I shall start this overview of Newman’s priestly life with a word about the position of Roman Catholics in England during the 19th century. For generations, Catholics were prohibited from entering either the legal or medical profession, and were barred from all offices of state. Entrance to either Oxford or Cambridge was not an option for Catholics, and it is often forgotten that Catholics were not allowed to vote until 1829. Pope Pius lX restored the English hierarchy in 1850, after a lapse of three centuries. When Archbishop Wiseman (later Cardinal), the new primate, returned from Rome, he was burned in effigy in many places, and his carriage pelted with dung on the streets of Southwark. We were, toward the end of this century, held in contempt and distrust by the majority. Even the Lord Chancellor of the Realm publicly referred to Catholicism as ‘mummeries of superstition’.
For The Reverend Mr. John Henry Newman – a writer and academic of great style and clarity, and a preacher of great power within the Anglican church, perhaps even the most influential Anglican minister in England – to become a Roman Catholic was unthinkable to many people. But, as we know, this is exactly what he did.
Once Newman had decided to become a Catholic, he resigned his Fellowship at Oriel College – a position that, as a Catholic, he would be prohibited from holding. We have already looked at his reception into the Church (by Blessed Dominic Barberi), and in following this path he joined some of his previous adherants who had already converted. In February 1846, he and some of his followers went to the old Oscott College, and lived under the direction of Bishop Wiseman. It was at Wiseman’s urging that Newman decided to become a priest, and left for Rome to study for the Sacred Priesthood later that year. In 1847 Newman was ordained to the priesthood and was awarded the D.D. degree by Pope Pius lX. On Christmas eve that year, Fr. Newman returned to England.
Following his return, Fr. Newman served as an Oratorian at Maryvale; St. Wilfred’s College Cheadle; St. Mary’s, Birmingham; and Edgebaston. On February 2nd 1848 he founded the Congregation of the Oratory, a branch of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, at Edgebaston, Birmingham. When the English hierarchy was restored by Pius lX, there was an immediate and widespread anti-papal backlash. Fr. Newman attempted to counter the ‘no-popery’ campaign by writing letters to a number of newspapers under the pen-name ‘Catholicus’ with limited success. His published ‘Lectures on the Present Position of Roman Catholics’ (1851) was slightly better received. In 1852 he was successfully sued for libel by a former Dominican priest Giacinto Achilli whom he had accused of various immoral acts! His woes were far from over, as in 1858, he was asked to resign his editorship of ‘The Rambler’ after an essay ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’ was censured by Rome, where it was thought to be a statement against papal infallibility. It was also thought that Fr. Newman would be made a Bishop, but although he was publicly congratulated, the appointment was never made.
Back in Birmingham Fr. Newman continued to preach and write. His Sunday evening sermons and series of lectures drew great crowds, and many were converted to Catholicism. Although he was always a scholar, his pastoral duties were far from neglected. During the Cholera epidemic in Bilston, which claimed the lives of 700 people in two months, Fr. Newman and his Oratorians could be found caring and ministering to the sick and the dying. At the Birmingham Oratory today, Newman’s confessional stole can be still be seen – and it is very well worn!
It is said that Fr. Newman was always filled with a quiet unyielding trust in Divine Providence, but he was seldom without troubles and disappointments. Over the years he retreated from public life, though he was called upon to defend himself against wild stories that circulated, that he was considering a return to the Anglican church. It was a more serious accusation that brought him back into the limelight. In a book review, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, an Anglican minister, accused the Catholic clergy of dishonesty, and Newman specifically of having commended dishonesty among the clergy. Newman received only more insults. So he embarked on a mission to clear his name and that of his fellow priests. He wrote a defence of his life ‘Apologia pro Vita Sua’, which is now considerd perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography since St. Augustine’s Confessions. The whole country had been awaiting Newman’s reply, which he very cleverly serialised in newspapers across the country over a period of seven weeks. They had a mesmerising effect.
From this point Newman’s reputation and stature grew steadily. Other works, particularly defending the Church’s Marian devotions, and Papal infallibility, gave him an international reputation as a powerful defender of the faith. It is said that rarely has there been an intellectual convert of the past 100 years who can’t give some of the credit to John Henry Newman!
On May 12th, 1879, Pope Leo Xlll made Newman a Cardinal. All England is said to have celebrated this honour, for Newman more than any other had changed England’s view of both Catholics and their faith; Never again would they be called intellectually inferior or morally depraved just because they were Catholics.
Cardinal Newman died on August 11th 1890, having said his last Mass on the Christmas eve of 1889. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people lined the streets as his body was borne to Rednal, some eight miles away, for a peaceful burial.
The Cork Examiner affirmed ‘Cardinal Newman goes to his grave with the singular honour of being by all creeds and classes acknowledged as the just man made perfect’.
Previous post of this series: John Henry Newman Part I: The Man