Blessed John Henry Newman: why he is worthy of canonisation

Blessed John Henry Newman: why he is worthy of canonisation

Frank Mobbs

On 19 September last, Pope Benedict beatified John Henry Newman in Birmingham, England. Thus he gave his authority to an estimate that Newman lived a life of exceptional holiness.

For some people this will seem strange. Yes, Newman was (is) an outstanding, scholar, thinker, and writer, but is he a Christian saint? I can pay tribute to his writing skills, for since my youth I have been captivated by his style. But, I repeat, a saint?

After all he did not establish a chain of charitable works and draw some 4,000 followers to serve those works, as did Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He was not martyred, like St Thomas More. He did not inspire hundreds of women to establish and staff schools for the poor as did Mother Mary MacKillop. Why think he is holy?


The media will often say that the Pope has 'made' him a saint. Untrue. With God's abundant help, Newman made himself a saint by a life of unremitting searching for the will of God and doing it, even at great cost to himself. His being a saint does not require that he was perfect, that he had no faults or even that he never sinned. (There are plenty of penitents numbered amongst the saints. Start with the apostle Peter.)

Faults he had. He could be irritable. At dinner in College he refused to speak to a former Anglican, now a Catholic priest, whom Newman regarded as an apostate: "I was very rude to him, I would not meet him at dinner." That is one side of the ledger, his faults. The other side vastly outweighs it.

He lived in the presence of God. As a teenager two things became luminously clear to him: God's presence as manifested in his conscience and his own existence. At that time he resolved to remain celibate for life, wanting to belong totally to God. This presence of God shows in his frequent reference to his "duty". A call to do his duty was a call from God, for conscience is the voice of God.

Recently I have been rereading some of Newman's works and been struck by the number of times he refers to his duty. "By one's sense of duty one must go," he wrote to a friend. His choices throughout life show that he did his duty consistently. "A man's moral life is concentrated in in each moment of his life, it lives in the tip of his fingers, and the spring of his insteps", he wrote.

He felt it his duty to leave the Church of England and become a Catholic, whilst keenly aware that he would lose much of what made him happy, especially his friendships. He felt it his duty, that is, God was calling him to serve the Catholic Church for the rest of his life, and this he did despite frustration of his efforts and rejection by not a few Catholics.

This disposition to serve God is largely what constitutes his sanctity. It involved searching to discover the will of God. His writings show that he waited for what he called "light" and often advised others to do so. He thought God usually reveals bit by bit his will, giving us enough light to take the next step, then enough to take the next, as expressed in his well known poem which became the words of a hymn, Lead, Kindly Light:

I do not ask to see
The distant scene,
-  one step enough for me.

Elsewhere he wrote: "But I bore it, till in course of time my way was made clear to me." Travelling in Italy, he nearly died, yet he was convinced that he would not die - "I shall not die. I have not sinned against the light."

Such waiting on God involved painful perplexity, yet wait he must: "is it not our safest course, without looking to consequences, to do simply what we think right day by day?" Such waiting is trusting God, expressed in Newman's famous Meditation: "He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me - still He knows what He is about."

Spiritual realities

Newman was keenly aware of spiritual realities. For him, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God". All about were glimpses of God. God's heart ever beat close to his own ( Cor ad cor loquitur). The angels, the saints, the departed, were only just out of sight. Sacraments were charged with the power and love of God. "God's hand is ever his own and he leads [men] forward by ways they know not." The Church is God speaking to us and guiding us, not a mere social organisation.

His first public sermon was entitled, "Holiness necessary for future blessedness" ( Parochial and Plain Sermons, 1). Whilst an Anglican clergyman in charge of a parish in Oxford, he introduced weekly early Communion (Eucharist) services on Sundays. After he was ordained, as he believed, an Anglican priest, he did not celebrate the Eucharist for five months. Celebration of the Eucharist had become infrequent in the Church of England. When he became a Catholic, he marvelled that he was able to worship daily the reserved Blessed Sacrament. When a Catholic priest, he loved to celebrate Mass daily.

He was a man of deep prayer, right from his teen years as an Evangelical Anglican. During that period as Anglican parish priest, he discovered the Roman Breviary, the volumes of prayers which Catholic priests were required to recite daily. He prayed them, mentioning that they took three to four hours a day to complete!

Later as a Catholic, he was sent to Rome for 15 months, where he was introduced to Catholic devotions, some of which he happily adopted. As a Catholic priest, he founded houses of the Oratory, priests and lay brothers, who followed a program of community and individual prayer. Whilst Anglican, he established a community at Littlemore, out of Oxford, which cultivated prayerfulness and silence, as well as study and writing.

Devotion to Our Lady

Both as an Anglican and also as a Catholic he had profound devotion to Our Lady, Mary, giving many sermons on her and composing prayers to her. Pope Benedict noted this fact in his beatification homily: "When Blessed John Henry Newman came to live in Birmingham, he gave the name 'Maryvale' to his first home here."

The Oratory that he founded is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. And the Catholic University of Ireland he placed under the patronage of Mary, Sedes Sapientiae. In so many ways, he lived his priestly ministry in a spirit of filial devotion to the Mother of God.

Writing spiritual works and giving spiritual advice is one thing, but did he practise what he taught? I have given some evidence that he did. There is a vast amount more in the over 20,000 letters of his which have been recovered and edited. In these he writes confidentially to members of his family and to close friends, revealing his constant awareness of the presence of God and his concern to discern and carry out the will of God.

Perhaps all this adds up to no more than a pious Christian man. Was it sufficient to gain endorsement of his sanctity by a Pope? Indeed it was for he was heroically a disciple of the Master, Jesus. His heroism is exhibited in the following.

1. At age 44 he left both the University of Oxford and the Church of England. Both were his 'home' for half his lifetime. One must grasp what Oxford meant to him. He entered Oxford when he was only 16 years old and became engaged in the affairs of his College. At 20 he was made a Fellow of Oriel College and a tutor. He took a keen interest in his students, many of whom became lifelong friends. Oxford was always a Church university, Catholic first, pre-Reformation, then Anglican.

In Newman's day it was a very Anglican institution. Only Anglicans could enter and most teachers were celibate Anglican clergy. It was 'the nursery of the Church', its graduates constituting a large percentage of Anglican clergy, many of whom maintained close contacts with the university. Newman was much engaged in the politics of the university, fighting for the appointments of men who shared his convictions.

He gradually became one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement which successfully promoted the adoption of both parts of Catholic theology and also Catholic practices amongst Anglicans. Most of his cherished friends were Oxford men.

He was given the prestigious position of Vicar of the university church, St Mary's, from whose pulpit he preached many sermons to enthusiastic audiences. He lived and breathed Oxford and loved it.

Can we imagine what it meant to him to resign his fellowship and the income from it, to resign as Vicar of St Mary's, to abandon his position as a notable of Oxford, to join the Catholic Church which was poor, culturally backward, despised by most Englishmen, and in which he saw no future for himself? Leaving Oxford was heroic.

I know of no sadder lines than those Newman wrote 16 years later at the end of the Apologia: "On the morning of the 23rd I left the Observatory. I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway." And where did he spend most of the rest of his life? In Birmingham, a grimy city in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, without a cultivated class and filling with half-starved Irish refugees. He made his first visit to Oxford 32 years after he left.

2. Newman loved the Church of England. He fought long to reform it and to maintain its control of Oxford. It provided the via media between radical Protestantism and corrupt Catholicism, he argued. His friends were Anglican. Leaving the English Church cost him dearly. He paid that cost because he came to believe the Catholic Church was Christ's Church and it was his duty to join it.

3. Newman suffered much as a Catholic. After conversion, he threw himself into defending and propagating the Catholic faith. But bishops did not quite know what to do with a genius. He and his fellow converts constituted the greatest acquisition of intellectual strength ever enjoyed by the Catholic Church in Britain. His and their gifts were too often unused or frittered away.


He was asked to establish a university in Ireland. The Irish bishops thwarted that. He was asked to translate the Bible into English but the project died. Strong rumours eventuated that he was to be named a bishop. Laymen offered congratulations and bought him vestments. Nothing came of it but humiliation.

He tried to establish an Oratory in Oxford. The bishops did not want Catholics to go there, so no Oratory. Members of the Oratory caused him distress. Throughout these ordeals he never disobeyed a bishop or the authorities in Rome, scrupulously avoiding criticising publicly his superiors, though grumbling to friends.

His published works occupy 40 volumes. What has this to do with his sanctity? He knew God had gifted him with a mighty intellect and he placed it at His service. Writing was difficult for him, as I was surprised to learn, but he wrote - up to 15 hours a day.

The Lord Jesus taught: "When you have done all you have been told to do, say, 'we are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty'." For merely being a servant, the Pope has beatified Newman.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.