Blessed by Blessed John Henry Newman

Pope Benedict XVI leads Mass and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman Sept. 19 at Cofton Park in Birmingham, England.
Pope Benedict XVI leads Mass and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman Sept. 19 at Cofton Park in Birmingham, England. (photo: CNS photo/Andrew Winning, Reuters)

Legionary Father Thomas Williams is a Michigan-born professor of theology and ethics at Regina Apostolorum University in Rome. He is also a prolific author and frequent television commentator. He was in England to witness the papal visit there and beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. He reflects on the visit, some of the controversy surrounding it, Blessed John Henry Newman and the priesthood.

What was the mood there?

The mood in the U.K. this past week was truly electrifying. Very few, if anyone, expected such an enthusiastic response from the British.

Were the fears that this would be a P.R. disaster unfounded? Overdone? It certainly doesn’t seem to be that thus far.

The decidedly negative press prior to the visit contributed in part to the volte-face that we saw as soon as the Pope touched down in Scotland. The dire predictions of small turnouts and general indifference — if not outright hostility — to the Holy Father’s visit simply failed to materialize. Even the heavily publicized protests fizzled out in the face of the tremendously positive response.

Does anyone seem rattled by the apparent terrorism-attempt arrests?

The media covered the arrests, of course, but the lack of details and the pace of the papal events was such that the arrests received relatively little attention. In the end, when the six Algerians were released, everyone realized that the terrorist angle must have been a false alarm.

Why was this such a significant trip?

This trip was significant in a variety of ways. There were a number of truly historic encounters and events, starting with the fact that this was the first state visit of a pope to the United Kingdom since the Protestant Reformation. This fact was underscored by the Pope’s visits to Lambeth Palace, Westminster Palace and Westminster Abbey — all firsts. The images themselves were striking: the Pope with Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh, giving a joint blessing with the archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey, slowly processing in the popemobile before enormous throngs of affectionate pilgrims. Moreover, the general curiosity of the British that soon morphed into interest and then outright fascination and appreciation highlighted what the Pope would summarize at the end of his trip as a true “thirst for Jesus Christ.” The final day saw the Pope meeting with all the bishops of England, Scotland and Wales at Oscott College near Birmingham, along with a much-appreciated encounter with the 250 seminarians from those three countries. This occurred at the very spot where the bishops had assembled in 1852, shortly after the reinstatement of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy in the U.K.

What has been the highlight thus far?

There were so many highlights that it is hard to choose just one. Perhaps, for me, the most emotional moment came near the beginning of the visit, in Glasgow. Anticipation and even anxiety concerning what sort of reception the Pope would face melted as the Pope arrived at Bellahouston Park for his first Mass, welcomed by an adoring crowd of some 70,000. From that moment on, it was clear that the visit would go extraordinarily well, indeed better than anyone could have hoped.

What the Pope has said and done here about priestly abuse — what is new, what is consistent, what is enduring here?

This Pope has made it a personal priority to express his sympathy and deep sorrow to the victims of clerical sex abuse, to proclaim his shame and disgust for these acts, and to see to it that such abuse be prevented in the future. He has streamlined canonical processes for the removal of abusive priests and tightened the selection process of seminarians. On this trip he proactively tackled the subject on several occasions, beginning with the trip over on Shepherd One and culminating in his meeting with victims of sex abuse on Saturday. He also suggested to the British bishops, who have been very successful in preventing and dealing with clerical sex abuse, that they share their experience with the Church in other countries. There are some who will never be satisfied with anything the Pope will do, but most people of good will realize how sincerely and effectively the Holy Father is dealing with the problem, which, thankfully, is largely a problem of past decades rather that the present moment.

What’s so special about a beatification?

Beatification is the penultimate step in the saint-making process, just before the actual canonization, but in itself it is significant because it invites the faithful to invoke the intercession of the person declared “blessed,” and acknowledges that the person in question is in heaven. This particular beatification carried huge importance because it is the first beatification of an English “confessor” saint (distinguishing this from the canonized martyrs John Fisher and Thomas More) since the Reformation. The beatification took place in Birmingham, near where John Henry Newman had established the English Oratory.

What is so special about Cardinal Newman?

Newman had been a high-profile Anglican who in 1845 felt compelled by intellectual honesty to become a Roman Catholic. He was also one of the most important British intellectuals of the 19th century, as even London’s Times acknowledged. Newman holds particular importance for Pope Benedict, who has repeatedly affirmed the influence Newman had on his own intellectual formation, especially his studies of conscience. One cannot help but think that in many respects, as an intellectual, a teacher and a prelate, Benedict identifies personally with many aspects of Newman’s life. In his homily during the beatification Mass, Pope Benedict noted how Newman applied his “keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing subjects of the day,” something Benedict has striven to do throughout his career. Benedict also observed that these “pressing subjects” included for Newman the relationship between faith and reason, the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and the need for a broadly based approach to education. Once again, these are issues to which Benedict himself has devoted considerable attention, as witnessed by his addresses during this trip. Newman is truly a saint for our times and a beacon for all those engaged in academic and intellectual apostolates.

There has been some fighting about Newman and who he belongs to — that Pope Benedict is trying to hijack him, that conservatives are trying to make him one of their own, when, we read, he is really a liberal icon. Can you shed light on this? Is he a conservative saint? A liberal saint? Do such label-games make a mess of things?

Personally, I find this debate ridiculous. I heard similar things while in the U.K. these past days, yet even a superficial examination of the facts reveals how silly these claims are. In the first place, critics err by making Pope Benedict out to be a theological conservative, especially when this adjective is taken in the derogatory sense of closed-mindedness and intransigence. In fact, throughout his academic career Joseph Ratzinger was always considered “progressive,” while remaining thoroughly orthodox. He is strikingly open-minded and intellectually curious, as Newman was, while also being firmly committed to the truth. Benedict is an assiduous student of Newman, and has never — as some critics have alleged — skipped over important aspects of Newman’s thought. Newman followed the truth with heroic fidelity, regardless of the personal suffering that this dedication caused him, and clung to it doggedly. Newman was also truly prophetic in his insistence on the importance of the laity in the mission of the Church and his explorations of conscience, but these subjects cannot be honestly expropriated by either conservatives or liberals any more than the Second Vatican Council can. Newman did think that a definition of papal infallibility would be a bad idea, but once it was declared by the First Vatican Council Newman immediately offered his sincere assent of intellect and will, something that both liberals and conservatives can learn from.

Where did this “gay saint” stuff come from? Our misunderstanding of love?

This is another failed attempt by the homosexual lobby to co-opt Christianity to further their own agenda. In a nutshell, they have taken Newman’s close friendship with Father Ambrose St. John and transformed it into something erotic, for which there exists not a shred of historical evidence. In his Apologia, Newman writes compellingly of Father St. John. He calls him “dear Ambrose St. John, whom God gave me, when he took everyone else away; who are the link between my old life and my new; who have now for twenty-one years been so devoted to me.” When Newman felt humanly abandoned and alone, the faithful friendship of St. John supported and consoled him, and Newman requested that after death he be buried beside his friend. Our contemporary world has tragically forgotten what authentic friendship means, and that deep, pure friendship and communion can exist between two persons of the same sex without that becoming something sordid.

You’ve written at length about conscience. What did he mean when he said that he would drink “to Conscience first and the Pope afterwards”?

In his famous letter to the duke of Norfolk, Newman wrote brilliantly on the nature of moral conscience and is cited — long prior to his beatification! — in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Conscience, as the Second Vatican Council taught, is the most intimate sanctuary of the person, where he hears the voice of God. Man must, above all things, obey conscience, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, because to do otherwise would be to act with an evil will. Newman picks up on this very Catholic understanding of conscience, seeing it as the norm of conduct which must always and everywhere be obeyed. The papal magisterium provides an invaluable guide for forming and informing our conscience, and as such is a precious gift for Catholics in their search for moral truth, but will never take the place of conscience. What Newman never did (and here modern Catholics would do well to take a page from his thought) was set up an opposition between Church teaching and personal conscience. Newman saw the Church as the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and as such a sure reference point for the formation of conscience. Newman would have never accepted an appeal to conscience as an excuse for disregarding the teachings of the magisterium.

Were you grateful to be there? I know you were doing interviews — Sky News and clearly me — but what do you hope to get out of the trip? What does Cardinal Newman and the papal moments there mean to you, a priest in a religious order that has had its share of scandal news, who is an academic, a communicator, an American living in Rome?

For many years I have been a fan of both Cardinal Newman and Joseph Ratzinger, and I feel indebted to both men for their devotion to Jesus Christ and his Church, for their insightful writings, for their intellectual and spiritual honesty, and for the impact they have had on my own studies and priesthood. It has been an immense privilege to comment on this trip for Sky News and to personally participate in these celebrations. So despite the exhausting schedule we have had to keep up, it has been an enormous blessing for me personally. In recent times, Pope Benedict has also been very close to my religious order, the Legionaries of Christ, and is helping us through a very difficult time with fatherly care. This is just one more reason for me to be grateful to him and to join with the priests and seminarians of England, Scotland and Wales in singing a rousing Ad multos annos!

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online