Biography of a Soul

Franklin Freeman recommends John Henry Newman: His Interior Life by Father Zeno, OFM Cap.


His Inner Life

by Father Zeno van den Barselaar, O.F.M. Cap.

Ignatius, 2010

336 pages, $16.95

To order:

(800) 651-1531

John Henry Newman: His Inner Life is a biography of the soul of Blessed John Henry Newman.

Originally published in 1979, the work was reissued by Ignatius Press for Newman’s beatification this past year. Father Zeno van den Barselaar, a Dutch Capuchin who had great access to Newman’s papers, covers the outward events of Newman’s life, discusses the major literary works and documents all that Newman went through at the hands of his former Anglican friends and his new Catholic ones, who did not understand him and at times disparaged him behind his back and suspected him of unorthodoxy.

The main focus is Newman’s inner life, which was always focused on God throughout all the trials, one of which involved Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, another English convert and powerful prelate. Cardinal Manning suspected Newman of unorthodoxy but eventually accepted his sincerity and fidelity to Catholic teaching.

The antagonism between Newman and Manning, Father van den Barselaar writes, “appears to have been a matter of temperament and of character. Newman, always aware of the manifold aspects of a problem because he was a thinker, a speculative intellect, could not but be slow in making up his mind, in deciding, in acting. Manning, always aware of his ultimate object and a man of action, a practical intellect, did not like hesitation but wanted to be achieving and determining the course of events. Newman’s passivity and slowness appeared to him to be a sign of weakness, and this irritated him. To Newman, on the other hand, Manning’s activities and methods often appeared hasty, impulsive and inopportune. But both wished to serve the Church and actually did serve her, each in his own way, with his own means and according to his own views. … The contrast was not a contrast between right and wrong but between different aspects of the right.”

In his later years, Newman too was made a cardinal, and the cloud of suspicion from fellow English Catholics and Rome was at last dispelled. But he was never free of controversy. Later critics have claimed he did not agree with the dogma of the infallibility of the pope, and others have made him a precursor of the rebellious theologians of the 1960s. Van den Barselaar obliterates these notions. Newman believed in the infallibility of the pope on matters of faith and morals but was not sure that it needed to be declared by the First Vatican Council and was afraid of how it would be worded. And though he saw all sides of a question and was abreast of intellectual currents, he once said if he knew his bishop’s will he would obey before being asked to do so.

Newman endured much, but, eventually, because of his holiness and refusal to strike back (unless not to would be construed as cowardice, and only then in charity), won back most of his critics. Father van den Barselaar, in John Henry Newman: His Inner Life, gives us a compelling, fascinating look at the soul of a saint.

Franklin Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.