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Saint John Henry Newman

By Thomas Kennedy, Diocese of Alexandria Seminarian

On February 12, 2019, Pope Francis promulgated a degree through the Congregation for the Cause for the Saints, authorizing the forthcoming canonization of Blessed John Henry Newman. Newman will be declared a saint on Sunday, October 13, 2019, following the miraculous healing of a woman in Chicago. She was suffering from serious bleeding during her pregnancy. She prayed for Blessed Newman’s intercession, the bleeding stopped, the child was safely delivered, and Rome has confirmed this as a miracle. The previous miracle which led to his becoming a Blessed was also of an American, a deacon from Boston. This deacon had suffered from a lumbar disc disease that caused severe pain and he was no longer able to walk. Who was Cardinal John Henry Newman, and why is he important for us here in the Diocese of Alexandria?

John Henry Newman was a vitally important figure in 19th century church history for both Anglicans and Catholics. He was born on February 21, 1801 in London, England, and died August 11, 1890 in Birmingham, England. Educated at Trinity College, Oxford, he went on to become a Tutor of Oriel College, Oxford, and the Anglican vicar of the renowned Saint Mary’s University Church, Oxford. He, along with other Anglican clergy, began a spiritual and theological revival in the Church of England which would be known by various names including the Oxford Movement, and Tractarianism (because of theological essay or tracts written) or Anglo-Catholicism. This movement was the result of Newman and others discovering the rich theological treasures of the ancient Church Fathers, love for Sacred Scripture, an appreciation for high church liturgy, sacred music, the lives of the saints, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This led many in the Church of England to call them “Papists” for the appearance they were drifting toward Roman Catholicism. Newman and his companions did not see themselves, initially, as on the road to Rome, but rather sought to understand the Church of England as a branch of the Catholic Church, and not distinct from it. This lead to the writing of many essays, tracts, and preaching of many sermons in an effort to defend this viewpoint. However, after studying the heresies of the first six hundred years of the church, Newman began to see that his attempt to view Anglicanism as being truly Catholic, was a hopeless cause.

It took Newman six years of study and prayer to finally leave the Church of England and become a Catholic. On October 9, 1845, Blessed Father Dominic Barberi heard Newman’s confession at Littlemore, near Oxford, and received him into the Church. Newman was 43 years old. He would eventually be ordained a Catholic priest, and establish a religious community, an Oratory of Saint Philip Neri, in Birmingham, England. Newman, who was dedicated to education, established a university in Dublin, Ireland, published many books, including his own autobiography, and worked tirelessly among the poor. Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1879. After his death, he was declared a Venerable by Saint John Paul II, Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, and soon a Saint by Pope Francis.

For us in the diocese, his legacy has an important impact for us today. For those, like myself, who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, he serves as a role model, but especially through his teaching, he can inspire anyone who is committed to seeking the truth. He has made important contributions to the church through apologetics (defending the faith), theology, and our understanding of the nature of the church. Newman believed in and defended the notion that faith and reason are compatible and should not be seen as contradictory as seen in his work, Idea of a University. This is one reason why Catholic student organizations are commonly called “Newman Centers.” In another work, Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman shows how our understanding of theology develops over time and what we believe today can never contradict what has been held to be true in previous ages of the church. To all Catholics, in his sermons, Newman advocated that we all should pursue a life of virtue, and that we are all called to grow in holiness and become saints.

Blessed John Henry Newman, through his legacy, played an important part in shaping the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II sought to return to the sources of Catholicism, and this was something which Newman certainly brought to the church in his conversion. One source rightly says that Newman, “…was neither a traditionalist, who thought the Church’s self-understanding frozen in amber, nor a progressive, who believed that nothing is finally settled in the rule of faith. Rather, Newman was a reformer devoted to history, who worked for reform-in-continuity with the Great Tradition.” Newman himself said, “I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of Liberalism in religion… Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another…” In other words, Newman believed in the power of the Holy Spirit to both protect the tradition of the church and also the ability of the Holy Spirit to lead the church into renewal in her contemporary circumstances.

Additionally, Newman sought to have the laity more involved in the affairs of the church. He said, “As far as I can see there are ecclesiastics all over Europe, whose policy is to keep the laity at arm’s length…you will be doing the greatest possible benefit to the Catholic cause all over the world, if you succeed in making … a middle station at which clergy and laity can meet, so as to learn to understand, and to yield to each other—and from which, as from a common ground, they may act in union upon an age which is running into infidelity.” He did not mean by this to erase the distinction between the faithful and the priest, but rather, envisioned a renewal in the Church where the laity and clergy collaborated in ministry where possible, for the sake of our common mission. This is certainly a fruit of Vatican II.

When Blessed John Henry Newman becomes Saint John Henry Newman, we may all rejoice at his being raised to the altar. I encourage you all, in your own way, to learn about him through Google, YouTube, the local library, our Catholic book stores, and in other ways. Pray for his intercession. Pray that we may be like him in our unyielding search for truth, our love for the tradition of the church, Sacred Scripture, liturgy, music, the poor, the laity, holiness of life, and so much more. I would not be surprised if he is declared a “Doctor of the Church” someday for his great contributions to the faith.