John Henry Newman: A Saint for Today

by Jack Valero

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) will be canonised by Pope Francis this Sunday 13 October in Rome. He lived through almost the whole of the 19th century and spent half his life as an Anglican and half as a Catholic. He was a priest, a popular preacher, a writer and an eminent theologian in both churches. Although he lived such a long time ago, he is still very relevant to people today, as shown in the following nine areas. 

1. Education

Newman’s book The Idea of a University continues to be a reference work for tertiary educational institutions. His vision that education had to be for its own sake, and not a technical preparation for a specific profession or job, is still discussed in academic circles. But Newman not only spoke and wrote about universities; he started one himself, in Dublin, at the request of the Catholic bishops in Ireland. He commuted from his Oratorian community in Birmingham. Later, aware of the lack of high-quality schools for Catholics in England, he set out to start a secondary school that would be like a “Catholic Eton”, the best possible to prepare Catholics for professional or public life. Both projects continue to this day: UCD in Dublin and the Oratory School near Reading.

2. Conscience

Newman’s views on conscience have become standard Catholic teaching, as put together in the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated in 1992. These are found mainly in Chapter 5 of Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, a book written in response to Gladstone’s assertion that because the Pope had been declared infallible, Catholics were no longer suitable for public life. Newman answers this charge in a subtle way, explaining that Catholics follow their conscience rather than obeying anyone blindly. Conscience, he says, is not a subjective feeling but the voice of God within. These teachings have been the basis for political action for many people, including the anti-Nazi White Rose Movement started by Sophie Scholl and her friends in Munich in the early 1940s. Newman’s works, which had recently been translated into German, inspired these students to give their lives for the truth. Many politicians and people in public life today acknowledge the help they have received from Newman’s teachings on conscience and integrity.

3. Friendship

Newman had many good friends during his life, from prime ministers to beggars. His 20,000 letters are witness to depth of his friendships. The writer George Eliot remarked how moved she was by the fraternal love shown at the end of the Apologia Pro Vita Sua where Newman thanks his brothers in the Oratory, especially Ambrose St John, for their care over so many years. These are the people who were Anglicans with him, who became Catholics with him, who were ordained priests with him, who joined the Oratory he founded. In fact, although he wrote many important books on theology and the Church, Newman thought that the main way the faith would be transmitted was through friendship. This is particularly relevant in an age when relationships of all kinds have become transient. Newman teaches us the value of having many and deep friendships.

4. Lay people

Newman had a very modern vision of the role of lay people in the Church. In his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics he writes of his dream of a “laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it”. This vision is what inspired the Catholic Voices project in 2010. Newman looked forward to a time when the laity received proper formation and preparation in philosophy, theology, history and other related subjects so they could take on their proper role in the Church — something that only started to happen a century after his death. Furthermore, his On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine outlined the idea that the people of the Church as a whole are collectively given a supernatural knowledge of the truth of the faith, known as the sensus fidelium. He explains that at the time of the Arians of the fourth century, it was the Christian people rather than their leaders who kept the faith. 

5. The spiritual life

Newman’s writings on the spiritual life have become classics of the genre. His Meditations and Devotions are frequently quoted. Lines such as “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 . . . He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work” have been an inspiration to many. He wrote extensively on Christ (meditations on the Passion), Our Lady and the saints, and of course on God. His guiding aim was to make the spiritual life accessible to people of all kinds.

6. Theology

Newman’s historical approach to theology, going back to the Fathers of the Church, was a very original one, and it helped him to understand not just the history of theology but also his own position in the Anglican Church and then the Catholic Church. This method became more widespread after his lifetime, especially in the lead-up to, and during, the Second Vatican Council. Newman’s theological works that have become classics include his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, quoted in theological discussions to this day, and Grammar of Assent, which examines what it means to believe in God. Newman has a following among all kinds of Catholics, whether conservative or progressive. In an age of great polarisation, including within the Church, Newman is a unifying figure who speaks effectively to different Catholic sensibilities and brings them all closer to God.

7. Culture, beauty, music

Newman was interested in everything in the modern world. His study at the Birmingham Oratory is lined with all kinds of books including many novels, from Walter Scott to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He started playing the violin at the age of ten and kept it up all his life, playing it with his brethren at the Oratory well into old age. His poem The Dream of Gerontius, about a soul going to purgatory after death, became an instant classic and set to music by one of the most famous English composers, Sir Edward Elgar (a Catholic who was married at the Brompton Oratory). General Gordon was reading it when he was killed in Khartoum. Newman can teach us to appreciate the good things in the modern world and how they can all lead us to God.

8. A modern English saint

The English canonised saint who lived most recently died in the 17th century. Newman will be the first English saint of the modern period. He lived in the 19th century, the age of rationalism, the age of Darwin and Marx, and age he understood deeply. His writings help people to have faith at a time when it is difficult to believe in God. He is a very important figure not just for the Catholic Church or for the Anglican Church, but for the whole country. To show Newman’s importance for Britain, the canonisation ceremony will be attended by Prince Charles and a parliamentary delegation that includes members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

9. Birmingham

Newman settled in Birmingham when he returned from Rome as a Catholic priest in 1848 and stayed there for over four decades until his death in 1890. He became involved in the life of the city and made many friends of all social levels. He was much loved by the people. When he died more than 15,000 people lined the streets between the Oratory and his burial place in Rednal. The lord mayor of Birmingham, Mohammed Azim, will also be attending the canonisation in Rome.

Jack Valero is the press and media coordinator for the Newman Canonisation Committee. For more information and links to resources visit the Newman Canonisation Website.

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