In a matter of weeks the Holy Father will come to Birmingham to beatify the Ven. Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Views on this saintly man are varied with many Catholics knowing very little about him. To non-Catholics his authorship of the Dream of Gerontius set to music by Sir Edward Elgar seems to be his main glory! In three parts let us look at at Cardinal Newman, as the man, as the priest and as the saint.
John Henry Newman was born in London in 1801 and was the eldest son of a banker. His family were nominally members of the Church of England, but are not thought to have had any particular religious tendancies! Aged 7 the young John was sent to Ealing School where, at the age of 16yrs he talks of ‘a profound religious conversion’ which he described as setting him on the path to find ‘spiritual perfection’. Quite an aspiration for a 16yr old do you not think?
Newman was as you might imagine, a scholarly boy, and went up to Oxford (Trinity) where he would later be elected a Fellow of Oriel College. His chosen path was in the Anglican Church, and after ordination he became a curate and later vicar at St. Mary’s Oxford. It was during this period that he became known for the eloquence of his sermons (as shown in ‘Parochial and Plain Sermons’). At the same time he also worked as a college tutor which gave him the opportunity to research his own work ‘The Arians of the 4th century. Whilst on holiday in the Mediteranean he became seriously ill, and it could be said that this illness altered the course of his life. He became certain that God had spared him for some special purpose. I am sure you will remember the words of Newman:
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 in the next.
On his return to Oxford he founded the Oxford Movement which was intended to combat the spiritual stagnation, interferance from the state, and doctrinal unorthodoxy within the Church of England.
As time went on, and after studying the early Church Fathers,during his studies at Oxford, John Henry began to realize that the position of the Church of England bore a close resemblance to that of the early heretics and that only the Roman Catholic Church was ‘One Fold of Christ’.You might imagine – this did not endear him to the religious authorities and he subsequently retired from Oxford and spent some years living a strict religious life with some companions, and his path to Rome had begun. It was whilst working on his ‘Essays on the Development of Christian Doctrine’ that he was received into the Holy Catholic Church at Littlemore by Father Dominic Barberi (now Blessed Dominic Barberi).
Whilst studying for the Sacred Priesthood in Rome, a move that had resulted in him being ostracized by both relatives and friends, he became interested in the idea of the Oratory Congregation of Priests founded by St. Philip Neri in the 16th Century, and on his return to England did indeed found the first English Oratory in Birmingham.
Both an academic and a pastoral life engaged Fr. Newman for many years, and we shall look at his ministry in the next part.
Newman was also instrumental in the founding of what is now University College Dublin. this being done at the behest of the Irish Bishops, but his life was far from easy during these years. Some of his literary projects resulted in condemnation and criticism, whilst others – particularly his Apologia pro Vita (the story of his conversion, and in which he vindicated his honesty in the Church of England, and defended the Church of Rome) were very well received.
At the age of 78yrs Pope Leo XIII made the unprecedented gesture of making Fr. Newman a Cardinal – a position he held for the following 11 years until his death in 1890.
Very briefly – this is Newman the man. There is much more that could be written about the saintly progression of this man, and there are many books on the Cardinal that I would encourage you to seek. In the next part we will look at Fr. Newman – the Priest.