The Rector writes …
There have been only a very few English saints who have inspired universal interest, among them most famously Thomas a Becket and Thomas More, but this weekend’s canonisation of Cardinal Newman adds another name to that short but honourable list. John Henry Newman was born in Ealing in 1801: his life was to embrace most of the 19th Century as he lived to be 89. Two cities will always be associated with him; Oxford and Birmingham. Brought up within the Church of England, as a teenager the future cardinal had an evangelical conversion and his assurance of the personal love of Jesus remained with him ever afterwards. A brilliant academic career (with a study of the early Christian writers) joined to pastoral work after ordination led to Newman becoming a leader in what came to be known as the “Oxford Movement” – an attempt to return Anglicanism to apostolic roots. The opposition to his “Tracts for the Times” published between 1833-1841 in which he argued for the continuity of the Church of England with the undivided Church led him to retreat to Littlemore just outside the city of Oxford where, with a few like-minded people around him, he spent several years trying to discern God’s will. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1845 by Blessed Dominic Barberi
After his conversion, the second half of Newman’s life was not without controversy. In his autobiography “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (published n 1866) he seeks to justify his change of allegiance (and much else) and as piece of spiritual as well as historical writing it is fascinating to read such an honest appraisal of God’s working in an individual heart. Many will know and value his poem “The Dream of Gerontius”, later set to music by Edward Elgar, through which we have gained one of the best loved of all hymns: “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” – and, of course, another hymn from the same pen “Lead, Kindly Light” has helped many people in their own journey of faith. Newman was a careful writer in the cause of truth, setting out his understanding of Catholic teaching for non-Catholics while encouraging his co-religionists to be faithful to the tradition that has been handed down to them. What Cardinal Newman had to offer in the 19th century was a vision of the Church which was authentically Catholic while at the same time respecting the Englishness of its particularly local expression. This notion of local churches having their own culture and emphases (or patrimony) within the communion of the universal Church was to find sympathetic ears at the Second Vatican Council a century later.
John Henry Newman remains a theologian of international note. Benedict XV1 has often spoken of his influence on his own thought which was the reason for his taking the unusual step of beatifying Cardinal Newman in Birmingham (rather than Rome) on his visit to this country in 2010 – but if it is with Oxford that he was identified in the first half of his life, it is in Birmingham that he really found his mission as pastor and teacher. Taking Saint Philip Neri as his inspiration Newman founded an Oratory which would work in one of the poorer areas of that great industrial centre and was content to live out his days ministering among its people. Much of his written devotional work – for which he is rightly revered – came from his experience among ordinary working people with little formal education. So often it is true that it takes a great mind to express the truths of the Faith in all simplicity.
There is so much more that could and should be said about this new Saint and you might well look up the website https://www.newmancanonisation.com for further information. One of the best-known pieces of Cardinal Newman’s prose is contained in the following words which give us all pause for thought this weekend: “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 have a part in a great work. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing”.