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7 things you probably never knew about Cardinal Newman

Kristina Glicksman

September 27, 2019
Detail of a photo of John Henry Newman by Herbert Rose Barraud. Source: Wikimedia Commons
An almsgiving here, an instance of meekness there, a severity of penance, a round of religious duties,—all these things humble me, instruct me, improve me; I cannot desire any thing better of their kind; but they do not necessarily coalesce into the image of a person. From such works I do but learn to pay devotion to an abstract and typical perfection under a certain particular name; I do not know more of the real Saint who bore it than before.
– from Historical Sketches
While I was reading Fr. Ian Ker’s comprehensive biography of John Henry Newman recently, I was struck by how much the details of his life added to my appreciation of him as a person – details about his personality, his hobbies, things he did, things that happened to him, which find no place in shorter works which are hard pressed to discuss in brief his accomplishments and the major outline and themes of his long and influential life.
I thought that, having added my contribution to the mountain of biographical sketches of his life, I could at least share as well some of the interesting details that you often don’t get to hear about.
However, on second thought, I also realize that partly what has helped bring me to a closer understanding of and greater love for Newman is the richness of his personality which comes through in the plethora of quotations from Newman’s own writing, both public and personal, which come so thick and fast that it seems to me half of the writing in the biography belongs to Ker and the other half belongs to Newman.
And so I thought I would take a page out of Fr. Ker’s book and let Newman speak for himself so you can hear his voice (though he writes so beautifully it is hard to know sometimes where to cut his words to blog-appropriate length).
So without further ado, here are 7 things you probably never knew about Cardinal Newman.
I want to hear a Saint converse; I am not content to look at him as a statue; his words are the index of his hidden life, as far as that life can be known to man, for "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."
– from Historical Sketches

1. He all but failed his final university exams.

This one I did mention in my last post, but it does require some explanation for anyone unfamiliar with the Oxford system. In Oxford today, a student’s entire degree hangs upon performance on the final exam papers written at the end of a three- or four-year course. These papers are often not set or examined by anyone who has had a direct hand in the student's education, but teachers have good knowledge of the topics and types of questions likely to appear on the exams. The process was similar in Newman's time.
I admit I don’t have a good knowledge of the nitty-gritty details of the university’s history, but it seems that the university was undergoing reforms in the early nineteenth century which included a change to the way exams were conducted. Newman studied long and hard, and no one who knew him doubted his intellectual ability, but in the end the tutors who had charge of his university education were not very experienced in the new system. As for Newman himself, he seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown during his exams, probably brought on by a combination of overwork and anxiety. The brilliant boy of whom all had such high hopes managed to fail his exams so badly that he only just barely got his degree.
So much for the explanation. Here are excerpts from two letters which show the astounding humility, self-knowledge, and force of character of the teenage Newman.
Writing to a friend a few months before his exams:
I fear much more from failure, than I hope from success. Still may I continue to pray, ‘Let me get no honours here, if they are to be the slightest cause of sin to my soul.’ But, while saying this, I often find that I am acting the part of a very hypocrite; I am buoyed up with the secret idea, that by thus leaving the event in the hands of God, when I pray, He may be induced, as a reward for so proper a spirit, to grant me my desire. Thus my prayer is a mockery.
And to his parents after his failure:
I am ashamed to think that anything I have said should have led you to suppose that I am at all pained on my own account ... I am sure success could not have made me happier than I am at present ... very much I have gone through, but the clouds have passed away.

2. He had several bouts of mental illness.

There is a human tendency to idolize our heroes, and this includes saints. We put them on a pedestal so that they become superhuman. But Newman, like every other saint, was as human as you or I. He had his weaknesses and his foibles, and yes, at times his mind, too, gave in to the pressures of overwork, fatigue, criticisms, personal attacks, and failures.
One nervous breakdown ended in a failure in his university exams. Overworking himself yet again, this time in preparations to be an examiner, he suffered another mental collapse exactly seven years later – almost to the day.
But Newman also experienced periods of depression later in life. Given his legendary sensitivity and the level of his involvement in public life and the attacks he had to endure from Protestants and from other Catholics, both privately and in the press, it is no wonder – though he did eventually manage to develop a tougher skin.
This entry from his private journal in 1874 really says a lot about how Newman sometimes viewed himself:
I have so depressing a feeling that I have done nothing through my long life, and especially that now I am doing nothing at all. … What am I? my time is out. I am passé. I may have done something in my day—but I can do nothing now. It is the turn of others. … It is enough for me to prepare for death, for, as it would appear, nothing else awaits me—there is nothing else to do. And He Who has been with me so marvellously all through my life will not fail me now, I know, though I have no claim upon Him. I certainly feel much weaker and less capable than I was—and whether this adunamia will rapidly increase upon me or not, I must give up the thought of the next generation & think of myself.

3. He played the violin.

I don’t think I can explain why, but knowing that Newman loved to play the violin makes him just that little bit more human to me. It’s one of those little details – seemingly so irrelevant in explaining a man’s greatness or his holiness – which complete the picture of the man as he was and bring him to life.
The following letter was written to his friend, RW Church, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in 1865. Newman's personality really shines through the words here:
My dear Church,
I have delayed thanking you for your great kindness in uniting with Rogers in giving me a fiddle, till I could report upon the fiddle itself. The Warehouse sent me three to choose out of – and I chose with trepidation, as fearing I was hardly up to choosing well. And then my fingers have been in such a state, as being cut by the strings, that up to Saturday last I had sticking plaster upon their ends – and therefore was in no condition to bring out a good tune from the strings and so to return good for evil. But on Saturday I had a good bout at Beethoven’s Quartetts – which I used to play with poor Blanco White – and thought them more exquisite than ever – so that I was obliged to lay down the instrument and literally cry out with delight. However, what is more to the point, I was able to ascertain that I had got a very beautiful fiddle – such as I never had before. Think of my not having a good one till I was between sixty and seventy – and beginning to learn it when I was ten! However, I really think it will add to my power of working, and the length of my life. I never wrote more than when I played the fiddle. I always sleep better after music. There must be some electric current passing from the strings through the fingers into the brain and down the spinal marrow. Perhaps thought is music.
I hope to send you the 'Phormio' almost at once.
Ever yrs affly,
John H Newman

4. He did see and write to some of his Anglican friends and family again.

One of the most often repeated details about Newman’s life is an emphasis on what he knowingly sacrificed in becoming a Catholic. His whole world changed. His previous way of life was closed to him. He was shunned by family members and friends alike.
This is all very true and worth remembering. But it is also worth observing that with the passing of time, some of these relationships were patched up, though they were not as close as they once had been. The above letter to Church, which also speaks of another friend, Frederic Rogers, who together gave Newman the present of a new violin, is a good example.
But for me, the most poignant example is Newman’s account of meeting Keble and Pusey (friends and fellow leaders of the Oxford Movement) again after twenty years. Poignant, I suppose, when you think – as Newman did – about what they had accomplished together and how long they had been separated. But I find something very moving in the way Newman describes the meeting – more so in his letter to Fr. Ambrose St. John (which can be found here, towards the bottom of the page), but I’m afraid it’s too long to quote here. So I offer instead a shorter but still evocative letter to another friend:
When I got to Keble's door, he happened to be at it, but we did not know each other, and I was obliged to show him my card. Is not this strange? it is imagination mastering reason. He indeed thought, since Pusey was coming, I should not come that day—but I knew beyond doubt that I was at his house—yet I dared not presume it was he—but, after he began to talk, the old Keble, that is, the young, came out from his eyes and his features, and I daresay, if I saw him once or twice I should be unable to see much difference between his present face and his face of past days. As Mrs. Keble was ill, we then dined together tête-à-tête—a thing we never perhaps had done before—there was something awful in three men meeting in old age who had worked together in their best days. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, was the sad burden of the whole—once so united, now so broken up, so counter to each other—though neither of them of course would quite allow it. Keble has since written to me, 'when shall we three meet again? soon—when the hurly burly's done.'

5. He was taken to court on a charge of libel and was found guilty.

This is the infamous Achilli Trial. It involved the case of a Dominican-priest-turned-Evangelical named Giacinto Achilli, who was a serial rapist. He was also a popular anti-Catholic speaker on the Evangelical circuit in England. Newman, feeling it was his public duty to expose the character of this man, denounced his scandalous conduct in detail during a lecture in 1851 which was subsequently published.
Achilli took Newman to court on a charge of libel (defamation in writing), and the full report of the trial can be found (and downloaded) here. Despite the testimonies of Achilli’s victims – young women from Italy and England – Newman was found guilty and fined £100 (something in the region of $23,000 CAD today) – a fairly nominal sum and better than the year in prison he had been anticipating.
Was this a gross miscarriage of justice due to anti-Catholic sentiment among the judge, the jury, and the people at large? Probably. It was even regarded so at the time.
But here are some words from Newman on the event. Writing to a friend prior to the trial:
Everything has gone so wonderfully hitherto—as if our dear Lord were taking the matter into His own hands, and utterly destroying all human means. He has let me be bound as in a net, and … nothing but prayer can break the bond. … When it flashed on my mind at the beginning of September that I might go to prison, I said, "May I come out a Saint!" I don't say that now when things are more real, but, "May it be accepted for my sins." I have all my life been speaking about suffering for the Truth,—now it has come upon me.
And to the same friend the day after the trial ended:
You see how Almighty Wisdom has determined things. I trust however we have got a good deal by the trial, i.e. have proved our case to the satisfaction of the world—though I suppose when November comes and I am brought up for judgment I shall suffer, but this is in God's hands. Do not think I am cast down about it; your prayers and penances cannot be lost.

6. He almost didn’t become a cardinal.

Newman’s life as a Catholic was caught up to a certain extent in the religious controversies of the day. He came under personal attack from Protestants who objected to his conversion and from Catholics who found his views too liberal for their taste. There are plenty of stories of malicious gossip and decisions made behind his back. But for me the one that takes the cake is the story of how Newman almost didn’t become a cardinal.
This is what happened (in short): Pope Leo XIII had his Secretary write to Cardinal Manning, an old opponent of Newman’s and the Archbishop of Westminster, to find out whether Newman would accept the cardinal’s hat the pope intended to offer him. Manning wrote to Newman’s bishop, Ullathorne, who sent a message to Newman by a trusted friend (Newman being ill at the time). Newman wrote a letter expressing humility and a desire to stay at his Oratory in Birmingham (cardinals who were not also bishops being expected to reside in Rome). After talking to Newman, Ullathorne sent the letter to Manning with a note of his own explaining that Newman would accept the offer and why his letter might suggest otherwise. Manning, however, only forwarded to Rome Newman’s original letter. Not long after, Newman began to hear rumours that he had been offered a cardinalate and had refused (keep in mind that this was all highly confidential information). And then it actually appeared in the newspaper!
To make a long story short, the misunderstanding was cleared up, and maybe the pope would have insisted anyway. But it is, to me, emblematic of the conflict which so dogged Newman’s life that even the bestowal of this honour could not happen smoothly.
Here are his own words to a friend:
As to the statement of my refusing a Cardinal's Hat, which is in the papers, you must not believe it—for this reason: Of course, it implies that an offer has been made me, and I have sent an answer to it. Now I have ever understood that it is a point of propriety and honour to consider such communications sacred. The statement therefore cannot come from me. Nor could it come from Rome, for it was made public before my answer got to Rome. It could only come, then, from some one who not only read my letter, but, instead of leaving to the Pope to interpret it, took upon himself to put an interpretation upon it, and published that interpretation to the world. A private letter, addressed to Roman Authorities, is interpreted on its way and published in the English papers. How is it possible that any one can have done this?
And to another friend, revealing his propensity for both sarcasm and analogy:
Would it not look odd, if the Postman here, not only read this, my letter to you, before it got to the receiving office, but put his own interpretation on it, and told first his particular friends about it, and then the general public, leaving you to receive it next morning?

7. He was very, very funny.

I remember when Newman’s beatification was announced, people (in Oxford no less!) were somewhat critical of the decision even while they welcomed it. Certainly he was a brilliant thinker and writer, they said, but he was also gloomy, grouchy, and unkind. Is that really the sort of person we want to promote as an example of holiness?
It is strange how persistent that perception of him is when it is not borne out by the image of him which can be gleaned from the words of those who knew him or from his own manner of expressing himself. It seems, even a century after his death, Newman continues to be followed by prejudice and misunderstanding.
But even where people acknowledge his holiness, they seem to overlook one of his most endearing characteristics: his great sense of humour. It is, of course, open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. When he comments in private letters on amusing details and frustrating circumstances (like when his housekeeper rearranged all his papers – including a lecture he was working on – according to size), it can seem like petty carping. And though he was recognized in his day for his great sarcastic wit, to modern, easily-offended ears, it can sound unnecessarily harsh.
But Newman was a person of great depth and complexity, and his humour, to be properly understood, must be taken within the scope of the whole person.
It was difficult to choose just one (short-ish) passage to illustrate just how funny he could be. This paragraph comes from Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, a series of lectures given in 1851 and containing some of his most brilliant satire (including the infamous references to Achilli). This particular passage refers to vicious rumours circulating about Catholics and the nefarious deeds committed in convents and monasteries:
Or the story runs, that Don Felix Malatesta de Guadalope, a Benedictine monk of Andalusia, and father confessor to the Prince of the Asturias, who died in 1821, left behind him his confessions in manuscript, which were carried off by the French, with other valuable documents, from his convent, which they pillaged in their retreat from the field of Salamanca; and that, in these confessions, he frankly avows that he had killed three of his monastic brothers of whom he was jealous, had poisoned half-a-dozen women, and sent off in boxes and hampers to Cadiz and Barcelona thirty-five infants; moreover, that he felt no misgivings about these abominable deeds, because, as he observes with great naiveté, he had every day, for many years, burnt a candle to the Blessed Virgin; had cursed periodically all heretics, especially the royal family of England; had burnt a student of Coimbra for asserting the earth went round the sun; had worn about him, day and night, a relic of St. Diego; and had provided that five hundred masses should be said for the repose of his soul within eight days after his decease.
 
It only remains for me to encourage you to learn more about this splendid saint and gifted writer. A great place to start is the Newman Reader, which is in the process of making all of his works available online for free.
 
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