal Newman’s death, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger placed Newman among the great teachers of theology, especially for his emphasis on personal conscience and the development of doctrine.  Cardinal Ratzinger concluded by saying, “The characteristic of a great doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech but rather by his life, because within him, thought and life are interpenetrated and defined.  If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he touches hearts and enlightens our thinking.”

John Henry Newman was born in London, England, on February 21, 1801.  Following graduation from Trinity College of Oxford, he was ordained an Anglican priest in 1821.

Newman led the Oxford Movement, an effort to reconnect the Church of England with its origins by studying the writings of the first Church Fathers. His research convinced him that the Roman Church was the true Church established by Christ, leading him to leave Oxford and to be formally received into the Catholic Church in 1845.

John Henry Newman produced an amazing amount of writing over his lifetime, including 12 volumes of sermons, historical studies on the Fathers of the Church, pioneering theological  and pedagogical reflections, and collections of personal letters. According to the Anglican historian Owen Chadwick, “No Catholic thinker exercised more influence on the thought of the twentieth century.”

In his study of Newman, Chadwick emphasizes that it is Newman’s personal holiness that most characterizes him.

John Henry Newman was an eminent Victorian despite himself.  He wrote two books still regarded as classics of English prose.  He led a religious movement in the Church of England which transformed the worship of the Church and helped to alter the
ways of other Protestant Churches.  He helped Britain to see for the first time since the Reformation that Catholic priests could be as humane and generous and unbigoted as anyone else.  He had the most interesting idea of the nature of faith propounded by any thinker in the nineteenth century.  And he was a quiet, unpretentious man of prayer.

Newman has been called by many “the Father of the Second Vatican Council.” The opening words of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason, Fides et ratio radiates Newman’s thought. 

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to thecontemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of  truth about themselves.

Cardinal Newman’s writing inspired the “Newman Movement” on secular college campuses in the late 1800s, resulting in the establishment of Newman Centers.

Personal Associations with Cardinal Newman

In my sophomore year of college, I took a course in rhetoric which required that we study and partially memorize Newman’s sermon, “The Second Spring.”  Although it is not ranked among his best, it introduced me to him. The sermon’s occasion was the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in Britain after its suppression 300 years before.

“The past never returns—it is never good;--if we are to escape existing ills, it must be by going forward,” he wrote. “This, then is the cause of this national transport, this national cry, which encompasses us.  The past has returned, the dead lives.”

The summer after our first year of seminary studies in Rome, a group of us made a pilgrimage to the oratory in the grim industrial city of Birmingham where Newman lived after his conversion to Catholicism. We were impressed with the size of Newman’s library, with its three tiers of books, and by his working office-study. But what was most fascinating to us was the private chapel Newman was allowed to have in his bedroom after his creation as cardinal. On the wall behind the altar was a large picture of St. Francis de Sales; it was de Sales’ definition of the specific nature of the homily that gave Newman the motto for his coat of arms as cardinal: “Cor ad cor loquitur,” “One heart speaking to another heart.”  What was unique about the chapel were the pictures of Newman’s friends on this same wall, so that at the canon of the Mass, he could look left and then right to pray for them all, the living and the dead.

Many years later, I returned to Rome to become the rector of the seminary, the North American College. In 1979, my first year as rector, I welcomed to the college Father Vincent Ferrer Blehl, SJ, who headed the historical commission to advance the cause for canonization of Cardinal Newman.  Father Blehl described the daunting task he had been given, examining 90 volumes of Newman’s writings, along with 50,000 personal letters, among other works.  The historical commission completed its work in 1986, and Father Blehl was named postulator of the cause. In that role, he completed two large volumes which were the “positio” required for the cause to advance. In 1991, Pope John Paul II declared John Henry Newman “venerable,” the first step toward canonization..

My personal library contains Newman’s collected writings as well as many commentaries.  I treasure a personal letter Newman wrote that I have had framed.  Adorning my walls also are two illustrations from Vanity Fair, the British satirical magazine.  One, dated January 20, 1877, entitled “Tracts of the Times”, and signed “Spy,” depicts Newman age 76 in a black coat and scarf, holding his hat and umbrella, needing a haircut, with his prominent nose staring forward benevolently, now a beloved national figure.

The other illustration is from March 30, 1872. Its subject is Rev. Canon Charles Kingsley (1819-1875,) and it is captioned “The Apostle of the Flesh.”.  Kingsley stands with his back to us, hands in pockets, glaring over his shoulder in a confrontational manner.  In a book review published in 1863, Kingsley had gone on the attack against Newman and Catholicism.

            Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy.  Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon
            which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brutal force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage. Whether the notion be doctrinall correct or not, it is at least historically so.

In the years after his conversion to Catholicism, Newman lived in obscurity, ignored, he felt, by Rome and Canterbury.  But once attacked by Kingsley, he went on a mission to defend himself and the Church. He produced the famous “History of My Ideas,” the “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” which Cardinal Avery Dulles, another disciple, said ranked “with St. Augustine’s Confessions among the most important spiritual autobiographies of all time.” From that time onward, Newman received widespread recognition and achieved the status he deserved.

Some Thoughts Regarding Newman’s Holiness

1. The Christian faith requires of us personal conversion to Christ.  This was the basic theme, I found, in all of the sermons Newman delivered as an Anglican priest in St. Mary’s Church in Oxford. The Church of England being the established Church of the nation, church attendance was more of a social obligation than a religious duty for many.  Newman insisted that it had to be much more.  It had to reach to the level of our heart.
Newman’s life has been described as one of continuous conversions.  His first conversion took place when he was 15 when he experienced what he described as the conviction that there are “two and only two luminous beings, myself and my Creator.”  He once wrote, “In a higher world, it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

2. The conversion of Newman from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism came at a great personal cost—it was as he described it “the parting of friends.”  He said, “I  had no existing sympathies with Roman Catholics.  I hardly even abroad was at one of their services; I knew none of them; I did not like what I heard of them.”

Friends were central to Newman’s well-being. In one of his most personally revealing sermons, Newman developed the thesis that to love others, we have to begin by loving particular individuals: “We are to begin with loving our friends about us and gradually to enlarge the circle of our affection till it reaches all Christians and then all men,” Newman wrote.

I would say then that Newman’s holiness is uniquely manifested in his capacity for personal friendship and also in his willingness to endure the parting of friends if his process of conversion required it.

3. In his homily delivered upon the occasion of Newman’s canonization, Pope Francis cited one of Newman’s sermons in which  he distilled the meaning of being a Christian in very simple terms. “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not…The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming, has no pretense, no affectation, no ambition, no singularity---that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man.”
In one of his devotional prayers, Newman expresses the fundamental conviction which sustained him:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.  I have my mission—I may never know it in this life—but I shall be told it in the next.

“I am a link in  a chain, a bond of connection between persons.  He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good.  I shall do His work.  I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it, if I but keep His commandments.

"Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever, wherever I am.  I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.  He does nothing in vain.”