A year ago today I stood about a hundred feet from Pope Francis as he declared that Cardinal John Henry Newman was now officially canonised. It was a wonderful moment, and it was significant that in addition to our own Cardinal Nichols being there with our own bishops, there was a high-powered delegation from the Anglican Church. Newman, at one time the great champion of the idea of the Via Media, remains a figure as admired by Anglicans as by Catholics.
This moment was one which Newman himself not only could not have foreseen, but which he never thought could happen as he had, in his own words, “nothing of the saint” about him. His own estimation was based on a shrewd knowledge of himself, but as we all do, he saw through his own eyes and not those of God. God decided otherwise.
Newman began as an evangelical Anglican and ended as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, but from beginning to end he was a man who divided opinion. From his earliest memories he was a Christian, and he underwent what we might call a conversion experience in early adolescence. At Oxford he soon became a divisive figure. To the undergraduates, his sermons and indeed his very presence, at the University Church of St Mary was an event in itself; it is said that some Colleges changed the times of dining to try to lure students away from his siren-like presence.
What came to worry the Dons was Newman’s developing view that the Anglican Church was the via media, the middle way, between their own Church and Rome. Newman, like Keble and Pusey, genuinely believed that what the Reformation had done was to purge the Church in England of the abuses and corruptions that had developed across the centuries, and in particular, allowed it to escape from the control of cabals of corruption around the Pope of the day (a not unfamiliar theme among Catholics in our own time).
But where Keble and Pusey continued to hold this view, and helped lead a Catholic revival in the Church of England, Newman’s scholarship led him to follow the inexorable logic of history. Studying the Arian controversy of the fourth century, he came to realise that the “reasonable” semi-Arians, who took a moderate position between Arius and St Athanasius were the spiritual forebears of the Anglicans. Their position was sensible, moderate and nuanced, but it was not that of Anthansius and therefore, not that of the universal church. So, he converted.
The conversion cost him much in worldy terms. He left his beloved Oxford, never to return. In a society where anti-Catholicism was rife, Newman incurred deep suspicion and distrust by his move. He made himself an outcast from his old social circles, but failed to acquire satisfactory replacements. Catholicism, despite an impressive intellectual history, was not, in the days of Pius IX, a welcoming environment for an intellectual theologican. Converts can be unpleasantly susprised to find that their new home is not altogether welcome. It is not simply the suspicion that often attaches to someone who “switches teams”, it is also a matter of culture. It is interesting that it was another convert, Manning, who complained that Newman remained essentially an English gentleman Oxford Don. Manning was a smoother operator, a skilled bureaucrat who both saw the opportunities offered to one of his skills, and who was, partly for that reason, more easily welcomed into the nascent English Catholic hierarchy. Newman never quite “fitted”, and his new Church was, to be frank, even more useless than his old one in finding a use for him.
And yet, for all that, quality will out. Newman was not only one of the finest writers of English prose, he was the finest English theological intellect since at least Lancelot Andrewes, and possibly ever. He will one day be a Doctor of the Church. It is, ironically, in part the way in which he bore the frustrations and difficulties of his new Church which show how deep his faith was. There were constant runours that he would revert, to which he responded by saying that he never:
had one moment’s wavering of trust in the Catholic Church ever since I was received into her fold. I hold, and ever have held, that her Sovereign Pontiff is the centre of unity and the Vicar of Christ. And I ever have had, and have still, an unclouded faith in her creed and in all its articles; a supreme satisfaction in her worship, discipline and teaching
As I stood in the Italian sunshine on that October morning a year ago, I reflected on how wonderful God’s Providence is. Newman may have thought that, in the end, he had not accomplished that ‘definite work’ for which God had marked him out, but in reality, the process had hardly begun. Newman’s influence on the Church has been profound and will long outlast his earthly fame.
St John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis
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