The Rector writes …
The second of the miracles needed to move towards the canonisation of Blessed John Henry Newman is about to be accepted by Pope Francis and we can now look forward to having a new Englishman raised to the altar. It does us good, though, to remember that the Cardinal was a complex figure, much maligned and misunderstood in his own times. His conversion from Anglicanism 1845 was a painful “parting of friends” which was deeply felt, but within the Catholic Church the keenness of his intellect was not always appreciated and his careful theology (rooted in a profound knowledge of the Early Father of Christianity) caused friction with those who like Cardinal Manning and Frederick Faber looked for a less nuanced expression of their Catholicism. Newman was a prolific writer and to understand him his own words are the primary and richest source – the “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” remains one of the classics of spiritual writing. The most accessible of his biographers (I still find) is Meriol Trevor whose two volumes “Light in Winter” and “The Pillar of the Cloud” (published in 1962) get to the heart of the man.
A personal interest in Newman is centred on his educational theory, as my undergraduate dissertation was on his attempt to found a Catholic university for Ireland – much as Cardinal Manning tried to do here in London, in North Kensington, a few years later. Newman’s attempt was doomed to failure (at least as originally envisaged) as the Ultramontane Cardinal Paul Cullen (under-standably,given the needs of his own situation) had little comprehension of Newman’s the Oxford common room ideals. While Cullen wanted to to see an articulate middle class emerging as soon as possible able to defend their faith and lead Ireland out of its rural poverty, Newman was aiming at a more rounded, humane and civilised breed of person – someone in whom Christianity was integrated rather than inculcated: for him theology was the “queen of sciences” which provided a matrix for all the other disciplines. Out of his frustrations came Newman’s “Idea of a University” which has stood the test of time and remains a blueprint for a Christian understanding of higher education.
If ever you are in Dublin and have the chance to visit the rooms of Gerard Manley Hopkins next door to the university church on Saint Stephen’s Green (founded by Newman), you will gain unique insight into the internal sufferings and solitariness which was central to the experience of both the Jesuit writer and the English Cardinal. Each of them felt like a fish out of water; while one challenged his unhappiness into wonderful poetry, his contemporary turned towards pastoral ministry among the urban poor of Birmingham As well as bringing Saint Philip Neri’s Oratory to England (as father of the communities in London and Birmingham) his thinking on the nature of the Church, on the development of doctrine and the role of the laity, continues to influence theologians today, not least Benedict XV1 who never misses an opportunity to allude to the personal debt he owes to Newman. Towards the end of a long life (he died aged 89), Newman characterised his own ministry, Anglican and Catholic, as a struggle against “relativism” in religion (the view that there are no absolute truths). Not much has changed!
Soon we shall be able to invoke John Henry Newman as “Saint” and not just “Blessed”. Paradoxically, just as the miracle accepted for the Cardinal’s beatification came not from England or Ireland, but from the United States (the cure of a deacon in Boston suffering from a crippling spinal condition) so the sign needed for the canonisation has also come from America where a woman in Chicago, with a long devotion to Blessed John Henry, was cured of a life-threatening condition during pregnancy. May the prayers of Saint John Henry prove effective in bringing a new evangelisation to the England he loved so dearly and of which, quintessentially, he was a part.