BLESSED JOHN  HENRY NEWMAN: A Richly Illustrated Portrait, by K.D. and D. Fso

BLESSED JOHN  HENRY NEWMAN: A Richly Illustrated Portrait, by K.D. and D. Fso

Br Barry Coldrey

His Inner Life
by Zeno Van den Barselaar
(Ignatius Press, 1987, 335pp, $33.90. ISBN: 978-0-89870-112-8. Available from Freedom Pub-lishing)

by Giovanni Velocci
(Gracewing, 2006, 94pp, $20.00. ISBN: 978-0-85244-033-9. Available from Freedom Publishing)

A Richly Illustrated Portrait
by K.D. & D. Fso
(Gracewing and Freedom Publishing, 2010, 154pp, $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-85244-724-8. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Pope Benedict XVI presided at the beatification ceremony of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham, during a four-day visit to the United Kingdom in September. The step was unusual because under the Pope's own rules, a beatification is usually performed by a cardinal in the diocese where the candidate for beatification died.

The three contrasting titles under review shed some light on why Benedict would have taken such a step, while augmenting the already vast Newman library. For it was Newman's dramatic conversion that has continued to capture the attention and imagination of so many observers and biographers at the time and subsequently.

John Henry Newman was born in 1801 into a family of Anglican bankers, the eldest of six children. He was a shy and studious boy and an avid reader. He experienced a profound crisis of faith in 1816, but emerged a stronger, more confident Anglican. He then had a brilliant career at Oxford with an appointment at Oriel College which gave him some financial security after his banker father had gone bankrupt. In 1824, he was ordained an Anglican priest and appointed vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the university church. Overcoming his shyness he became a compelling and popular preacher.

By now Newman was publishing scholarly works, some on the history of the early Church and during the 1830s he became a leader in the Oxford Movement, which consisted of several Oxford theologians who addressed key issues relating to the authority, nature and history of the Anglican Church. He was moving towards Catholicism.

By the early 1840s, he retired to a property at Littlemore near Oxford with a small group of followers and lived a semi-monastic life as he worked on his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Blessed Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist, received Newman into the Catholic Church in 1845 and the following October he travelled to Rome, where he was ordained a Catholic priest and given a Doctorate in Divinity by Pope Pius IX. He joined the Congregation of the Oratory and, having been given a papal brief, set up an Oratory in Birmingham.

Newman was, without doubt, one of the leading Catholic intellectuals of the second half of the 19th century. In recognition of this, in 1879 Pope Leo XIII named him a cardinal. He died in 1890 aged 89.


Easily the most accessible of the three books on Newman mentioned at the beginning of this brief outline is that by the Fso sisters, Blessed John Henry Newman: A Richly Illustrated Portrait. This was written recently with Newman's beatification in mind in a well-informed but accessible style and - as the title proclaims - is a lavishly illustrated biography.

The second Newman title is by Fr Zeno van den Barselaar, a Dutch Capuchin priest. The book is a culmination of Father Zeno's life work. With the cooperation of the Oratorian Fathers, he was given full access to all of Newman's letters, diaries, and complete published and unpublished sermons. From all this he has drawn together the interior struggles Newman faced from childhood until his death. Fr Zeno allows Newman to speak through his work and writings, an exceedingly rich source. This is a fine biography.

A similar verdict could be made on the scholarly work of the Italian Redemptorist priest, Father Giovanni Velocci, which explores Newman's intense prayer life as both an Anglican and later, a Catholic priest. In the latter part of Newman's life, Velocci believes, "prayer became his main preoccupation."

However, the style and production mean that this book is more for specialists than the general reader.

While aimed at different readerships, all three titles are to be recommended as they represent welcome additions to our appreciation of Blessed John Henry Newman.

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