When I make my annual retreat, I generally warm up by reading one or more lives of the saints. This helps me to leave the busy-ness of the world, enter more deeply into the milieu of God and hear his gentle whispers.
On Aug. 11, at the beginning of a 12-day retreat in a hermitage at the Monastery of Bethlehem in the Catskills, I picked up Father Juan Velez’s superb Passion for Truth: The Life of John Henry Newman. Father Velez, a trained medical doctor I’ve known for 20 years, is also an exceptional writer and Newman scholar who made it easy and thoroughly enjoyable for me to enter into Newman’s interior dynamism and dramas.
When I neared the end of the 588-page work, much more quickly than I anticipated because of Father Velez’s gifts as a biographer, I felt Newman and all of heaven smiling at me. As Father Velez was describing the circumstances of Newman’s death, I had anticipated he would have died Oct. 9, when the Church has celebrated Newman’s feast day since his 2010 beatification. (Oct. 9, I later clarified, is the day in 1845 on which he became a Catholic.) Much to my surprise, I read that Blessed Newman died on the evening of Aug. 11, 1890, almost exactly to the hour 129 years before I was finishing Father Velez’s biography.
The providential occurrence strengthened the deeper bond Father Velez helped me establish with Cardinal Newman as the soon-to-be-saint basically became my retreat master. And it has made Newman’s feast next Wednesday, not to mention his upcoming canonization by Pope Francis, far more personal.
On Oct. 13, Blessed John Henry Newman will become the first Englishman since the 1600s to be canonized. Even though there are four others being raised to the altars with him — religious sisters from India, Brazil and Italy and a Third Order Franciscan from Switzerland — the focus of the Catholic world will be mainly on Newman because of his enormous impact on the Church during his lifetime and since.
There are many, especially in the Catholic intellectual tradition, who have long had a deep devotion to Blessed Newman, who have found his poetry and prose among the most eloquent in the history of the English language, and his spiritual insight and depth the makings of a future doctor of the Church.
But I’ve also found that the former Oxford don is not as well-known to the Catholic masses as he should be.
While saints like Padre Pio, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Teresa of Calcutta have devotees in every culture and class, Blessed John Henry Newman is more like fine classical music, appreciated by those of classical training but generally abstruse and unappealing for those who prefer rock, pop or country.
As a small attempt to remedy that situation, as we prepare for his feast and canonization, I would like to share 10 reasons why I think Newman should be relatable, loved and invoked by all Catholics.
First, he was an extraordinarily courageous man who was willing to suffer for the truth and pay the price for becoming Catholic — something that led to the loss of prestigious positions and the alienation from several friends and family members. Throughout most of his adult life, he needed to persevere through really nasty political battles in academia, in the Anglican and Catholic churches, as well as in British society. When Pope Benedict beatified him in 2010, he called him a “confessor,” basically a bloodless martyr. Blessed Newman helps us not only understand the cost of discipleship but also shows us how to pay it with confidence, despite the obvious human sufferings involved.
Second, he is one of the greatest teachers and defenders of conscience in the history of the Church. In an age in which there are so many violations of conscience in the workplace and by governments, and when so many have been led to believe that this inner organ of sensitivity to God’s voice is nothing more than an echo chamber of imperative feelings, aspirations or opinions, Blessed Newman recalibrates this interior compass.
Third, he had a tremendous capacity for friendship and was a loyal friend to dozens, both men and women. He made time for friends — hosting them, traveling with them, consoling them after the death of loved ones. Before telephones, emails and instant messaging, he was a prodigious and prompt letter writer whose friends treasured his missives. Father Velez thinks that if Cardinal Newman is ever declared a doctor of the Church, it would be fitting for him to receive the title Doctor Amicitiae, “the teacher of friendship.”
Fourth, he is a magnificent teacher who leads students to wisdom. There’s a reason why most Catholic chaplaincies at secular universities are called Newman centers. His Idea of a University mapped out his educational philosophy, which is a helpful corrective to the exaggerated utilitarian or soft and sentimental educational approaches of today. In addition to being a famous tutor at Oxford and founder of the Catholic University of Ireland, he was also teacher of teachers, communicating through his own scholarship both substance and method.
Fifth, he is a profound tutor of prayer. The motto he chose when Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal was cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks to heart,” expressing the intimate dialogue that is meant to happen in prayer. Prayer is not so much the exchange of ideas or words with God, but a loving exchange of persons. Cardinal Newman allows us to enter into his own prayer through the eloquent prayers he has left us.
Sixth, he was a devoted pastor. Both as an Anglican priest and later as a Catholic, he prioritized the sick and poor, solicitously making regular house calls, comforting the bereaved, visiting those in prison. His priestly duties were not a distraction to his academic work, but the heart of his life and chief identification. He was the type of attentive priest every faithful Catholic desires and deserves.
Seventh, he is an ardent promoter of the vocation to holiness of the laity. He challenged the laity of his time, precisely because he knew the gifts God had given to them, to become those who “know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.” He knew that God has created each of us for “some definite service, … some work … which he has not committed to another,” and he wanted to help everyone discern it and do it.
Eighth, he was a superlative preacher who, despite all of his many other duties and brilliance, never shirked the preparation of his sermons and homilies. Because he was on fire with love for Scripture and the faith, he was able to ignite others. He never ducked controversial issues, but he likewise always stressed how the faith was a gift before it was a task. His written sermons continue to inspire and inflame preachers and faithful today.
Ninth, he is a model for ecumenism, insofar as he was a passionate truth seeker who would follow Jesus the Truth wherever he believed the Lord, whom he called his “kindly Light,” was leading. He hoped, through the Oxford Movement he catalyzed, to be able to help bring about Church unity. Ecumenism is far more than a polite dialogue among those of different Christian Churches, or a lowest common denominator approach to harmony as if the disputed truths of faith don’t matter, but is meant to be a response to Jesus’ Holy Thursday prayer for unity and for docility to the Spirit leading us to all the truth.
And Tenth, he has proven an excellent intercessor, especially for Americans. The miracle for his beatification happened to Deacon Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusetts, who was healed of a spinal cord disorder in 2001. The miracle for his canonization happened in Chicago, when Melissa Villalobos, pregnant with her fifth child but with a blood clot in the fetal membrane as well as a hole in the placenta was bleeding profusely and at risk not only of losing her child but of dying. After praying to Blessed Newman, the bleeding immediately stopped, the room filled with the smell of roses, and doctors discovered that the subchorionic hematoma and placental hole had both inexplicably disappeared.
I would urge you to pray through his intercession to God for miracles big or small, especially on Oct. 9 and 13.
The canonization of Blessed John Henry Newman is a celebration that is meant to echo not merely in Rome, or England and Ireland or scholarly circles or the English-speaking Catholic world, but throughout the Church and, hopefully, in every aspect of the Church, because John Henry Newman is one of the most influential Christians of modern times, whose life and writings continue to be a reflection of the kind Light that leads us, as he inscribed on his tombstone, from “shadows and images into the truth.”
Father Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.