John Henry Newman, the Victorian author, academic and Anglican turned Roman Catholic, is to be declared a saint at a ceremony in Rome.
On Sunday 13 October, the Prince of Wales will join thousands of British Catholics in Rome to hear Pope Francis declare that John Henry Newman, the Victorian author, academic, hymn writer and Anglican turned Catholic, is a saint.
The last Briton to be canonised, in 1976, was the Scottish priest John Ogilvie, who converted from Calvinism to Catholicism and was martyred in 1615.
That Ogilvie and Newman were converts is a coincidence, for opting to be a Roman Catholic instead of another Christian denomination is not a prerequisite for sainthood. However, being a Catholic is. So is being dead for at least five years, and as well as evidence of a holy life, the person considered for canonisation must have been responsible for a miracle, showing that they are such a holy person that they can “intercede” on behalf of the person asking them for help.
The thousands of people gathering in Rome for this canonisation is evidence of Newman’s stature in the Catholic Church. He was born in 1801 and was one of Victorian Britain’s best-known Anglican clerics. But he and his friends were concerned that the Church of England’s forms of worship needed to be reformed and become closer to Roman Catholic tradition. Newman and his colleagues formed what was called the Oxford Movement and gained many followers.
However, when Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, others were deeply shocked by his decision, including members of his family and close friends, and he had to step down from his academic post at Oxford.
On becoming a Catholic priest, Newman joined the Oratorian Fathers and founded its oratory (chapel) in Birmingham. He also founded what later became known as University College Dublin.
Newman was renowned as an intellectual and also as a writer of hymns including Praise to the Holiest in the Height. He was also deeply loved by parishioners in Birmingham, where he lived for much of his life, for his pastoral qualities.
The regard in which he was held led Pope Leo XIII to create him a cardinal in 1879. Today, he is admired for his writings on the connections between the secular and the sacred, the importance of conscience, and the need for university education. He died in 1890.
Interest in Newman’s sanctity has been growing since the late 1950s and the campaign by the Oratorian Fathers began in earnest in 1972 with the founding of the Friends of Cardinal Newman. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain in 2010, he beatified Newman at a ceremony in Birmingham. Beatification is the penultimate stage before canonisation and also requires a miracle; in Newman’s case, doctors confirmed that Jack Sullivan, an American deacon from Massachusetts, who had prayed that Newman would “intercede” for him to be restored to health after a spinal injury, was indeed cured.
A second miracle, accepted by doctors, was reported in 2013 by Melissa Villalobos, from Chicago, who said she had prayed that Newman would intercede to stop a haemorrhage that was putting her pregnancy at risk. Pope Francis announced in February 2019 that he approved the claim and canonisation would take place. Sainthood recognises that an individual is a model for other Christians across the globe.
As well as Catholics, many Anglicans accept that Newman was a great Christian – something that is endorsed by the presence at the canonisation of the Prince of Wales, who will be representing the Queen, supreme governor of the Church of England.
COMMENTS FROM NEWMAN EXPERTS
The Rt Rev Monsignor Roderick Strange, Professor of Theology at St Mary’s University and author of Newman: the Heart of Holiness, just published by Hodder & Stoughton, comments on why Newman matters for the 21st century:
“He foresaw the time in which we live. He had a keen sense, certainly from the 1860s on, that we are entering a period of unbelief. ‘Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious’, Newman said. Experience of other religions, of course, but not a world simply irreligious. (He took Darwin in his stride. He was not fazed by The Origin of Species.) That was why he was keen in 1865 and 1867, when offered the chance, to establish an oratory in Oxford. He would not have gone to engage in controversy with the Church of England, but to confront scepticism and unbelief. He foresaw a time when scandals would damage the Church.
“Newman offers an example of someone with a keen sense of the relationship between the seen and the unseen world, the secular and the sacred. He is a witness to that. In a world that is dismissive of religious faith, he is a witness to there being another dimension to our living.
“His own life was marked by severe challenges – crosses to be borne – which he bore faithfully, following the kindly light wherever it led him. He shows us how to move from the darkest times which beset us all at some time in our lives, into the light.
“To appreciate the relationship between the seen and the unseen world, the secular and the sacred, and to confront life’s severest challenges, we need the eye of faith. There are people who dismiss music as just noise, but that is because they have no ear for music. People who dismiss religious faith, often have no eye for it, no sense of it.”
Father Ignatius Harrison, provost of the Birmingham Oratory, who is a member of the Oratorian Fathers, the order of priests to which Newman belonged:
“Newman’s lifelong success in bringing others to Christ shows us that the apostolate of Christian friendship achieves much more by attracting people to the Lord than by aggressive polemic. Newman’s long and incremental spiritual pilgrimage shows us that God leads us to Himself step by step, in ways that He customises to our individual needs, and in His own good time.
“I took over as actor (promoter) of the cause of Cardinal Newman in 2012, following in the footsteps and building on the work of my predecessors. We all feel that Newman has so much to say to the modern world, especially in his teachings on the supernatural nature of conscience as God’s law written on our hearts. Once Newman has been canonised he belongs to the whole Church and his voice can be heard by many more people.”
Rev Dr Benjamin J King, associate professor of church history, Sewanee University, Tennessee, and co-editor with Frederick Aquino of The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman, published by the Oxford University Press in 2018 comments on what Newman’s canonisation mean to Anglicans and why it matters.
“The reason I think that Newman’s canonisation is important to Anglicans is that he was a bridge, transferring a Catholic vision to worldwide Anglicanism and then bringing some of his Anglicanism with him when he became a Catholic. The fruits for Anglicanism of the Oxford Movement, which Newman helped to lead, include the fact that now many Anglican churches around the world have crosses or crucifixes, and altars where eucharist is celebrated every Sunday, and that there are orders of Anglican nuns and monks.
“The fruits for Catholicism of his conversion included magnifying the role laypeople played in the Catholic Church and shifting away from a view of the Church that “emphasises only the harmony not the tension” (as Cardinal Avery Dulles put it). As an Anglican, I would say both of these Anglican characteristics are, thanks to Newman, increasingly Catholic characteristics too.
“Newman’s canonisation is beneficial to the ecumenical movement. The fact I have been invited to the Vatican to speak on Cardinal Newman: a bridge between Anglicanism and Catholicism? on the day before the canonisation testifies to the way in which Newman can bring about deepening understanding between Catholics and Anglicans. Not that all Anglicans are devoted to him: like some of his contemporaries, some today still see him as a slippery arguer. But recent Archbishops of Canterbury (Michael Ramsey, Robert Runcie and Rowan Williams) have responded positively to his writings.”
Dr King will be giving a talk, The Anglican Past of a Future Saint, at the Westminster Abbey symposium on Newman on 18 October