On September 19, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI read aloud the proclamation decreeing Cardinal John Henry Newman as “Blessed”, thus beatifying him. The Pope was celebrating Mass in Birmingham during the four day Papal visit to England. In 1991, Newman was already proclaimed “Venerable” after a thorough examination of his life and work by the Sacred Congregation for the Cause of Saints. The Pope presented Newman’s vision of “the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society” as a model for today.
In his historic state visit to heal wounds and to extend the hand of friendship to the British people, Pope Benedict praised Newman on the eve of his beatification at a prayer vigil in London’s Hyde Park that drew an estimated 80,000 people. In Birmingham, he portrayed Newman as a man who had profound insight into the Christian call to holiness and the importance of prayer in daily life. The Pope emphasized how Newman examined the relationship of faith and reason. He shed light to Newman’s vision of education as a combination of intellectual training, moral discipline, and religious commitment. Pope stated that Newman’s appeal for a well-informed laity should serve as a goal to today’s catechists. Newman wrote: “I want a laity not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men 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.”
John Henry Newman was born in London on February 21, 1801 to John Newman and Jemima (Foudrinier) Newman. His mother was of Huguenot origin. He was the eldest of three sons and three daughters. At the age of seven, he was sent to school. He took no part in casual games. He read the novels of Walter Scott, works by Southey, and the skeptical works of Thomas Paine, David Hume, and Voltaire. At the age of fifteen, he was converted. His classics teacher, William Mayers, had lent Newman several books on English Calvinistic tradition. Newman became an evangelical Calvinist and held the popular English belief that the Pope was the Antichrist.
In 1816, Newman’s name was entered in Lincoln’s Inn for legal training. Nevertheless, he was sent to Trinity College in Oxford. He studied widely, but extreme anxiety to do well had the opposite result. He graduated only with third class honors. He wished to remain at Oxford and took to tutoring. He also read for a fellowship at Oriel, the intellectual center at Oxford. On June 13, 1824, he was ordained a deacon in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. He became a tutor at Oriel in 1826 after his ordination on May 29, 1825 in the Church of England. He became a curate of St Clement’s Church, Oxford. Here, for two years, he was engaged in parochial work, and wrote articles. In 1826, he returned to Oriel as a tutor. He was made vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford, in 1827 and was the select preacher to the university from 1831-1832. In 1832, he resigned his tutorship after a dispute over his religious duties and went on a Mediterranean tour. While the ship was stuck in the sea, he wrote “Lead, Kindly Light” and other hymns.
In the summer of 1833, Newman threw himself into the discussions and debates over the “National Apostasy”. Newman was a student of dogma and a prolific writer. He entered theological debates with gusto. The intellectual debates gave him the opportunities to support or condemn views held by others. He was a virulent critic of the Catholic Church.
In September 1833, he began the Tracts for the Times. By 1840, Newman started to lose faith in the Anglican Church. He started to reexamine the claims of the Catholic Church. In 1841, his Anglican career came to a crisis. It was then that Newman published Tract 90, demonstrating that the Thirty-nine Articles, the formulae for the faith of the Church of England, were consistent with Catholicism. These, joined with his sermons given at St. Mary’s, provided guidance and inspiration to the celebrated Oxford movement which drew a great many Anglican scholars along with Newman into the Catholic Church. Without doubt, Newman was one of the founders of the Oxford Movement of the 1830s.
A brilliant academic career at Oxford came to an end when Newman converted to Catholicism in 1845. In 1846, Newman went to Rome and received his ordination and a doctorate in Divinity. He entered the Congregation of the Oratory and returned to England in 1847. After living in several places, he settled in Edgbaston in the outskirts of Birmingham and founded his Oratory. He remained there till his death on August 11, 1890.
Newman’s conversion caused personal and institutional losses. He lost many of his friends, yet many were strongly influenced by him. The Anglican Church lost one of its leading proponents. Newman spent the latter part of his life refuting his earlier writings in favor of the Anglican Church.
Newman was not a social reformer. He was a seeker of truth. He concentrated on theology and took strong positions in clarifying faith in the light of reason. Even though concerned with the graver side of religion, Newman did not neglect his parochial duties. He visited the poor and the sick, comforted the bereaved, and cared for those who were in prison. Thousands of people lined the streets at his funeral.
Newman is considered one of the masters of English prose. He wrote convincingly with a style that is clear and lucid. His major works are Apologia pro vita sua ( a religious autobiography), The Dream of Gerontius ( a poetical work later set to music by Sir Edward Elgar), and his religious novels, Loss and Gain and Callista.
Newman’s influence in the university level is well known. He was the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland founded in 1854. Today, it is known as the University College of Dublin. The Oxford University Newman Society and the numerous Newman Centers (Societies in the United States) throughout the world provide pastoral services and ministries to Catholics at non-Catholic Universities.
The day Newman entered the Catholic Church, October 9, is designated as his feast day. The miracle that raised him to be beatified is that of Deacon Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusettes. The deacon was healed from a crippling spinal condition in August, 2001.
At Newman’s conversion, The Catholic Church rose in prestige in England where it was reviled since King Henry VIII’s break with Papacy. Newman is respected not only by the Catholics, but also by the Anglicans and the Lutherans. He brought the light of reason to our faith. His hymn, “Lead , Kindly Light” reflects his faith and is a guiding light for all who believe.