St. John Henry Newman Is in Good Company

COMMENTARY: In many ways, the teaching of Newman, just as with Sts. Athanasius, Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, Josemaría Escrivá and John Paul II, is particularly suited for our time.

Official canonization portrait of John Henry Newman hangs in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 10.
Official canonization portrait of John Henry Newman hangs in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 10. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

The saints are alive. When worshippers or visitors enter a Catholic church, they are surrounded by many striking paintings and statues of men and women.

Sometimes these figures almost step out of the canvas or marble as if to speak or to reach out a hand; often they are portrayed as being in conversation with Christ or his Mother. It is like entering into a beautiful and welcoming house that is somehow familiar to us. The objects of these works of art are representations of real people who at one time walked on earth. Though they are no longer “on this side of the veil,” nevertheless, they are as alive as ever they were. These saints are in heaven, and they invite us to join their company.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890), widely known for The Idea of a University, the account of his philosophy of education, as well as his spiritual aeneid, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, was declared a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis on Oct. 13. This means that Newman, like the people portrayed in the many works of art in Catholic churches around the world, is not only alive, but he is enjoying the company of the saints, many of whom, we can imagine, will seem like old friends to him. Who might these saints be and what might they be discussing?

In The Idea of a University Newman eloquently describes what a university does and how it enlarges the mind and teaches people to have the right habit of thinking. Newman’s vision of a university’s milieu would provide an excellent topic of conversation, as it still does in the world today. So do many other of his other rich theological writings.

The development of doctrine, the certitude of the act of faith, the role of moral conscience are but a few. But leaving these influential writings aside, let us consider the person of Newman, the man with his many friends on earth, his simple way of life, and his raison d’être.

In some sense we imagine him with the company of other saints, two of whom he knew through reading and two of whom we now know he met later, in the world of the One who moves the spheres with love.

Newman’s company of saints would certainly include Athanasius, Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, Josemaría Escrivá and John Paul II. These saints can give us an insight into Newman, arguably one of the most important English Catholics of the 19th century.

Let’s begin chronologically. Athanasius was the fourth-century champion of the Catholic Church who, before becoming patriarch of Alexandria, defended Catholic truth about the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea. One of Newman’s first works was translating St. Athanasius. At the very end of his life Newman returned to Athanasius’ work to revise his initial translation.

Newman’s life would be defined for a passion for religious truth that he pursued regardless of personal suffering and cost.

Next there is Philip Neri, the great 16th-century apostle of Rome, who became Newman’s unseen spiritual mentor. When Newman went to Rome with a few other converts from Anglicanism, these enthusiastic young men had to choose a religious congregation of which to become a part.

Newman was drawn to the Benedictines and the Jesuits, but in the end chose the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. He was inspired by the simplicity, joy, charity and spirit of freedom of this Roman saint. As a result, Newman became an oratorian (an association of priests rather than a congregation per se) and was given the monumental task of instituting the English Oratory.

That Newman was drawn to St. Philip Neri is no surprise, for Newman was a man of great personality and warmth. He loved to read and he was a scholar, which does not mean that he was dry or distant. Far from it, for he had a great heart and many friends.

He followed St. Francis de Sales’ example of friendship, and, at the end of his life, when named a cardinal, took as his motto some words from a letter by the bishop of Annecy: Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”). Newman opened his heart to his friends and shared with them the adventure of living as a Christian in a pagan world.

It would be fanciful to imagine Newman and Josemaría Escrivá meeting in London and speaking in Latin — the former died 12 years before the birth of the latter — as both had excellent knowledge of this language. There is joy in the knowledge that they actually did meet, in a higher place, in heaven. The English saint understood the universal call to holiness that St. Josemaría preached to wide audiences. As consummate educators, writers, pastors and spiritual guides, they both taught countless persons that God calls each one of us to personal holiness in everyday life and work.

John Henry Newman was a spiritual and intellectual giant who can also be compared with St. John Paul II, himself a deep and prolific writer of the 20th century. Both wrote with keen insight about many points of religious doctrine and the spiritual life. The latter appreciated the greatness of Newman, declared him “Venerable” and referred to his valuable contribution in the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio. Like Escrivá, and Newman before, St. John Paul II highlighted the importance of the formation of the laity and its role in society and the Church.

Newman has joined the company of these saints and invites us into this communion of the saints. The world needs men and women of his kind (women like Sts. Edith Stein and Teresa of Calcutta), or in the words of John Paul II, “new heralds of the Gospel, experts in humanity.”

Everyone, no matter of what religion, belief or country, can rightly rejoice at the thought of persons of Newman’s learning and heart. The world is better because of men like him, and each one of us, too, will be better by following in his example.

The English saint’s greatness lies in his appeal to both reason and faith. As with his companion saints, he exercised a faith seeking understanding. And we on earth can learn much from Newman, from all his many writings. This is the purpose for studying the lives and thoughts of the saints.

For example, Newman beckons university teachers and students to engage one another in a spirit of love for truth and freedom while maintaining mutual respect.

Newman’s Idea of the University is an excellent place to begin for someone unfamiliar with Newman’s writings. The Idea leaps off the page as being as important today as it was when Newman composed it.

It is this vision of the university and life in general that can bring about the much needed serenity and integrity to public discourse and civic life. In many ways, John Henry Newman’s teaching is particularly suited for our time. For this reason, he stands out as a compelling thinker for all men and women and, in addition, a great saint for all Christians.

Father Juan R. Vélez, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, works in Miami. He is the author of Passion for Truth: The Life of John Henry Newman (2012) and

Holiness in a Secular Age: The Witness of Cardinal Newman (2017).