John Henry Newman: A New Saint and a New Joy for England and Beyond
The Catholic convert joins four holy women in sainthood.
VATICAN CITY — “To cry out. To walk. To give thanks. Today we give thanks to the Lord for our new saints. They walked by faith, and now we invoke their intercession. … Such is the holiness of daily life, which St. John Henry Newman described in these words: ‘The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not. ... The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretense ... with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man’” (Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons).
So spoke Pope Francis, Oct. 13, in his homily at the canonization Mass of four women — Giuseppina Vannini (1859-1911), Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan (1876-1926), Dulce Lopes Pontes (1914-1992) and Marguerite Bays (1815-1879) — and one man, John Henry Newman (1801-1890).
Faithful from around the world had come to Rome to celebrate the declaration that these holy lives are the Church’s newest recognized saints.
The canonization ceremony is a culmination, an “ending,” of sorts, for Newman. There is no accolade greater than being raised to the altars of the Church, but judging by the worldwide reaction to Newman’s canonization and speaking to the pilgrims from all over the world assembled in Rome for this pronouncement, it is only just the beginning of the heavenly work of England’s latest officially proclaimed saint.
“I feel contented and excited by the canonization. This is a special moment for the Church and for the world. Newman is of international importance, and his influence is going to be greater,” said one of the foremost Newman scholars, Father Guy Nicholls, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory, where Newman lived out the majority of his priestly life, where he died and where today is found the newly canonized saint’s shrine.
Father Nicholls told the Register that when Newman came back from Sicily in 1833 following an almost fatal illness, the then-Anglican was sure that he had been spared death so as to do some specific work in England.
Now, Father Nicholls feels this work is about to begin an even more important chapter: that St. John Henry Newman is about to “take on a new and more intense level of involvement for the Church in England and, indeed, beyond.”
There were many British dignitaries in Rome for the canonizations, notably, Prince Charles, who, on the eve of the canonization ceremony, wrote a column for the Vatican’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. In the commentary, the heir to the British throne described the canonization as “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 [Newman] was inspired.”
He went on to write that Newman “stood for the life of the spirit against the forces that would debase human dignity and human destiny.”
Perhaps in an oblique reference to current cultural and political divisions in the U.K., especially around Brexit, Prince Charles, the future head of the Church of England, noted 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.”
The Prince of Wales went on to trace the saint’s journey through Anglicanism to Catholicism, applauding Newman’s work for its “fearless honesty, its unsparing rigour and its originality of thought.” Newman’s life and writings remain for Prince Charles “an inspiration.”
In conclusion, Prince Charles described St. John Henry Newman as a “great Briton,” a “great churchman” and “this great saint, who bridges the divisions between traditions.”
Prince Charles’ sentiments were echoed by Edward Leigh, British member of Parliament (MP) and prominent Catholic, who told the Register how the prospect of having England’s first canonized saint in 40 years was “exciting … a big moment, as Newman is a towering intellect.”
The MP also noted how the saint had a particular path that encompassed different strands of British society, affirming how the influence of “Newman spans the divide in England between the Anglican and Catholic traditions in Great Britain.”
Vote of Confidence
Speaking just before the canonization, Sally Axworthy, British ambassador to the Holy See, told the Register of her joy.
“This is the first British saint to be canonized in 40 years,” she said, “so we are celebrating this weekend.” She went on to say that the canonization marks “a high point in the relationship between the U.K. and the Holy See.”
The U.K. delegation for the canonization was led by Prince Charles and included two cabinet ministers, the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, the lord mayor of Birmingham, and representatives of the Anglican communion and Newman’s Oxford colleges. Ambassador Axworthy sees such a varied delegation as a reflection of “Newman’s roots,” but she added that the occasion was one for “celebrating the impact of this quintessential Englishman on the wider world, recognizing the importance his writings still have for many individuals around the world today.”
Reflecting on the preparation for Newman’s canonization, Axworthy said it had meant for her “a lot of work! But also an opportunity to get to know the writings of John Henry Newman. From my student days, I was familiar with his role in the Oxford Movement, but now I have read much more about him, visited the three English oratories and been to Littlemore. I can see why he is such an influential figure. The way he wrote about his own faith, and the seriousness with which he explored his faith, seem unique.”
Time for Prayers
A “Vigil of Prayer” took place the evening before the canonization at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest church dedicated to Our Lady in the West. The canonization ceremony took place in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. The following day there was a thanksgiving Mass at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano officiated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster.
Speaking to the Register after the thanksgiving Mass, Msgr. Keith Newton, ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, expressed the thoughts of many of the faithful in the ordinariate when he said that the occasion had a very personal resonance for him and for all those former Anglicans now part of the ordinariate.
While acknowledging the gift of Newman’s life and witness to the whole Church, Msgr. Newton pointed out the particular relevance of Newman’s canonization, both cultural and spiritual, to former Anglicans, adding, “Newman is our saint.”
Like Msgr. Newton, there were many pilgrims present in Rome for the canonization who had walked the same path as Newman from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
One such pilgrim described his own spiritual journey as following in the saint’s footsteps, if only in “smaller shoes.” Archbishop George Stack of Cardiff noted that by the end of Newman’s intellectual and spiritual search, a life especially influenced by the Church Fathers and Holy Scripture, there was nowhere else for Newman to go but into the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Stack told the Register that the canonization was “an extraordinary day for people in the United Kingdom and across the English-speaking world.” Both the national and international dimension of the occasion was reflected in the diverse group of pilgrims present in St. Peter’s Square during the canonization Mass.
This day was marked by a truly international celebration of the life, witness and intercession of Newman, with pilgrims drawn, in particular, from across the English-speaking world, notably Ireland and the United States, as well as the U.K., and from elsewhere in the universal Church, particularly Austria, France and Belgium. All had come to celebrate Newman and express their joy on the occasion of Newman being declared the newest English saint.
One such pilgrim was Muriel Danis. Speaking to the Register, she said, “As a French Catholic who has been living in London for 20 years, I am thrilled to attend the canonization Mass of Cardinal Newman, a great spiritual figure for England, but also for the universal Church.”
She added, “I am struck by the modernity of the writing of Cardinal Newman, on the Church in the world and the need — more than ever — for the Church to be a lighthouse in the world.” She described Newman’s writings on conscience as “incredibly inspiring” and his life’s witness as “such an anchor to my faith.”
Catholics of all ages appeared to be equally effusive about England’s new saint. Speaking after the canonization, Daisy Vanderputt, a philosophy student in her final year at Birmingham University, sees a great Providence in Newman’s canonization at this time.
She told the Register, “It’s the start of a great mission, especially of the laity. When I came to Birmingham University I wondered how I could be a Catholic. I asked John Henry Newman to help me. So now, being in Birmingham — the city the saint lived in for most of his life — I am with Newman in spirit. And he’s just set my heart ablaze for this mission I have been given as a layperson in Britain today.”
Another young British pilgrim, Georgia Clarke, described attending the Newman canonization as “life-changing.” She said she felt “incredibly transformed by it,” adding, “As an Oxford University graduate, I always had Newman at the back of my mind. His call for the laity to be well-instructed has been so important to me.”
Reflecting on the thousands of faithful present in St. Peter’s Square for the blessed occasion, Clarke sensed something personal for each one there. “During the canonization ceremony, I suddenly felt that John Henry Newman had called us all here.”
Significantly, one person who called upon Newman’s aid was Melissa Villalobos.
In extreme need, fearing for the life of her unborn child and, indeed, for her own life, she cried out for help to then-Blessed John Henry Newman in 2013. His miraculous “reply” opened the way to his canonization.
Along with her husband, David, and their seven children, Melissa was present in Rome to witness the canonization. Speaking to the Register in Rome, Melissa brushed aside the difficulties of traveling with her young family and being the center of media attention, simply saying, “I would gladly do it all for Cardinal Newman.”
K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent.