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Cardinal Newman: a saint?

Pope Francis has attributed a second miracle to the intercession of Cardinal Henry Newman. This means that he can now, officially, be declared a saint of the Church. Nicholas King, a British Jesuit priest and biblical scholar, who ministered in South Africa for many years and now lives and works in Oxford, delves into Newman’s life in search of what, perhaps, really makes him a saint.

So John Henry Newman, it has recently been announced, is going to be declared a saint. What is it that makes someone a saint?

This particular one is very close to home. I cannot remember a time when I did not admire him. Although in a previous century some of my collateral ancestors were bitterly opposed to him.  They made jokes about him being a “novus homo” (Latin for “New Man”, but also an expression referring to someone who was an upstart in Roman society; something like a “Johnny-Come-Lately”).

But he is everywhere in Oxford; here in the Catholic Chaplaincy there are at least eight portraits of him at different ages. And next door at Campion Hall, the community house and private hall of the Jesuits in Oxford, a benevolent Spy cartoon captures his unmistakable likeness.

In addition the Oxford CathSoc, founded in 1888, while he was still alive, has always been called the “Newman Society”. Not only that, but we live within a stone’s throw of Oriel College, where he was a fellow, and the university church of St Mary the Virgin, of which he was the Vicar.

On Sunday afternoons, the church would be filled to overflowing by those who were captivated by his voice and his intellect. They longed to hear what he had to say about the place of Christianity in the modern world, and about many key theological issues.

None of this, however, makes a person a saint. Though the fact that his memory is still happily alive in these parts, and in many other places in this country and in the world at large, may be an indicator that God was deeply at work in him.

He did, of course, have an unmistakable quality of holiness, even though not all of his contemporaries admired him.

Another important aspect of him is his fine theological mind. The Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, is a great admirer of his theological thinking. Indeed in many respects he was way ahead of his time; and his memory exercised immense influence on the Second Vatican Council.

Like the present Pope, Newman was neither a “traditionalist” nor a “liberal”; rather he should be seen as a “radical conservative”. He had the profound mastery of Scripture and the fathers of the early Church that is necessary for doing serious theology.

Perhaps his greatest contribution was his grasp of the notion of authentic development of Christian doctrine, so that it remains always able to respond to current questions, while keeping continuity with the ancient tradition.

This idea was of immense importance to the fathers of Vatican II, notably in Dei Verbum and the Constitution on Divine Revelation. But it is also there in the Constitution on the Church and in the Declaration on Religious Freedom.  A teaching of the council that was perhaps most especially prominent in Newman’s ministry is the Decree on Ecumenism, given the way he maintained warm relationships with his Anglican friends. These are four key documents of that beacon of a Council.

Having a good theological mind, however, does not make a person a saint. Many saints have been notably poor theologians. And at least some brilliant theological minds have co-existed with quite unsaintly dispositions.  

What more can we say?

He united that penetrating mind with an extraordinary gift for written English, both prose and poetry. He was a wonderful writer of hymns; many people love “Lead Kindly Light” and “Praise to the Holiest”.

Not everyone knows that this last hymn comes from the astonishing dramatic poem called “The Dream of Gerontius”, beautifully set to music by Edward Elgar. You could do worse than read (or listen to) the text, as it follows Gerontius from his death to his judgement by God, and his entry into Purgatory.

But Newman also wrote two novels, still worth reading today, as well as adroitly managing the very different demands of theological essays and sermons. Even that leaves out of account his remarkable gifts as a writer of letters (as you read, you wonder how in a busy life he found time for all this scribbling).

However literary and intellectual gifts do not make a man a saint. So what else is there?

Newman also had a gift for people. He was in effect dismissed as a tutor at Oxford for arguing, forcefully, that a part of his job was to look after the moral welfare and not just the intellectual growth of his undergraduates.

And an interesting detail, not often mentioned in the literature, is the vast number of the poor of Birmingham who lined the streets where his funeral cortege was to pass. They knew how much he had cared for them.

In the life of a saint there are always trials. For Newman they were very much a part of his life as a Catholic. He had the bitter experience of the loss of friends (despite his best efforts) when he entered the Catholic Church in 1845.  

Later on, as a Catholic, he was invited to be responsible for a number of projects: the founding of a Catholic university in Dublin, overseeing a fresh translation of the Bible, and the editorship of a controversial periodical, The Rambler. But he was never given the support and resources to make these projects work.

What else can we say?

He is held in great esteem to this very day. The English have in fact been rather slow to appreciate him. But for a long time, people in other countries have eagerly studied his life and writings. And they have been devoted to him.  

Perhaps the clue lies in his motto, carved in stone in the meeting-room of the chaplaincy where I live and work: Cor ad Cor loquitur: “heart speaks to heart”. There lies the secret of his sanctity.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.