[The following article from Salt + Light Television CEO Fr Thomas Rosica, CSB, was published in the weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano on August 11, 2010.]
On 19 September, 2010, in Birmingham, England, the long awaited Beatification ceremony will take place for the great Victorian Catholic theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the most influential English Catholics of the 19th century. He journeyed from Anglicanism to Catholicism and used his great intellect and masterful writing ability to win over thousands of people to Christ and the Roman Catholic Church.
Cardinal Newman will be proclaimed Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI himself, in a break with the tradition of his Pontificate that has the Pope presiding over canonization ceremonies for new saints while a Vatican Cardinal or Archbishop would preside over Beatification ceremonies. Benedict XVI and John Henry Newman have chemistry!
John Henry Newman was born 21 February 1801 into an Anglican family of bankers. He was the firstborn of John Newman and Jemima Fourdrinier. From an early age he had a passion for God and spiritual matters, having experienced his “first conversion”, as he described it, at 15. He was ordained an Anglican minister in 1825, when he finished his studies at the University of Oxford. Three years later, he was appointed vicar of St Mary the Virgin Church, in Oxford.
In 1833, he organized what became known as the Oxford Movement, intending to combat three evils threatening the Church of England — spiritual stagnation, interference from the State, and unorthodoxy. When studying the history of the early Christian Fathers in 1839, Newman discovered that the position of his own Church was like that of the early heretics. He decided to retire from Oxford life, and he and a few others took up residence at nearby Littlemore. For three years he lived a strict religious life, praying for light and guidance. On 9 October 1845, Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Fr Dominic Barberi, an Italian theologian and a member of the Passionist Congregation. Fr Barberi was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1963.
In becoming a Catholic, Newman had to make many sacrifices. Many of his friends broke off relations with him after his conversion and his family kept him at a distance. He had to resign from his teaching fellowship and lost his only source of income. Newman said that the one thing that sustained him during this trying period was Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
Once a Catholic, Newman set out for Rome to study for the priesthood. In 1847 he was ordained a priest and in 1848, founded the Oratory ofSt Philip Neri, a small community of priests at Maryvale, near Birmingham.
In 1851 the Bishops of Ireland decided to found a separate University for Catholics and invited Fr Newman to become the first Rector. It was a demanding task for an older man, but, despite the strain of 56 crossings to and from Ireland in seven years, he succeeded in establishing what is today known as University College, Dublin.
It has been said that teaching is the art of leaving a vestige of oneself in the development of another. Newman did just that with thousands of students. He was an exemplary model of intellect, graciousness and hospitality to young men and women at the university. For this reason he is the Patron of university Catholic chaplaincies around the world known as “Newman Centers”.
When he returned to Birmingham, Newman faced a life of trials, as he was suspected and even resented by some in authority. Several projects which he took up — a magazine for educated Catholics, a mission at Oxford and a translation of the Bible met with rejection or failure. In old age, Newman continued in Birmingham, quietly writing, preaching and counselling. In his writings, Newman focused on theological and humanistic learning, including philosophy, patrology, dogmatic and moral theology, exegesis, pedagogy and history.
Newman made use of several literary forms to express his thought, including speeches, treatises, novels, poetry and his autobiography. His major works include “Development of Christian Doctrine” (1845), written when he was still an Anglican, and “Grammar of Assent” (1870), a work reflecting the height of his thought on the dynamics of the act of faith.
As a tribute to his extraordinary work and devotion, Pope Leo XIII named Fr John Henry Newman a Cardinal in 1879. After a life of trials, Newman received the news with joy and declared: “the cloud is lifted forever”. Cardinal Newman died at the age of 89 at the Oratory House in Edgbaston on August 11, 1890. At his death he received universal tributes of praise. The Times of London wrote: “whether Rome canonizes him or not he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England”. He was declared Venerable in 1991 by Pope John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II on Newman
In a letter dated 22 January 2001, in anticipation of the second centenary of the birth of Cardinal Newman on 21 February, Pope John Paul II wrote to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, then Archbishop of Birmingham:
It was the passionate contemplation of truth which also led him to a liberating acceptance of the authority which has its roots in Christ, and to the sense of the supernatural which opens the human mind and heart to the full range of possibilities revealed in Christ. ‘Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom, lead Thou me on’, Newman wrote in The Pillar of the Cloud; and for him Christ was the light at the heart of every kind of darkness. For his tomb he chose the inscription: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem; and it was clear at the end of his life’s journey that Christ was the truth he had found.
But Newman’s search was shot through with pain. Once he had come to that unshakeable sense of the mission entrusted to him by God, he declared: ‘Therefore, I will trust Him…. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him… He does nothing in vain… He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.’
Newman’s gift of friendship
I have found in the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman a brilliant model of friendship. No one could describe Cardinal Newman as extroverted or light-hearted. Newman truly speaks heart-to-heart — cor ad cor loquitur — a phrase that he chose as his personal motto. There was nothing superficial about Newman’s way of relating to so many different people. He looked at them and loved them for who they were.
During his lifetime, Newman had an extraordinary capacity for deep friendship with many people, both men and women, as his 20,000 letters collected in 32 volumes attest. This personal influence has been exerted very powerfully upon millions of people who have read his works and discovered what friendship really means.
He often wrote to his friends as carissimi — dearest ones — but his was a more innocent age, far less suspicious of strong expressions of love between persons of the same sex. Newman was not afraid to be very close to a few people. He once wrote in a letter: “The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection for those who are immediately about”.
Are we able to foster such friendships today? Can such intimate friendships exist for us? Men and women often have intense friendships with members of their own sex, friendships that have no sexual component; yet we are at a loss to speak about them or even afraid to do so. Today “friend” is one you add to a social networking profile on the web; or it is a euphemism for a sexual partner outside marriage. Can a man nowadays even own up with pride to having a dear and close friend, another man to whom he is devoted?
The French writer Francois Mauriac once wrote about friendship: “If you are friends with Christ many others will warm themselves at your fire… On the day when you no longer burn with love, many will die of the cold”. I am certain that the “kindly light” and flame in Cardinal Newman’s heart gave and continues to give life and warmth to millions of people. And the source of the unquenchable fire was Newman’s deep friendship with Jesus Christ. We need Newman’s kindly light and brilliant example today more than ever.
Official prayer for the votive mass of Blessed John Henry Newman
O God, who bestowed on the Priest Blessed John Henry Newman the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church; graciously grant that, through his intercession and example, we may be led out of shadows and images into the fullness of your truth.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Lead, Kindly Light
John Henry Newman penned his well-known poem, “Lead, Kindly Light”, part of a larger work of religious verse and hymns entitled Lyra Apostolica, while on a voyage through southern Europe with his Oxford colleague, theologian Richard Hurrell Froude.
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene — one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Fr. Thomas Rosica CSB,
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation