Although he died on August 11th, this is the day the Church has chose to commemorate Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (+1890); for it was on October 9th, 1845 that the former Anglican minister, halfway through his earthly journey, finally convinced of the truths of Roman Catholicism, converted to the fullness of the Faith. He had spent years striving to find in Anglicanism a via media – a halfway house, if you will – between the low liturgy and stark beliefs of latitudinarianism (a kind of English Calvinism with stripped-down liturgy typified by Oliver Cromwell) and what many saw at the other extreme as the ‘excesses’ of Roman Catholicism. But as his keen mind delved into the early Fathers and Church history, Newman realized that the fullness of Roman Catholicism – the Mass, all the sacraments, the priesthood and hierarchy, devotion to the Mother of God and the panoply of saints, all the beauty of liturgy and chant – had been there from the very beginning. As he was to say, to delve into history is to cease to be a Protestant.
And so, he did – cease to be a Protestant, that is – and two years later was ordained a Catholic priest. Choosing the gentle and cultured path of Saint Philip Neri, he founded the Oratory of Saint Philp Neri in London, then in the industrial city of Birmingham, in the latter house remaining superior until his death. Hence, we find an indirect connection to the saint who shares his feast, Giovanni Leonardi, as mentioned, himself a directee of Saint Philip’s.
He was devoted to the truth, not only in theory, but in practice, striving to find God’s will in the hic et nunc, the here and now, a path open to each one of us:
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 never may 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 naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Newman’s long and full life of 89 years spanned nearly the whole Victorian era, a life impossible to encapsulate in a brief few paragraphs. He wrote some of the finest prose in the history of the English language, on a whole variety of subjects, even if a tad flourishing for our ears attuned to a less complex structure and layering. His sermons are models of clarity and piety, and still very relevant. His analysis of conversion and belief, not least his autobiographical Grammar of Assent, are masterpieces of what ‘faith’ really is. Newman valued highly his friendships; even if his sensitive soul could take offence quite easily, he was always ready to reconcile, and he has left us the treasure of a vast correspondence to personages high and low. A proficient violinist, he wrote hymns – Praise to the Holiest in the Height being prominent, even if its leap of notes require more preparation than I often have leading it at Mass – as well as novels and poetry, the text of one of the latter, the Dream of Gerontius, put to ineffable melodies by Elgar.
In 1854, he was tasked with founding a Catholic university in Dublin, Ireland, at which he laboured for a somewhat thankless five years, coming into conflict, for various reasons, with the Irish hierarchy, one of which was over how Catholicism should be instantiated. Newman saw the university not as a lay seminary, but for the formation of ‘gentlemen’, and his thoughts on this time period comprise the famous Idea of a University, a sort of architectonic overview of what a Catholic university – the only sort of real and complete university – should aim to do.
Newman’s prophetic and far-reaching thoughts, which some found difficult to accept at the time (as is oft the case with prophets) adumbrated many of those of the Second Vatican Council, not least his reflections on the dignity and esteem of the individual human conscience, which must give a personal account of itself before God. As he put it quite vividly: We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe. Hence, we are called – indeed, duty bound – to use our wits and our reason, formed and educated as we have opportunity, to lead ourselves and others to the gates of paradise through the thickets and thorns of this life. At the close of his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he writes:
I add one remark. Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.
A toast with which we beleaguered Catholics might now agree more than we might once have hoped. At the same time, Newman was insistent that conscience only has rights, because it first has duties, and weighty ones at that: Woe to those who reject the truth once it has been made known to them, who choose darkness rather than light.
We may rejoice that John Henry Cardinal Newman chose the light, led kindly thereto by the God of mercy, who responds swiftly to those to who respond to Him. Newman was beatified on September 19th, 2010, by Pope Benedict XVI during his pilgrimage to Britain, and was canonized two years ago, on Sunday, October 13th, 2019, by Pope Francis in Rome.
As we celebrate this great saint, perhaps take some time to peruse Newman, his sermons, his meditations, his reflections on the Fathers, including his favorite, the indomitable Athanasius, his essays – including a four-part series on the Antichrist, perhaps fitting for our times, or his hymns, his poems, his thoughts on education. And converse with him, in accord with his own motto, cor ad cor loquitur, heart speaks to heart. For it is in the heart that a man’s true treasure is found.