In October 2008, the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory excavated the grave of their founder. Undisturbed for almost 120 years, all that could be found were fragments of wood and cloth and a brass plate that, translated, read, “The Most Eminent and Most Reverend John Henry Newman Cardinal Deacon of St George in Velabro Died 11 August 1890 RIP”.
Those expecting to gaze on that face so brilliantly caught by Millais were disappointed. There was nothing of the earthly Newman left, but earth. And that was how he had wanted it, having left instructions that his grave be filled with rich mulch to hasten decomposition.
This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Newman’s life was an open book, but a heavy one—every detail of his story, his relationships, feelings and insights were recorded by him. He left thirty-two volumes of letters and his collected works run to thirty-nine volumes. His character is full of paradox. It has been said that here is a man who spent the first half of his life trying to persuade the Church of England to be more like the Church of Rome, and the second half of his life wishing that Roman Catholics were more like Anglicans. But, of course, that is a simplification.
John Henry was the eldest of the six children of John Newman, the banker son of a London grocer of Cambridgeshire stock, and Jemima Fourdrinier, the daughter of a paper maker of French Huguenot descent. A happy childhood came to an end when the bank failed in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. His father was later declared bankrupt and died, a broken man, in 1824. That year, John Henry had been made a deacon and appointed curate to the ageing vicar of St Clement’s, Oxford. In 1828, he succeeded his friend, Edward Hawkins, as vicar of the university church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. His sermons in a low, soft, strangely thrilling voice left the congregation breathless. Matthew Arnold spoke of “words and thoughts which were religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful”. There was nothing dramatic about Newman’s delivery but the effect was mesmeric.
These sermons were as significant as the Tracts that Newman and his fellow Oxonian theologians produced between 1833 and 1841. The central theme was apostolic succession—that the church’s bishops were the true successors to Christ. Newman espoused via media—the middle way between the two churches—with Rome on one side and Protestantism on the other. But by the end of 1839, close and constant study of the early church led him to lose confidence in an Anglican via media. This was reinforced, for him, by the bishops’ condemnation of his Tract 90 (February 1841) in which he suggested that the articles of the Anglican church were “patient of a Catholic interpretation”. The final blow for him was a law confirming an agreement between the Prussian and British governments to establish a bishopric in Jerusalem alternating between an Anglican and a Lutheran or Calvinist. For Newman, it was Catholicism or disbelief.
In February 1843, he preached the last of his Oxford University sermons and retreated to cottages near the church of St Mary’s, Littlemore, two miles from Oxford. There, on September 25, he preached his last sermon as an Anglican, “The Parting of Friends”, taking as his text the same verse of the Psalms which he had taken for the first sermon he ever wrote: “Man goes forth to his work and to his labour until the evening.”
On October 9, 1845, the charismatic, much-admired (and now Blessed) Italian Passionist, Dominic Barberi, a former shepherd, came to Littlemore to hear Newman’s confession and receive him into the Church. Fr Barberi was famed for his conversions, including two youths who had thrown rocks at him as he went to say Mass at Stone in Staffordshire. His reaction was to pick up the rocks, kiss them and put them in his pocket. Newman’s crossing the Tiber was a sensation. Gladstone regarded it as of calamitous importance. The earthly Church Newman found was as human as the one he had left—riven by intrigues and rivalry. Yet he never wavered in his new faith; although in his first audience, genuflecting to kiss the pontifical ring, he stumbled and banged his head on the knee of Pius IX.
Returning from Rome, inspired by the sixteenth-century St Philip Neri (“the third Apostle of Rome”) and his secular order of the Oratorians, he founded the Birmingham Oratory and a year later, one in London, led by the exuberant, emotional, extravagant F.W. Faber. While it was said of Faber that he sought to decant Rome into England, Newman remained self-consciously Anglo-Saxon and so the relationship was a fraught one that tested Newman’s saintliness.
The restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850 produced an outburst of anti-popery. In response, Newman wrote Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, which he regarded as his best book.
For most of the 1850s, reversing the traditional pattern of Irish clerical migration to Britain, he was sent to establish a Louvain-like Catholic university in Dublin, where its faithful had long been starved of tertiary learning. While this foundered, mainly due to the lack of support from his patron and the Irish bishops, it provoked The Idea of a University (1873). In the view of one of his biographers, John Cornwell (Newman’s Unquiet Grave, 2010), this work remains a classic, “a master-class on the ideals of university education across many cultural and political divides” and “one of his most prophetic and enduring legacies into the twenty-first century”.
Newman considered that research was not part of the function of a university and should be left to academies. The university’s function was not to prepare students for the exercise of a profession of any kind, but rather to lay a foundation upon which professional training may build. The purpose of a university, for Newman, was to ensure that those educated there had “a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind”.
In the mid-1860s, weighed down by sniping from Rome, fights with Faber, and brawls with the Irish bishops, he felt like “a grey grasshopper”, but he could still take flight. Responding to an attack from Charles Kingsley that he preferred cunning to truth, he produced the astonishing, autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) with its echoes of Aquinas. It became a best-seller.
His poem of an imaginary journey into the after-life, Dream of Gerontius (1865), later set to music by Elgar, and Grammar of Ascent (1870) confirmed his literary supremacy. His virtuosity and energy were prodigious: polemic, essays, poetry, hymns, tracts, satires, histories, scholarly monographs, discourses, lectures, meditations, novels, sermons, letters (20,000 of them extant and written by quill). James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus described his prose as “cloistral silverveined”.
In 1877, Trinity, Newman’s old college, made him its first honorary fellow and he returned to his beloved Oxford in triumph. And then, in 1879, with a new liberal pope, Leo XIII, came, out of the blue, the offer of a hat, and although he had no see—he wished to stay in Birmingham—and little help from his rival Cardinal Manning, his Eminence was at last, at almost eighty, formally conferred. The Pope recorded the ceremony in which he conferred the red biretta: “The Italian ladies behind me were unanimous: ‘What a beautiful old man! How elegant … Pale, yes, but very handsome.’” His reaction to this signal honour? “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” Echoing Beethoven’s note on his score of his Mass in D and the words of St Francis de Sales, the new Cardinal chose the motto, “Heart speaks to heart”.
His brilliance and breadth of scholarship made him impossible to categorise. He distanced himself from extremes—the liberalism of the laity, the ultramontanism of Manning, the devotionalism of Faber—yet both Left and Right invoke him still and another lobby has sought to claim him. Fuelled by the fact that Newman asked to share the grave of his fellow Oratorian, Ambrose St John (who had died in 1875), it was suggested he was gay. John Cornwell had some fun in tracing Fr St John from the golden Oxonian youth who accompanied Newman on his Road to Rome “to a paunchy old priest in Birmingham, forever puffing on cigars and downing large glasses of brandy and orange as he sat with the great man in his rooms at the Oratory”.
All of his biographers and most commentators have concluded that the question of Newman’s sexuality is anachronistic. According to the Christian moral code, sexual activity, whether solitary, homosexual or heterosexual, is sinful except in marriage. For men, therefore, who had given up matrimony and obliged themselves to celibacy, sexual activity with either male or female is forbidden, and sexual attraction whether to male or female could be nothing but a temptation. Cornwell finds a devoted friendship lasting three decades, with some of the extravagant cadences of Wordsworth and Tennyson, but no evidence that it ever found physical expression, nor indeed, that Newman had any desire for it to do so. It was not a matter of Leviticus 18:22 but rather Samuel 1 18:1. From an early age, he had resolved to make his mind his wife; and it proved to be a remarkable partnership.
From the second half of 1886, the Cardinal’s health began to fail. The description “as delicate as an old lady washed in milk” was never so apt. He celebrated his last Mass on Christmas Day 1889. There was something satisfying about his last days. His final visitor (and the recipient of his last letter) was Grace Langford, his niece, daughter of his late, long-estranged sister, Harriet. Grace had returned briefly to England, having wed and emigrated to Australia. They had not met since 1843 and Uncle John Henry held his hand in hers for the whole visit. A nice antipodean touch.
He died two days later, on August 11, 1890. His funeral procession in Birmingham attracted 15,000 mourners. On his tombstone, he had engraved: “Ex Umbris et Imaginibus in Veritatem” (“From Shadows and Images into the Truth”). His legacy? He had noted, quite honestly, “I have nothing of a saint about me, as everyone knows.” Critics are inclined to dwell on his waspishness, his willingness to nurse grievances, his occasional feline sarcasm. But all this is just to say that he was human. And that must have been how the Church saw him for decades.
Finally, in 1991, he was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II. But to be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, a person should be proved to have exercised, during his life on earth, a level of virtue described as “heroic”. And, to be sure, the church also—still—requires two miracles.
The first case involved Jack Sullivan of Boston who suffered acute post-operative pain following spinal stenosis. He prayed to Newman after watching a television program about the cardinal, and was granted ten months of relief before an operation became necessary. In 2001, following surgery, Sullivan again reported intense pain but a second appeal to Newman worked its magic and Sullivan’s pain suddenly disappeared. Sullivan’s serious illness had stood in the way of his ordination to the diaconate. He was duly ordained. The Church’s Consulta Medica was convinced that this was miraculous and so, in 2010, a long-admiring Benedict XVI recognised Newman as Blessed.
The second miracle required to achieve sainthood involved a pregnant Chicago mother of three in her forties who had suffered miscarriages. She was diagnosed in spring 2013 with a sub-chorionic haematoma, which, if ruptured, could result in a spontaneous miscarriage. Bed rest was prescribed, but was impossible with three children. One morning she began to haemorrhage and felt she was losing her baby. At that moment she called out, “Cardinal Newman, please stop the bleeding!” The bleeding immediately stopped. Her doctor examined her that afternoon—the foetal heart tones were normal and she went home and continued all normal activities for the rest of her pregnancy. She even had two more children.
As the Church says, it does not make saints; it merely recognises them. On October 13 in Rome, Pope Francis recognised this great Victorian as a saint—the first Briton since the seventeenth-century Scottish martyr John Ogilvie in 1976.
From all we know of John Henry Newman, sainthood becomes him.
Mark McGinness, an Australian living in the United Arab Emirates, is a regular contributor. He wrote on the late Des Sturgess QC in the July-August issue