Long before the Pope declared the great theologian Blessed many in America thought of Newman as a saint, says Fr Michael G Murphy Ifirst came to know how devoted Americans are to Blessed John Henry Newman during a tour of the cathedral in Baltimore, Maryland, in September 1991. The cathedral had been dedicated in 1959. My guide was an assistant pastor at the cathedral.
When we arrived at the sacristy my guide pointed to its stained glass window and said: “In the centre is Our Lady. On either side are saints closely linked with her, St Luke on her right, and St John on her left. Then two more saints on either side.” Pointing to one of those others I said: “That’s Cardinal Newman, isn’t it?” “Yes.” “But he’s not a saint,” I said.
“No, but he will be,” said my guide with a radiant smile.
What gave that American priest such assurance? Was it Newman’s teaching about Our Lady, I wondered. For Newman echoes, in his own inimitable tone, the teaching of the Fathers of the Church that Mary the mother of Jesus is the Second Eve and Mother of God. Or was it Newman’s deep personal devotion to the Mother of God? I wish I had asked my guide what it was about Newman that gave him such confidence in the heroic holiness of that 19th-century Englishman.
I was to meet many more Americans who were happy to let me know of their belief in the inevitability of Newman’s canonisation. For instance, when about to take my leave of a friend in Maryland to travel on across the States, he said to me: “I’ll have someone take a photo of us before you leave. You’ve come from England, so let’s go into my office and stand before a portrait of Cardinal Newman, to whom I have a great devotion, and we’ll have the photo taken there. Newman will be a saint one day, you know.” And there behind his desk was a huge portrait of Newman. Can it be that Newman is better known abroad than in his homeland?
Take Ireland as a case in point. What was it that made a Catholic Irishman named Rev Dr Charles William Russell, future president of Maynooth, extend the hand of friendship to a young Anglican priest in Oxford, John Henry Newman, as early as 1841, at a time when Newman was searching in his mind for the true way forward in his service of God? Why had it to be Newman, and not one of the others in the Oxford Movement, that Russell chose to enlighten on Catholic doctrine? So fruitful did that friendship become that Newman, on becoming a Catholic, would say: “Dr Russell, perhaps, had more to do with my conversion than anyone else.” And then, when Newman was a Catholic priest in Birmingham, there came to him in 1851 an invitation from the Irish bishops to come to Ireland, a country recently ravaged by famine, and spearhead the establishment of higher education for the Catholic people of Ireland. What was it about Newman that led them to choose him? Was it simply the fact that he was an outstanding scholar? Or was there something about the man that the bishops knew would inspire the young scholars attending their proposed new Catholic university?
Newman has always had a formative influence over the minds of young scholars. A remarkable example of that is to be found in Germany. We now know from the German historian Jakob Knab that the writings of Cardinal Newman, particularly his teaching on conscience as being the voice of God to the individual person, gave courage and confidence to the young scholars who formed the White Rose movement which defied Hitler, causing some of them to pay the ultimate price for doing so. One member, Sophie Scholl, was but 21 when she was beheaded. Jakob Knab says: “When on May 20, 1942 Sophie Scholl and her fiancée saw each other for the last time she gave him two volumes of John Henry Newman’s sermons among other books as a farewell present.” Perhaps in her heart Sophie, a Lutheran, had grasped that what the late Mgr Dr H Francis Davis wrote in his preface to the French Oratorian Fr Louis Bouyer’s book Newman, His Life and Spirituality, is true. Dr Davis said: “When people meet over Newman, they remain life-long friends.” He and Fr Bouyer certainly did.
Dr Davis was pleased that Fr Bouyer’s book had dealt not so much with Newman’s intellectual reputation, but with his personal life. I think that the answer to the question, “what is it about Newman?” can be found there, in Newman’s personal life. Newman does not offer us an intellectual mould, however worthy that mould might be, into which he expects us to fit. Like Augustine before him, Newman offers us his own story as a witness to God’s providence in human life.
The heroic sanctity of both Newman and Augustine was hammered out in the loneliness of their own interior lives. Newman wrote to his sister: “God intends me to be lonely; He has so framed my mind that I am in great measure beyond the sympathies of other people and thrown upon myself... God, I trust, will support me in following whither He leads.” It was in his own loneliness that Newman found God. What happened then is best described by a man from Northumbria who was 12 years old when Newman was received into the Catholic Church, the Benedictine Bishop John Cuthbert Hedley, who Dr Davis tells us, “is acknowledged as the greatest of our 19th century bishops”.
Bishop Hedley was reviewing, in 1912 in the Ampleforth Journal, the recently published biography of Newman by Wilfred Ward, a biography containing for the first time many of Newman’s private papers.
Bishop Hedley, a saintly man himself, wrote of John Henry Newman: “We had been so accustomed – I speak for the generation of Catholics which was young in 1850 – to look upon him as a hero, a sage, and a saint, that his biography has certainly found us unprepared to believe that he could ever have had trouble in his own interior life with such unworthy feelings as disappointed vanity, the ambition of success, or petty personal dislike.
“Let me hasten at once to say that, in spite of his own confessions, no one, it seems to me, will think of him as less a sage and a saint. There is nothing finer in all the lives of the saints than the expression we here find, not only of his joy and peace in the Catholic faith, but of his perfectly and intimately Catholic apprehension of the deepest ascetic principle, on humility, human applause, earthly success, true charity, sincere obedience, and conformity to the most holy Will of God.
“He feels the depressing temptations indicated above – but, except that he cannot help recognising what he considers facts, he humbly and resolutely, and with absolute reliance on Divine Grace, strives to guard his heart from them and stands firm in refusing to allow them to influence his will, or his behaviour. His own temperament and the circumstances of his position and history as a Catholic entitle us to say that his trial was exceptionally severe and his spiritual battle nothing less than heroic.” No wonder that Pope Benedict XVI was so keen to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, having been aware since 1946 of the heroic holiness of the Cardinal. May the day come soon when we celebrate Newman’s canonisation.