Prince Charles: ‘This Great Saint Newman’

Future King writes on soon-to-be saint.

Prince Charles greets people during a visit to Westport, New Zealand, on Nov. 7, 2015.
Prince Charles greets people during a visit to Westport, New Zealand, on Nov. 7, 2015. (photo: CC BY 2.0/New Zealand Defence Force)

On the eve of the canonization of John Henry Newman, Prince Charles, heir apparent to the British throne, has written an article for the daily newspaper of Vatican City State, L’Osservatore Romano

Prince Charles, who will attend the canonization ceremony at the Vatican on Sunday, writes that the occasion is “a cause of celebration not merely in the United Kingdom, and not merely for Catholics, but for all who cherish the values by which he was inspired.”

He went on to speak of Newman’s life as being one that “stood for the life of the spirit against the forces that would debase human dignity and human destiny.” 

The future head of the Church of England writes that ”in the age in which he attains sainthood, Newman’s example is needed more than ever — for the manner in which, at his best, he could advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and, perhaps most of all, could see differences as places of encounter rather than exclusion.” 

Reflecting on the 19th century in which Newman lived, the prince views the Englishman as “one of the greatest theologians of the nineteenth century, [who] applied his intellect to one of the most pressing questions of our era: what should be the relationship of faith to a sceptical, secular age?” The Prince of Wales then traces the future saint’s journey through Anglicanism to one of “conversion” applauding Newman’s “fearless honesty, its unsparing rigour and its originality of thought.” 

The Prince of Wales expresses his gratitude for Newman’s “gifts, rooted in his Catholic faith, which he shared with wider society: his intense and moving spiritual autobiography and his deeply-felt poetry in The Dream of Gerontius which, set to music by Sir Edward Elgar — another Catholic of whom all Britons can be proud — gave the musical world one of its most enduring choral masterpieces.”

The prince is a noted music aficionado so it is not surprising that he should single out The Dream of Gerontius, a much-admired musical piece. However, the subject matter of Newman’s poetry was the transit of a soul to eternal rest through Purgatory — a doctrine not acknowledged by the Church of England. 

Prince Charles then speaks of the future saint as means of unity in which “difference is not to be feared. Newman not only proved this in his theology and illustrated it in his poetry, but he also demonstrated it in his life. Under his leadership, Catholics became fully part of the wider society, which itself thereby became all the richer as a community of communities.

“Newman engaged not merely with the church, but with the world. While wholeheartedly committed to the Church to which he came through so many intellectual and spiritual trials, he nonetheless initiated open debate between Catholics and other Christians, paving the way for later ecumenical dialogues. … His conversations [taking place] across confessional, cultural, social and economic divides, were rooted in that intimate friendship with God.” 

Prince Charles sees Newman’s faith as “truly catholic” embracing all aspects of life. “It is in that same spirit that we, whether we are Catholics or not, can, in the tradition of the Christian Church throughout the ages, embrace the unique perspective, the particular wisdom and insight, brought to our universal experience by this one individual soul.” 

Newman’s life and writings remain for Prince Charles “an inspiration.” While acknowledging the future saint’s human flaws, the heir to the British throne sees these all too human failings of Newman as the means by which he was “left only more grateful for the mercy of God.” 

Prince Charles writes that Newman’s “influence was immense. As a theologian, his work on the development of doctrine showed that our understanding of God can grow over time, and had a profound impact on later thinkers.” The prince also views Newman’s reconciliation of faith and reason as relevant for today, especially for those “who seek the divine in what can seem like an increasingly hostile intellectual environment.” For them, the prince feels that Newman is “a powerful ally who championed the individual conscience against an overwhelming relativism.” 

The prince then outlines Newman’s influence on the restoration of Catholicism in Britain during the 19th century. “Newman is a figure who stood for his convictions despite the disadvantages of belonging to a religion whose adherents were denied full participation in public life. Through the whole process of Catholic emancipation and the restoration of the Catholic Church hierarchy, he was the leader his people, his church and his times needed. … He gave the Catholic Church renewed confidence as it re-established itself in a land in which it had once been uprooted. The Catholic community in Britain today owes an incalculable debt to his tireless work, even as British society has cause for gratitude to that community for its immeasurably valuable contribution to our country’s life.” 

In conclusion the Prince of Wales describes Newman as a “great Briton,” a “great churchman” and “this great saint, who bridges the divisions between traditions.”

“In the image of divine harmony which Newman expressed so eloquently, we can see how, ultimately, as we follow with sincerity and courage the different paths to which conscience calls us, all our divisions can lead to a greater understanding and all our ways can find a common home.”