British Catholics Pray and Hope for Newman’s Canonization

Blessed John Henry Newman is a champion for all of us today who seek coherence in doctrine, faithfulness to authoritative teachings, vigor in witnessing to Christ.

John Everett Millai (1829-1896), “John Henry Newman”
John Everett Millai (1829-1896), “John Henry Newman” (photo: Public Domain)

Tea and homemade cakes in an Oxfordshire village garden – a perfect way to spend an English summer day. The annual garden party hosted each June by the Sisters at Littlemore – where Blessed John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church – has become an established tradition. But there is something more this year. There are high hopes of the announcement of his canonization, placing the final seal on his place in the life of the Church and of English Catholicism in particular.

Littlemore was an impoverished village on the outskirts of Oxford when John Henry Newman first visited in the 1830s as an Anglican clergyman. It lay within the parish of St. Clement, of which he was vicar. It had no church of its own and the people were mostly poor. His work transformed it: he built a church, organized a school – this was before compulsory universal education for children in Britain – and during a cholera epidemic worked with his mother and sisters to minister to the victims. Then, after the years of work, he retired to spend time in prayer and study with a small community established in a couple of cottages. And this culminated in his decision to be received into the Catholic Church in October 1845. 

Today, Littlemore is a study center, known as The College, run by the Sisters of The Work, a religious order founded by Mother Julia Verhaeghe in 1938. It attracts Newman scholars and pilgrims from all over the world. Nearby stands a modern Catholic church dedicated to Blessed Dominic Barberi, who received Newman into the Catholic Church: the scene is depicted in a painting in the library at Littlemore. And the church that Newman built — his mother laid the foundation stone — is also part of the pilgrimage and welcomes visitors. 

By the time he died at the end of the 19th century, Newman was a leading figure in the Catholic community and in the nation at large: founder of the Oratory at Birmingham and of the Oratory School — both of which still flourish — preacher, writer, lecturer, author of several major works including his Apologia pro vita sua setting out his journey of faith. His life had a prophetic quality: he saw the role of the laity as crucial in the missionary life of the Church in the modern era, he began the revival of interest in the Church Fathers that was to bear fruit in the work of, among others, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) in the 20th century, and he has been called the “father of the Second Vatican Council.”

At times — and especially within his lifetime — Newman was accused of having modernist tendencies. His interest in the Church Fathers and his understanding of the need to connect with their teaching was seen as somewhat dangerous. His approach to the role of lay people seemed quite daring and innovative. He wanted, as he put it “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity — I wish [them] to enlarge [their] knowledge, to cultivate [their] reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism.”

He was vindicated — Pope Leo XII who understood the need to connect with the “new things” of which he spoke in his great encyclical Rerum Novarum recognized in this English scholar and pastor a man who spoke to a new era of fast-paced political and economic change.

Newman was certainly no modernist. His whole life was centred on a search for truth, and a passion for defending it. He had no time for liberalism in Christianity or, as we would say today, for “watering down” the truths of the Faith. He is a champion for all of us today who seek coherence in doctrine, faithfulness to authoritative teachings, vigor in witnessing to Christ. 

“His legacy to us all is huge,” notes Dr. Peter Nockles, Newman scholar, author, and sometime Visiting Fellow of Oriel College. “We owe him so much and still live and work under his influence. And it’s not only within the Catholic Church – he is of course widely recognized as a great scholar, probably Oriel’s greatest son.”

In Britain today Newman is the patron of the Ordinariate — established by Pope Benedict XVI for Anglicans seeking full communion with the Catholic Church and bringing with them their traditions and patrimony. He is honored at Littlemore, and at Maryvale, the recusant house at Oscott near Birmingham where he lived while preparing to be ordained as a Catholic priest, at the Birmingham Oratory, at the Oxford Oratory which was established a century after his death, at the Brompton Oratory in London, and at the many schools, colleges and institutions named after him. Pilgrims – I have been among them – walk along the Thames to the village of Ham where his childhood home at Grey Court House has a plaque commemorating him. In the City of London, near the Bank of England, another plaque marks the spot where he was born. At Oriel, his Oxford College, a stained-glass window depicts his life and work and shows him surrounded by angels.

Anticipating the canonization, a new edition of Newman’s master work on the development of doctrine is being published with footnotes by distinguished Newman scholar Fr. James Tolhurst. In April, to mark Newman’s birthday, Bishop Philip Egan lectured his Idea of a University at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, and Oratorian Fr. Guy Nichols spoke on Newman and beauty to a packed gathering at Littlemore – which also celebrated with a string quartet and a birthday cake with appropriate singing.

In 2010 Benedict XVI, during his State Visit to Britain, beatified Newman at a great outdoor gathering at Cofton Park near Birmingham. Commentators noted the extraordinary heritage that is English Catholicism. It is compounded of many things: stories of the martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries, the recusant heritage, the Irish connection, the converts from the Church of England, the intellectual tradition – and the reality of today, which is that many of our parishes have more Poles, Filipinos, and Africans at Mass than English people.

There is also a change of status. The Catholic Church is now the biggest Christian body in Britain in terms of church attendance – though this is not because we are large in numbers but because others are even smaller. And Catholics are well aware of the peculiarities of their position: no longer regarded as being in the pay of a foreign power or subjected to formal legal restrictions, we now face new anger. Our opposition to abortion or to teaching children that they can “change gender” has brought new denunciations: hecklers at a recent pro-life rally shrieked “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!” The Catholic Church is now – did Newman perhaps sense that this would be the case? – the main voice in the nation defending the once commonly-held moral and spiritual values. 

Over tea and cakes at Littlemore in June the talk will be of when, not if, John Henry Newman is formally honored as a saint. The Britain he knew has largely vanished: as a small child he saw candles lit in the window to mark the victory of Lord Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar, and he lived into the railway age. Today, we live in an internet age via two world wars, the loss of an empire, a social revolution, and much more. But his voice – using our language with such grace, and searching for truth with such wisdom – speaks to us across the gulf of history. Whether the canonization is announced in 2018 or some while later, Catholics in Britain today are in a sense Newman’s spiritual children.