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John Henry Newman

 

 

John Henry Newman, who is to be beatified during the Pope's visit, was born in London on 21 February 1801 and was baptised in the Church of England. He became a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1822, an Anglican clergyman in 1825 and Vicar of the Oxford University Church in 1828.

He was received into the Catholic Church in 1845, and went to Rome to study for the priesthood. Whilst there he became attracted to the Congregation of the Oratory and founded the first Oratory church in England at Birmingham. In 1851 the Bishops of Ireland invited him to become the founder and first Rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, known today as University College Dublin. He later returned to Birmingham where he continued writing, preaching and counselling. He was made Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. He died in Birmingham on I I August 1890. Such was the lasting impact of his writing that he was spoken of as “the invisible Father” of the Second Vatican Council.

As we prepare for the Pope's visit, looking forward especially to the beatification, we will outline in the weeks ahead some elements of his life. In no way could what may follow be described as a biography but, through a single paragraph in each week's newsletter, there may be enough to help make the beatification of John Henry Newman more meaningful for those who do not know him.  

 


 

Although post-reformation persecutions had ceased, anti-Catholic hostility in this country was widespread well into the nineteenth century. Generations of official oppression had left the relatively small community of Catholics in England generally held in contempt, scorned and distrusted. It was against this background that, in 1845, a most shocking thing happened: John Henry Newman joined the Roman Catholic Church. His reputation was immense. Each week as the Vicar of St. Mary's Church in Oxford he used to attract hundreds of students, university officials and townspeople with his scholarly preaching. He was considered as perhaps the most intellectually and spiritually gifted preacher of his day. He was also a key figure in the so-called Oxford Movement, seeking to bring about reform in the Church of England largely through the publication of a series of essays known collectively as "Tracts for the Times". And now he had become a Catholic.

 

 

Newman was very concerned at the growing secularisation of British society and the indifference to the Church of England and to religion generally. The Anglican Church needed to be revitalised; he had a mission. In the summer of 1833, while travelling round the Mediterranean he became seriously ill and was unable to travel for several weeks. Although normally optimistic and full of fire, he became deeply depressed through illness, delay and uncertainty. When he did get a passage on a boat it became becalmed for a whole week, surrounded by dense fog somewhere out at sea. This only intensified his feeling of loneliness and sadness. He commented later: "it was there that I wrote the lines, Lead, Kindly Light, which have since become so well known".

This hymn has been called the marching song of the Oxford Movement. It illustrates Newman's own readiness to be guided by the Lord along a faith journey which would take him he knew not where.

 

 

 

Newman would have been more than amazed had been able to foresee that one day he would become a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He shared the scepticism and mistrust towards the Catholic Church of the time; it was in the air he breathed. He accepted the popular view that the Catholic Church is corrupt and full of superstition, as he put it: “a perversion of the truth … a monstrous development.”  After visiting Rome, he denounced the Catholic faith as “polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous.” His early studies had convinced him the Pope was the anti-Christ. Preaching on the passage where Jesus gave “the keys of the kingdom” to Peter he said: “This passage is made much of by the papists … who assert the Pope is the successor of St. Peter, though this of course is not proved by the text. … I do not think that many of us are likely to fall away to popery. It is not in the way of good Churchmen to depart from their excellent forms of worship to the corruptions of the Romish Church.” He went on to warn: “let us be sure that she is our enemy, and will do us a mischief when she can.”

 

 

He was dismissive of Rome, but the condition of the Church of England was what concerned Newman most of all. Since Henry VIII had declared himself Head of the Church in England, State and Church had been closely bound up together. Increasingly the State had been interfering in and gradually dictating on specifically Church matters. By Newman’s time the Church of England had become an integral part of the Establishment, with bishops being appointed for their political leanings rather than for their spirituality. At the same time there its doctrinal teaching was being weakened by ‘liberal Protestants’ who relied on individual interpretations of scripture rather than Church dogma or creed. To fit in with ‘modern reasoning’ they dropped such doctrines as the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, Original Sin. It was against this background that Newman, with a small group of colleagues based at Oxford, anxiously sought to restore the Church of England to its proper state. This was the aim of the Oxford Movement.

 

 

We have noted how Newman shared the general view of his day in an attitude of distrust towards the Roman Catholic Church. He saw it as a perversion of true Christian faith and at one time was persuaded that the Pope was the anti-Christ. On the other hand he was gravely concerned about the condition of the Church of England which was coming increasingly under State control, and at the same time suffering the impact of liberal Protestantism. He was convinced that the Church of England stood midway between Roman superstitions and Protestant heresies. The true Anglican Church, he maintained, was neither Romanist nor Protestant. It held to a middle path between the excesses of Rome and the denials of Protestantism. True Christian doctrine was what had been taught in the early Church before the break-up of Christendom into various branches. All the Anglican Church had to do now was to model its faith on that of the early Church. In 1833 he began writing a series of essays called “Tracts for the Times” which marked the beginning of the so-called Oxford Movement. 

 


 

“The Fathers of the Church” is the name given to the great Christian teachers who came after the authors of the New Testament. Writing from the late in the first century through to the sixth and seventh century, these are the leaders who first established the doctrines and practices of Christianity which flow from the content of the Scriptures. Later teachers of theology looked back to these early ‘Fathers’ as beacons of orthodoxy, our main link with our origins. Newman feared that the Anglican Church was currently in danger of spiritual decay because it had forgotten basic early doctrines. In 1836 he began to edit an English version of the writings of these Fathers of the Church. He was seeking to prove that the Anglican Church was a continuation in England of that one Catholic (universal) Church of which in olden times the Fathers had been the trusted teachers. He was seeking also to recapture some of the Catholic doctrines and forms of worship which had been lost at the Reformation.

 

 

The “Tracts for the Times”, started by Newman in 1833, became compulsory reading among churchmen and were a regular source of controversy. Though seeking still to remain a loyal Anglican, Newman’s studies of the early Church were drawing him closer and closer towards acceptance of Rome. Eventually, in 1841, he wrote Tract 90, in which he argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles, the doctrinal statement of the Church of England, could be interpreted in a way that supported Roman Catholic doctrine, including such as the Mass and the Sacraments.

His arguments were violently rejected by those in authority in the Anglican Church. They were condemned by many, including the heads of the University and his own Bishop of Oxford, which led to his withdrawal from Oxford to a semi-monastic style of life at Littlemore, a little village close to Oxford. Still he clung on to the Anglican Church which he regarded as his own home "to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties".

 

 

In September 1843 Newman preached his last sermon as an Anglican on the theme “The Parting of Friends”. In retirement he studied more deeply to understand the way ideas develop within the content of Christian faith. How can we teach doctrines in ways that are not immediately expressed in the Bible? He came to see that, as time goes on, the Church sees more and more clearly all that is contained in the truth revealed in the Scriptures. With this clearer vision come new formulations of doctrine which are fuller statements of the same truth which has been present from the beginning. 

In this he was coming ever closer to Catholic appreciation of Scripture and Tradition together as source of doctrine.  He started writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and as he neared the end of it he felt that he could wait no longer. In writing it he had written himself into the Catholic Church. On 9th October 1845 Newman and two of his companions were received into the Catholic Church in a very simple ceremony. His life as a Catholic had begun. 

 

 

Newman’s conversion meant ostracism by many friends, relatives and former colleagues. He was condemned within the Church of England, in the press, even in parliament. He was also accused of deserting those fellow Anglicans who had hoped he would lead a Catholic renewal of the Anglican Church. Undaunted, Newman set out for Rome to study for the priesthood. While there he became attracted by the idea of the Oratory – a Congregation of priests founded by Saint Philip Neri in the sixteenth century. In 1847 he was ordained priest in Rome and then returned to found the first English Oratory at Maryvale, near Birmingham. From there he worked tirelessly especially for the poor parishioners of the Birmingham Oratory, with works of charity and popular teaching and preaching now directed to a more general public. However, he was not always well received by fellow Catholics, including some in authority who suspected the orthodoxy of his teaching and resented the fuss his conversion had caused. 

 


 

Already renowned for his previous University experience at Oxford, in 1851 Newman was invited by a group representing the Irish Bishops to assist in the foundation of a catholic University in Dublin. He prepared for this by delivering a series of lectures on the scope and nature of a university education within a Catholic context. He argued for a liberal education offering students a rounded intellectual training to fit them for a changing world. Theology was to have a central place among the various branches of knowledge. He explained that there is no need for any conflict between theology and science, which should respect each other as different ways of understanding the world. Later, in 1873, these lectures were gathered and published in “The Idea of a University”, a work which is still widely respected today for its vision of higher education. Sadly, however, largely because of divided opinions and lack of proper support from among the Irish Bishops and disagreements with the Archbishop of Dublin, Newman resigned from this venture in 1858.

 

 

One of the greatest obstacles that stood in the way of Newman’s conversion to Rome was Catholic devotion to Our Lady. While pondering about his future he wrote: “I could not go to Rome while she suffers honours to be paid to the Blessed Virgin and the Saints which I thought in my conscience to belong solely to God”. It is a fact that there were at times excesses in the ways in which Catholics honoured the Mother of God almost to the exclusion of her Divine Son. The accusation of ‘Mariolatry’, the worship of Mary, was loud in non-Catholic circles. Only gradually did Newman come to realise that what the Church believes about Our Lady is utterly consistent with her role as Mother of God and has developed organically as part of the living tradition of the Church rooted in the Scriptures. He recognised this especially in relation to the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, which he began to see as a truth received and handed on through the  ages, in perfect harmony with the other truths of Revelation. This realisation lifted the barrier to his becoming a Catholic.

 


 

In January 1864, in a magazine article Charles Kingsley, author of “The Water Babies” and “Westward Ho!”, accused Newman specifically, and Catholic clergy generally, of not regarding truth as a virtue. Newman complained and asked for some proof of this “slander” or for its complete withdrawal, but Kingsley would not make a full withdrawal of his accusation. Even an exchange of letters in which Newman demonstrated that there was no source for any such accusation brought no satisfaction. So, between April and June 1864 Newman wrote what he called “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”, a “Defense of one’s Life”, in which he would vindicate himself and show how his whole life had been spent in pursuit of Truth. He met Kingsley's accusations of untruthfulness and deceit in detail. The work quickly became a bestseller and has remained in print to this day. From the day when his Apologia was published, Newman won a place in the heart of his countrymen of whatever religion or politics, which he never lost till he died nearly thirty years later.

 

 

 

Another significant figure in the late nineteenth century Catholic Church was Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. Like Newman he had been an Anglican priest but as Catholics they held different attitudes towards papal authority. Newman had no difficulty whatsoever in accepting the authority of the pope but he was critical of an attitude of exaggerated deference to papal authority known as ‘Ultramontanism’, the position held by Manning. Every single utterance from ‘beyond the mountains’ (the alps), in other words from the pope, was to be eagerly welcomed and embraced. In 1867 Pope Pius IX announced that a General Council was to be convened, the First Vatican Council. Manning rejoiced that this would be the opportunity to define the doctrine of papal infallibility, whereas Newman, though he believed the doctrine, thought it might not be prudent to formally define it at the time. His caution earned him the opposition of Manning and other Catholic leaders, one of whom described Newman as “the most dangerous man in England”.

 


Both before and after the 1870 definition of Papal Infallibility Newman was involved in heated controversy about the matter. As well as Cardinal Manning, a Mr. William Ward as editor of the Dublin Review widely presented the ultramontane attitude of very exaggerated papalism, wanting virtually every statement of every pope to be treated as infallible. Newman’s criticism of this position and his reticence about the timing of the dogmatic definition of infallibility made him the object of scorn among many Catholic leaders of the day. However, when William Gladstone produced a pamphlet attacking the Catholic position, thereby re-opening England’s ‘no-popery’ bigotry, Newman responded. He addressed the issue in the form of a Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, the leading Catholic layman of the country. In it Newman made clear the balance between personal conscience and external authority and very carefully spelt out the limitations of this doctrine. Once again, his writing brought light, reduced hostility and calmed the atmosphere.

 


Largely because of the different attitudes to papal authority Newman continued to suffer the distrust and even attacks of other leading Catholics of his day. His orthodoxy was already questioned by his opponents because of an article he had written some years earlier On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. For a long time he was considered to be a dangerous liberal, despite his own lifelong fight against liberal attitudes that substitute human ideas for God’s revelation. It seemed that a dark cloud hung over him. Still, a man of great holiness living always in the presence of God, he continued to work quietly and tirelessly in his Birmingham parish, especially devoted to caring for the poor and sick people of the area. He also maintained an enormous level of correspondence with people from many parts of the world, leaving after his death some 50,000 letters! At last, in 1879 came the formal recognition and affirmation John Henry Newman deserved, when Pope Leo XIII ending all suspicions about his Catholic faith by making him a Cardinal. 

 


Newman was 78 when, much to his surprise, he was made a Cardinal. Over the years he had suffered greatly from the hostile accusations levelled against his theological standing. Now, at last, suspicions of his Catholic loyalty and orthodoxy were dispelled. Newman, formerly acknowledged as the most spiritually and intellectually gifted Anglican of his day, now turned round England’s view of Catholics: no more would they be regarded as intellectually inferior or morally depraved just because they were Catholics. He led a return to Scripture and to the Fathers, to the community aspect of the Church and to the rightful place of the laity. He championed the supremacy of conscience and the active role of the Church in the modern world. But a constant, from his early days in Oxford, was that his preaching resounded with a call to holiness, assuring his listeners of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. He suggested that believing in Christianity was like falling in love, not simply a matter of intellect; hence his motto “Heart speaks unto Heart”. 

 

 

Scene of the Beatification of John Henry Newman