“One of the greatest Englishmen” and “the greatest master of the English language of our time”; this is how the Manchester Guardian described Cardinal John Henry Newman after he died on August 11, 1890.
The tribute of the Manchester Guardian terms him a “preacher of authority” and a “mocker of all the mere material progress on which the age seemed exclusively bent.” It observed: “Englishmen were proud of the great Cardinal; they had even a certain affection for him.”
On Sunday, Pope Francis will canonise this great English churchman. The Prince of Wales – the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England – will be present at the ceremony. Perhaps, had it not been for Cardinal Newman, it would have been unthinkable for him to be present at the canonisation of one of the world’s most famous Catholic converts and men of letters.
John Henry Newman was born in 1801. At the age of 15, he had the first of two profound conversions and embraced evangelical Anglicanism. He studied at Trinity College in Oxford and later won a Fellowship at Oriel College. It was at the latter that he grew out of his initial Puritanism and understood the mysteries of faith within the broader tradition of the Church.
At 27, he was appointed Vicar of the University Church of St Mary in Oxford. This appointment came with a prestigious and influential pulpit.
He wasn’t an excellent orator – he read his sermon from his lectern, and his voice was monotonous. Nonetheless, many appreciated him. His sermons were composed in beautiful and persuasive prosaic text. They spoke to sensitive minds, and he was sincere.
Indeed, he was so effective that some Oxford tutors went as far as discouraging young undergraduates from listening to him!
During his time at Oriel College, Newman visited Malta. His first visit was a two-day call that lasted from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day 1832. His second call, in January 1833, was longer.
Unfortunately, he had little time for sightseeing. After his release from quarantine, he contracted a bad cold and was confined to his room for another fortnight. His letters show that he was very much impressed by St John’s Co-Cathedral, but somewhat underwhelmed by the fortifications of the Order.
In a poem he wrote on his way from Malta to Messina, Newman reflected on the incident of St Paul with the viper. In his inimitable style, he gave some advice which remains relevant: “Christian! Hence learn to do thy part, and leave the rest to Heaven.”
Newman has been described as the “preacher for the Industrial Revolution”. At a time when new industrial methods brought about opportunities for economic growth, unprecedented wealth, and rampant materialism, Newman preached the exact opposite – attaining wealth is not an end in itself.
Newman realised the Church needed to go beyond religious formalities and empty sermons
In an age of great scientific discovery, there was a temptation to try to look for signs of God in the new findings. Newman thought otherwise. He wrote: “I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see a design.” Rather than having an eye to explore one’s surroundings, he believed that one needs to go inwards, within one’s conscience, to recognise that which is lasting.
Though undoubtedly an intellectual, Newman distrusted the intellect. One may be bright, but intelligence does not necessarily open the mind to truths that matter.
Through his reading of the Fathers of the Church, he realised the Church needed to go beyond religious formalities and empty sermons. The works of the early Christian writers were for him a compass which helps the faithful unravel and live with the great mysteries.
He came to realise that Catholicism contained something closer to the moral and spiritual ideal espoused by the Church Fathers. He was received in the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845 and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1847. In his last sermon as an Anglican vicar, he described his conversion as a “parting of friends”.
This was not an easy step. The University of Oxford, an institution which was then very much part of the Church of England, was very close to his heart. He owed much to this august institution. In it, he learnt how to think and preach. Within it, he led a movement of religion which would permanently change the Church of England.
His love of learning did not wane. When he was asked to set up a Catholic University in Ireland, he had time to think about the meaning of education. The lecture series which was later published in book form, The Idea of a University, reflects on some of these themes.
The nature of a university is to educate the young. It must offer the possibility of a community of learning based on friendship among educators, among students and between educators and students. It is a place where the young begin to contribute, thereby leading to an enlargement of the mind. In short, a university should be an “Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry or a mint, or a treadmill”.
When he embraced Catholicism, he also had to accept some things that did not sit well with him. He was uncertain about the doctrine of infallibility, but he accepted it once Vatican Council I endorsed it. He qualified it by stating that infallible authority only touched upon religion, and it can only safeguard old truth.
In other words, it cannot be different from anything which has been bequeathed to the Church by the Apostles and the Church Fathers.
He argued, however, that professional theologians must respect the findings of historians. He also posited that a regular person could have deeper faith than a clergyman or the Pope himself. At the time, one Catholic clergyman ventured to describe Newman as “the most dangerous man in England!” Now, these views were wholly embraced by the Church.
In many ways, though he lived through Vatican Council I, Newman can also be considered as a father of Vatican Council II.
In 1878, Pope Leo XIII succeeded Pope Pius IX. In 1879, he offered Newman the Cardinal’s hat. He reluctantly accepted and chose cor ad cor loquitur as his motto – heart speaks unto heart. At the homily delivered during his beatification Mass, Pope Benedict XVI describes the significance of this motto.
Newman understood the Christian life “as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God”.
Newman died on August 11, 1890. On his gravestone in Rednal, near Birmingham, he had the words ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem inscribed – “coming out of the shadows and images into the truth”.
This is a fitting summation of what his work attempts to do. It gently leads the reader to understand the significance of images and shadows as they are drawn and persuaded into embracing a greater Truth. His example is a true gift for a Church which tries to engage with a wider world without abandoning that Truth.
André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.
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