July 13, 1852 — Newman’s “Second Spring”

Blessed John Henry Newman found out what being a Catholic in 19th-century England meant.

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

I have a not-so-rare book that I treasure, a used book from the former library of St. Joseph’s Academy in Perry, Oklahoma, run by the Sisters of Divine Providence. After the Academy closed, the book was transferred to the library of Mount St. Mary’s Convent here in Wichita, Kansas. Somehow it came to Eighth Day Books, where I bought it. Edited by Francis P. Donnelly, SJ, it’s a rhetorical study of Blessed John Henry Newman’s great “Second Spring” sermon from the first Westminster Synod after the Catholic hierarchy was restored in England.

Father Donnelly instructs his readers how to develop Newman’s style and provides composition exercises. The book was first published in 1911; my copy is from the 1921 printing by Longmans, Green, and Co. of New York (on Fourth Avenue and 30th Street). As a textbook for high school students, it demonstrates an extraordinary level of education: the exercises are challenging and call for attentive reading and creativity.


The Synod and the Sermon

The first synod of the Westminster archdiocese, convened by Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, was held at St. Mary’s College in Oscott in 1852. It began on July 6, the anniversary of Thomas More’s martyrdom (and 34 years before his beatification: the cause for the English Catholic martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries would not begin until 1855). After the meeting, the Synodal Letter emphasized the need to develop a comprehensive education program for the poor, encouraged prayer and devotion, especially to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and counseled the laity to defend their rights in the face of continuing discrimination because of their Catholicism while resorting only to the revenge of praying for those who hated them.

Father John Henry Newman of the Congregation of the Oratory gave his sermon at the Mass of the Holy Spirit celebrated on July 13—166 years ago today. It moved some, especially Cardinal Wiseman, to tears, as Newman described the death and rebirth of Catholicism in England.


The Winter is Now Past; The Coming of a Second Spring

Newman’s sermon exemplifies what G.K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man: “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” In 1829, Catholics had at last been accorded their full rights as citizens and loyal subjects, able to worship freely, pursue their vocations and their careers, vote and hold office—everything but attend the great centers of learning, Oxford and Cambridge. In 1850, Pope Pius IX had restored the hierarchy in England with the Papal Bull Universalis Ecclesiae.

As Newman hardly needed to remind Cardinal Wiseman and the other bishops, this restoration had shocked Protestant England. It was one thing for individual Catholics to be free to practice their faith; it was another thing for an organized, structured Catholic hierarchy to start building, educating, and growing the Catholic Church in England.

Queen Victoria’s government reacted by calling the restoration an act of “papal aggression”; there were anti-Catholic riots; Parliament passed a law called the Ecclesiastical Titles Act of 1851 which declared it illegal for the new Catholic bishops to use the name "of any city, town or place, or of any territory or district (under any designation or description whatsoever), in the United Kingdom" in their titles. This act was never enforced and was repealed 20 years later. It was the last gasp of anti-Catholicism in Parliament. It would not be the last gasp of anti-Catholicism in England, as Newman had just experienced.


Newman on Trial

The month before he gave this famous sermon, Father John Henry Newman had been in a London courtroom. He had been charged with libel against a former Dominican priest turned anti-Catholic agitator Giovanni Giacinto Achilli.

After the announcement of the return of Catholic dioceses in England, an evangelical Christian group had brought Achilli to England. Achilli and the Evangelical Alliance sought to raise the great fear that the Roman Inquisition, which had condemned Achilli for various sexual assaults and other crimes, would be coming to England. Cardinal Wiseman wrote a description of Achilli’s crimes in the Dublin Review in 1850. Newman had—with the advice of legal counsel—repeated some of those facts in his lectures on The Present Position of Catholics in England.

Despite the assurances that he could repeat the facts Cardinal Wiseman had asserted, Newman was accused of libel. Unfortunately, Cardinal Wiseman could not find the documentation he had cited in his article, so Father Newman had to find witnesses and other documentation to back up the facts he had cited in his lectures.

As Edward Short describes in the chapter “Newman and the Law” in his most recent study, Newman and History (Gracewing, 2017), the judges and the attorneys displayed their disdain for all things Catholic. As Short notes in an article based on that chapter:

Sir Frederick Thesiger, the lead prosecutor, told the jury when the trial opened at the Queen’s Bench that whatever affidavits Newman might produce would be dubious because, as he mischievously claimed, Catholic witnesses would naturally favor the word of an English convert over an Italian apostate. Another prosecuting attorney questioned whether the evidence produced by Newman from the Court of the Inquisition regarding Achilli’s offenses could be admitted in an English court, since England did not recognize the pope’s jurisdiction. . . .

In other words, the anti-Catholic prejudices of the English, equating the ancient faith with intrigue, superstition, pious fraud, and treason, and not the evidence, determined the case’s outcome.

Father John Henry Newman, formerly a Fellow of Oriel College at Oxford and an Anglican vicar, found out what being a Catholic in 19th-century England meant. His integrity was attacked and his guilt assumed because he was a Catholic. He had spoken about English prejudice against Catholics before; now he had experienced it.

He was found guilty, fined, and ordered to pay court costs in the amount of £12,000. The judge lectured him on his fall from grace since he had left the Anglican communion. Newman could have been sent to prison.

Even the Times of London perceived the injustice of this trial: “a great blow has been given to the administration of justice in this country, and Roman Catholics will have henceforth only too good reason for asserting that there is no justice for them in matters tending to rouse the Protestant feelings of judges and juries.”

So when Newman spoke before the bishops and priests at the Synod, although he acknowledged that he was relatively new (having become a Catholic less than seven years before this historical event), he knew better now what they had endured:

My Fathers and Brothers, you have seen it on one side, and some of us on another; but one and all of us can bear witness to the fact of the utter contempt into which Catholicism had fallen by the time that we were born. You, alas, know it far better than I can know it; but it may not be out of place, if by one or two tokens, as by the strokes of a pencil, I bear witness to you from without, of what you can witness so much more truly from within.

Newman commended the renewal of the Catholic Church in England to the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Shine on us, dear Lady, with thy bright countenance, like the sun in his strength, O stella matutina, O harbinger of peace, till our year is one perpetual May. From thy sweet eyes, from thy pure smile, from thy majestic brow, let 10 thousand influences rain down, not to confound or overwhelm, but to persuade, to win over thine enemies. O Mary, my hope, O Mother undefiled, fulfill to us the promise of this Spring.

No wonder Cardinal Wiseman wept.