Most beatifications are presided over by the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. But on Sept. 19, during Pope Benedict XVI’s historic trip to the United Kingdom, the Successor of St. Peter will do the honors himself — for the first time.
What’s more, in recognition of the crucial role Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) played in the revival of the Catholic faith in England during the 19th century, the ceremony will take place in the English city of Birmingham, where Newman lived for 40 years.
The change in location is especially fitting. Newman was a central figure in the Oxford Movement, which counted many Anglicans who decided — based on their readings of the Fathers of the Church and their examinations of the Church’s claim to apostolic authority — that the true Catholic tradition lay in Rome. Newman himself found he could no longer remain an Anglican and converted in 1845 in England. After a two-year stay in Rome, where he was ordained, he returned to England as a member of the Oratorians.
Newman was considered one of the greatest English prose stylists of the 19th century, and his conversion was of enormous importance to the Church in England, since he was already a distinguished writer and theologian as an Anglican. Along with his great contemporary and rival, Cardinal Henry Manning, Newman remains one of the most significant Catholic figures of Britain’s modern age.
In books such as Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865), the majestic account of his conversion, and A Grammar of Assent (1870), Newman laid the groundwork and defense of a reinvigorated Catholicism in England — which still suffered serious economic and political disadvantages. Indeed, it was not until Newman’s lifetime that Pope Pius IX re-established the Catholic hierarchy in the country; it had been suppressed since the Reformation. Newman later went on, in 1854, to become the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. While there, he composed his classic work The Idea of a University. It serves as a model for Christian liberal education to this day.
The United Kingdom today is quite a different place than in Newman’s day. Churchgoing Anglicans are few. The cultural atmosphere is one of secular hostility toward religion in general. England is in danger of completely losing its religious patrimony, which includes not just ecclesiastical riches such as the Anglican liturgical tradition and ancient Catholic places of worship, but also the secular results of that patrimony — the rule of law, respect for the individual, a free economic system.
Some in England seem to have forgotten that heritage. Recently, for example, the archbishop of Canterbury suggested — in the name of tolerance and diversity — that the United Kingdom would do well to allow sharia, the harshest form of Islamic law, to govern in some circumstances.
We do not hear similarly high-profile calls for a specifically Christian perspective in the administration of secular law.
Newman’s example, therefore, remains necessary. He challenged — as Pope Benedict XVI is doing — the central tenets of the modern age and did not shy away from speaking out when he found them wanting. It is no surprise that Benedict has focused on Newman in the larger context of his engagement with the Anglicans and, especially, those who desire to return to the Church. During his visit, the Holy Father will meet Queen Elizabeth at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Scotland. He is sure to take the opportunity to remind England of her great Christian heritage.
In remarks to the bishops of England and Wales, the Pope has already stated that Newman “left us an outstanding example of faithfulness to revealed truth by following that ‘kindly light’ wherever it led him, even at considerable personal cost. Great writers and communicators of his stature and integrity are needed in the Church today, and it is my hope that devotion to him will inspire many to follow in his footsteps.”
Most observers expect the coming decades to see intense cultural disruption in Britain, as elsewhere in the West, as the Christian order continues to fade. Already, Britain and other countries are trying to restrict the Church’s ability to preach the Gospel through her corporal works of mercy and service. The actions are effected under the guise of laws passed to ensure “equality.”
What will replace the old order is unclear, but Newman’s call to return to the sources of Church teaching, along with his forthright responses to attacks on the Church’s freedom, remain a resource for Catholics in Britain and throughout the world.
Blessed John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis.
Gerald J. Russello is a
fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.