Cardinal Newman selflessly followed 'the light of truth'
ON A dreich day in October 2008, a posse of priests and gravediggers arrived at a cemetery in Rednell, outside Birmingham, to transfer the bones of Cardinal John Henry Newman, to a new tomb ahead of his expected elevation to the status of a saint. Yet all they could find was a brass name plate and a few bits of rotten wood.
Conscious of the Catholic Church's veneration of relics - the bones of saints sit in satin-lined gilt receptacles - Newman had insisted his grave was filled with compost to hasten decomposition. Now all that is left of the man described as the most electrifying religious thinker in English in 200 years, are his words. And what words, both James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins claimed him to be the finest English prose stylist of the 19th century. Believing in Christianity, he once explained was like falling in love, while his motto as cardinal was: "Heart speaks unto Heart".
On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify Cardinal Newman at a Mass in Birmingham, which is to elevate him one step closer to sainthood. In order to achieve the status of 'Blessed Newman', a miracle has to have taken place, in which an individual prays to Newman to intercede with God on their behalf. In his case, American court official Jack Sullivan prayed to be free from back pain after an operation to correct a herniated spinal column and, in July 2009, the Vatican deemed it a miracle. On Thursday, it was announced that the Vatican was now investigating a second possible miracle in Mexico City.
While Pope John Paul II canonised an army of saints, more than every other pope combined, Benedict XVI subsequently slammed the breaks. But he has long had a deep admiration for Cardinal Newman, which is surprising given Newman's liberal approach and deep belief that when an individual's conscience comes into conflict with papal teaching, the former must triumph. As he wrote on the subject, if asked to give an after dinner toast, he explained: "I shall drink . . . to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards."
An argument could be made that Benedict XVI would like to elevate Newman as an example to Anglicans, for John Henry Newman began his career as a priest in the Church of England and was initially virulently anti-Catholic. During a tour of the Mediterranean in 1832, he visited Rome, which he described as "the most wonderful place on earth", however the Roman Catholic Church, was, in comparison "polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous".
As his biographer Anthony Mockler explained: "Some of his anti-Catholic rants at the time would have done justice to Luther." Yet he was a famous personality in Victorian Britain, as the head of Oxford University Church, St Mary's on the High Street, where he delivered hugely popular sermons. He was also very popular with the students.During this phase of his life he formed the Oxford Movement which was intended to reform the Church of England and make it less concerned with money and liberal ideas. For ten years he wrote long Tracts for the Times and delivered them all over the country. However, after Tract 90 Newman was condemned by the establishment as having gone to far and so he resigned from public life and considered his faith.
As Mockler explained: "Newman became a Catholic in the end because he was intellectually convinced that authority resided with the Roman Catholic Church and only with the Roman Catholic Church. He spent four years meditating on this in the little church that he established in Littlemore."
AT the age of 46, he was ordained a Catholic priest and spent the second half of his life working in industrial Birmingham, as head of a community of Oratorians. It was famously said he "prayed with a pen in his hand" and so he continued to write prolifically. But the Vatican was suspicious of his writings, which were deemed to be too independent, and a monsignor in Rome described him as "the most dangerous man in England".
Newman once complained: "If I put anything in print, Propaganda (the Vatican) answers me at once. How can I fight with a chain on my arm? It is like the Persians driven to fight under the lash."
He would write poetry, fiction, history and hymns, including Lead, Kindly Light, as well as profound works of theology and philosophy. Many believe that his spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, is the finest work since St Augustine's Confessions. He was made a cardinal at the age of 80, and given the red robes which signify a willingness to shed his blood for the Church, by Pope Leo XIII who recognised his value in defending Christianity in a secular age.
In the eyes of Pope Benedict XVI, Newman is an example of a man who stood in opposition to dissent and respected the "truth" to be found in the Catholic Church. As the Pope addressed the bishops on England and Wales in February he said: "It is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate." He explained that "Cardinal Newman realised this . . . and left us an outstanding example of faithfulness to revealed truth by following that 'kindly light' wherever it led him, even at considerable personal cost."
Yet Cardinal Newman was, in many ways, his own man, for although the Catholic Church banned 'particular friendships' between priests, he had no qualms about stating his platonic love for his life-long friend and fellow priest, Ambrose St John, in whose grave he would eventually lie.
A joint memorial stone was erected with the words chosen by Newman: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem - Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth.
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