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Newman: Lessons from a journey to faith

Roderick Strange - The Tablet - Fri, Oct 11th 2019

Newman Canonisation

Newman: Lessons from a journey to faith

Newman’s desk at Birmingham Oratory Photo: Mazur/

A leading scholar describes a complex character and a life punctuated by conversions – that saw humiliation and vindication, darkness and joy, doubt and assurance

When Newman heard that a woman had described him as a saint, his reaction was crisp: “I have nothing of a saint about me.” Now the Church has decided otherwise. That does not mean, however, that he was perfect. At a public audience in 2007, Pope Benedict reminded us that “the saints have not ‘fallen from Heaven’. They are people like us, who also have complicated problems. Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned.”
Newman himself said something similar, when he remarked of one of his theological heroes, Cyril of Alexandria, that although he was a great servant of God, we are “not obliged to defend certain passages of his ecclesiastical career. It does not answer to call whity-brown white.”

Newman himself could get angry, tetchy, and over-sensitive – often, like many of us, with those closest to him. An outstanding example is the letter he wrote to his sister, Jemima, on 31 October 1865. Their brother, Frank, had come to stay with her and she suggested that he, too, might come and visit them. It was the first invitation he had had from her for many years and his reply, declining the invitation, is filled with hurt and bitterness: “You have let your children grow up, and I not know them … None have so acted towards me as my near relations and connexions.”

Families fall out. Saints are people like us. But the next letter we possess that he wrote to her (from the context there must have been others), was on his birthday the following year, 21 February 1866. It was in reply to one from her and full of the usual easy warmth and affection. Holiness does not consist in never having made mistakes.

So what might we learn from St John Henry Newman?
It may seem natural to turn at the start to 9 October 1845, the day Newman was received into the Catholic Church by Dominic Barberi, the day of his conversion. Natural, perhaps, but misconceived, for in truth there were many conversions in Newman’s life. His first occurred in 1816, when he was 15. It made him come to rest, as he declared in his Apologia, “in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator”. In other words, were he to doubt everything else, he was convinced of his own existence and of the existence of God. But the matter didn’t end there.

As a young Fellow of Oriel, intellectually gifted, he came naturally enough to enjoy exercising his gifts. But an illness at the end of 1827 and then the death of his beloved youngest sister, Mary, early the following January, made him take stock. It put intellectual excellence into perspective. The life of faith was deepening in him. It deepened further in Sicily in 1833 when, although unwell once more, he became aware, as he was to remark, of a work that God had for him to do in England. On his return he threw himself into what became known as the Oxford Movement, which sought to reawaken within the Church of England its acceptance and appreciation of the Catholic tradition that it had largely come to ignore.

For some years he was in his pomp. The Oxford Movement proved to be more successful than he had dared to hope. He was advocating an understanding of Anglicanism as a middle way between Protestant error and Roman excess, teachings which, he judged, were not part of the original deposit of faith. But then, first in 1839 and later in 1841, further study made him begin to doubt this position.

He began to wonder whether the middle way was not in fact a golden mean between error and excess but simply a compromise with error. When he tried to reinforce the Catholic tradition within the Church of England, the bishops rejected his argument. And their plan shortly afterwards to establish a bishopric in Jerusalem, which was to be held alternately by an Anglican, a Lutheran or a Calvinist, seemed to him to identify Anglicanism as simply another Protestant denomination. Here was a further crisis, a call to another conversion. What was he to do?

He could not be a Protestant. The Anglicanism in which he believed had been taken from him. He withdrew and set himself to explore the development of doctrine, to try to determine, in other words, whether what he had viewed as Roman excess was not rather the development of living truth. When, after several years, he became convinced of that, it was then that on 9 October 1845 he was received as a Catholic. He abandoned the position of esteem and privilege that he had enjoyed as an Anglican priest and Fellow of Oriel to join the small Catholic community that was largely held in contempt in English society. That Catholic conversion, therefore, does not stand alone, but was one of a series of conversions.

In his Apologia, Newman described becoming a Catholic as “like coming into port after a rough sea”. And it was, in the sense that he never for a moment doubted his decision. However, there was still plenty of rough sea to be navigated. The problem was that the Catholic community didn’t know what to do with him. For years they offered him projects, such as becoming Rector of a new university in Dublin, editing The Rambler, a distinguished, but controversial Catholic periodical, and overseeing a new translation of the Bible. None of these projects went well because Newman was never given the support or the resources that he needed for success. In his Journal he noted: “Since I have been a Catholic, I seem to myself to have had nothing but failure, personally.”

He was also treated badly, first of all, by Nicholas Wiseman, then vicar-apostolic of the Midland district, later cardinal and Archbishop of Westminster, who had initially been kind to him. “How dreary my first year at Maryvale,” Newman later wrote, “when I was the gaze of so many eyes at Oscott, as if some wild incomprehensible beast, caught by the hunter, and a spectacle for Dr Wiseman to exhibit to strangers, as himself being the hunter who captured it!” Wiseman triumphally was treating Newman as a trophy. And there were other occasions when he let Newman down, for example, when Newman was accused of libel by the renegade Dominican friar Giacinto Achilli. Wiseman had mislaid papers vital for his defence.

Then there was Archbishop Paul Cullen who had offered him the invitation to become Rector of the university in Dublin. Cullen himself was well meaning, but he nearly drove Newman to despair. Shortly before leaving, after devoting seven years to the enterprise, he told his friend, Robert Ornsby, in 1858: “Dr Cullen has no notion at all of treating me with any confidence … He has treated me from the first like a scrub”, that is, as a hard-worked servant or drudge.

And there was fellow convert, Henry Edward Manning. For many years Newman and he were much friendlier than popularly supposed, but they took different lines on the temporal power of the papacy, on the interpretation of papal infallibility, and on education.

And Manning – who succeeded Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster in 1865 and was created cardinal in 1875 – was a manipulator. As the Vatican Council was about to begin, Newman told him: “I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels, when I have active relations with you. In spite of my friendly feelings, this is the judgement of my intellect.”

Charles Kingsley’s casual comment in 1864, “Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be,” led, of course, to Newman writing his Apologia pro Vita Sua, explaining why he had become a Catholic and revealing, whether others agreed with him or not, the integrity with which he had acted. The warmth with which he wrote led to the renewal of old friendships. The darkness of earlier times began to lift, although there were further rough seas to navigate before Pope Leo XIII decided to make him a cardinal in 1879 and his final years became more peaceful.

Newman died in 1890. Three years later, William Neville, who had been his assistant and chaplain, produced Meditations and Devotions, a volume of prayers and reflections that Newman had composed. One meditation has become particularly well known. In 1848, Newman had written: “God has created me to do Him some definite service … If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.”

Newman was not perfect. Saints make mistakes. But he responded when called throughout a life punctuated by conversions. He remained steadfast in times of darkness, in sickness, perplexity and sorrow. In the words of his poem, well known as a hymn, he was always faithful to the kindly light that led him on.

Roderick Strange is Professor of Theology at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. His latest book is Newman: The Heart of Holiness, published by Hodder & Stoughton

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