Fr Robert's reflection on the life of St.John Henry Newman
The Parish of S. Augustine, Bexhill-on-Sea
“One Step Enough For Me”
A Reflection on the Life of John Henry Newman
“Cor ad cor loquitur”
“Heart speaks to heart”
by: The Reverend Robert Coates, SSC.
This paper is not to be read as a theological reflection or potted biographical history of John Henry Newman; rather it has been written in the wake of his canonisation, as an outline of this great man, whose steps through Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church have left a deep imprint on the history of our Churches and nation.
On Sunday 13th October, 2019 in St. Peters Square, His Holiness the Pope canonised John Henry Newman, raising him to the glory of the altars.
This elevation to sainthood for John Henry Newman is very important for members of the Church of England, and in some ways marks a milestone in the relationship between the Church of Rome and the Church of England.
In turning the pages of Church history we can see how the Christian faith has been nourished by the blending of the blood of the martyrs and the ink of the Reformers. Ever since the arrival of Augustine on our shores in AD 597, Christianity in England has been the victim of much internal unrest, resulting in many people trying to unite a
fragmented Church to its original foundations, founded by our Lord, and handed to Peter, a Galilean fisherman, as recorded by the Evangelist St. Matthew 16:18
John Henry Newman was such a reformer, who, through the ink of his pen, enabled reform to flow through the whole land, resulting in the training of clergy, placing the Eucharist within the centre of Sunday worship, and energising them to take the Faith, proclaimed by the Universal Church, to the average person in the cities, towns and villages of England.
Newman was born in London on 21st February 1801, the eldest of six children, into what could be called a well-heeled family. After attending school in Ealing, London, Newman went up to Oxford, to Trinity College, in 1816 as an undergraduate. Newman was a very industrious student, and avid reader who immersed himself in his books and the common life of Oxford. After completing his studies, Newman then extended his bursary to become a Fellow of Oriel College in the city.
Newman’s Church background was formed in the evangelical wing of the Church of England. After feeling a call to the Anglican priesthood, Newman was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England on Trinity Sunday 1824, and priest in 1825. Following a curacy in Oxford at St. Clements, where he entered into the pastoral and teaching life of the church, Newman moved a short distance to become vicar of St. Mary’s, The University Church, on “the High” in Oxford, where he stayed, along with his Fellowship at Oriel until 1843.
As well as the spiritual care of the people of St. Mary’s in Oxford Newman also had responsibility for the nearby parish of Littlemore, on the edge of the city. Newman built a chapel there, dedicated to St. Nicholas. He was a frequent visitor to peoples’ homes, often sharing their meals. He built a school and served there as their vicar until 1843. It was to this small village that he withdrew when deciding his future.
Against the backcloth of Newman’s era, the Church of England was in much need of reform. In many ways the Church of this land had slipped back three hundred years to the state of decline it was in before the Reformation in the 16th century.
In the 19th century the Christian faith, expressed through the Church of England, had been the subject of political abuse, and the altars and pulpits of England had fallen victim of many [not all] clergy who were trying the feather their nests and to seek preferment rather then obeying the battle cry of the Gospel, and caring for those committed to their pastoral care.
It was shortly after his visit to the Mediterranean in 1833 that Newman invited another Anglican priest, and close friend - John Keble [1792-1866] - also a Fellow of Oriel, to preach in St. Mary’s. The date was July 14th. The title of Keble’s address was National Apostasy. It was from the pulpit that John Keble challenged the “stale” Church of the time, reminding those present that the Church of England was in fact the Church in England: it was catholic in nature
and reformed in practice, that Anglican bishops were part of the apostolic chain, from the early apostles to the church of that day.
Keble’s famous battle cry that echoed from the pulpit to the congregation and further afield was “And you presbyter, where do you stand ?” Little did Newman know, that, as John Keble descended the steps of St. Mary’s pulpit on that Sunday evening, Keble’s words would resound and echo throughout England and lead to what may be the
greatest shake-up the Church of England has ever encountered. Here began the Oxford Movement.
“Holy Church as His creation”
In his famous and well sung hymn, “Firmly I believe and truly”,Newman mixes his theology and vision of the Church with his poetic gifts. Newman had a “high“ doctrine of the Church and the Eucharist, and that the Church’s teachings were following the commands of the Lord.
To illustrate and broadcast his vision, Newman published tracts known as” Tracts for the Times”. In these booklets, as well as teaching the faith, Newman defended his theory, called the Via media, that the C of E was a bridge between the two traditions of Catholicism and Protestantism. These tracts were delivered, by horseback, to churches around Oxford for the clergy and faithful to read. Clergy and churches that embraced these tracts became known as Tractarian.
Newman’s vision of the Church of England, as catholic, but not in communion with the Holy See, was a vision that he grafted from his years of study, prayer and reflection. It could be argued that Newman’s reform was, from his part, an intellectual subjective conclusion rather than objective and tangible change. As a result of the Oxford Movement, a new language emerged within the dictionary of the C of E. Terms like “High Church” or Anglo- Catholicism were muttered in the corridors and cloisters of many a cathedral, church and college chapel.
However, it is important to remember that John Henry Newman, along with John Keble and Edward Pusey [1800-1882], the Fathers of the Oxford Movement, saw their vision of the Church of England as being a part of the One Holy Catholic Church as an intellectual understanding. It was not until about thirty years later that many worshipping Anglican communities in England saw a visible change in liturgical practice, that would enhance this catholic understanding, that today we may, tongue-in-cheek, call “smells and bells”. I don’t want to dwell too much upon the ripple effect of the Oxford Movement from 1833; but suffice to say that the Church of England as we know it today, has, in many ways, been changed by the impact of this Spiritual Movement, from the formal training of clergy in
Theological Colleges, the centrality of the Eucharist, re-instatement of the Religious life, to many groups and organisations that have been formed for laypeople, let alone its missionary impact overseas. No Anglo-Catholic priest’s study would be complete without a good peppering of books about the Oxford Movement and especially its
impact within the poorer/ slum areas of the country.
Newman beavered away with the able support of Keble, Pusey and other Anglican clergy in pursuit of a glorious vision for the Church in England. More and more interest was taken up by mainly clergy who were themselves thirsting for a taste of this reform. However, all was not well, and Newman had ruffled the feathers of the establishment by the publication of some of his Tracts, resulting in the Bishop of Oxford silencing him.
It was in 1839 that John Henry Newman began to have serious doubt about his original claims concerning the C of E, and this, mixed with opposition from many quarters, led Newman to begin to tread another spiritual path that would eventually become the road to Rome.
“The Distant Scene”
In 1843 John Henry Newman resigned as vicar of St. Mary’s and his Fellowship at Oriel and moved only a few miles away from the dreaming spires of what was once his home, to Littlemore. It was in this village that Newman formed a small community and withdrew to examine his future. It was after three years of soul searching that Newman decided to leave the Anglican Church and to seek communion with the Holy See. So it was on the 9th October 1845 that Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church, by a priest called Fr. Dominic Barberi. He was confirmed two days later.
For Newman, that “Distant Scene” was now a reality After his reception into the Catholic Church Newman wrote, “It’s like coming into port after a rough sea”. However ,again, all was not well. The Catholic hierarchy in England didn’t know what to do with Newman. He was offered a variety of positions including editing various publications, as well as translating the Bible. Newman found he was given very little support and resources to tackle these projects and this left him frustrated and unhappy.
The path from Oxford did indeed become the road to Rome, and in 1846 John Henry Newman began his studies for the priesthood at the College of Propaganda. Newman felt at home in Rome, and embraced the the culture of the Eternal City, and was eager in his studies. It was on Trinity Sunday 1847 that John Henry Newman, a former Anglican priest, theologian and Oxford Don, along with his lifelong friend Ambrose St. John, were ordained to the Catholic
priesthood, Newman saying his first mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
Newman, along with Ambrose, returned to England in November of 1847, initially to London and then to the Midlands, to Maryvale near Birmingham, to work under Bishop Wiseman, who had befriended Newman years beforehand. However, Wiseman was soon moved to London, and was replaced by another bishop who was not as supportive as Wiseman.
It was to the industrial city of Birmingham, the year was 1849, that Newman then moved, taking with him his desire to begin a community of like- minded men based upon prayer, preaching and the sacraments, following a simple rule of St. Philip Neri. The order was called the Oratorians. It was Newman’s desire to share this community life in England that lead him to look for suitable premises around Birmingham.
Eventually he found a disused brewery and began his mission to convert this building into a suitable place of work and worship. Papal approval was granted on 1 February 1848 by Pope Pius 1X, and so was born the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, and the Order founded in the sixteenth century now had an English home. Such was the popularity of Newman’s endeavour, that there was a need to establish a further Oratory, this time in London. In 1849 another former gin-palace was found and converted, but very quickly more stable buildings were purchased on the site that is now known in England as Brompton Oratory, and was consecrated in 1884.
With two spiritual houses established and both with growing communities, Newman spent the ensuing years making contacts with his former Anglican friends, mainly from Oxford, in an attempt to help them cross the Tiber.
By now Newman was becoming quite well sought- after in some quarters of the Roman Catholic Church. With the experience of establishing Catholic communities behind him, Newman accepted an invitation to open a Catholic University in Dublin. Newman became its founder and Rector. This appointment was far more than a “token gesture” and involved him in the recruitment of staff, the finding of suitable buildings and accommodation, overseeing the finances, and “bringing a little bit of Oxford to this Irish community”.
Newman stayed in Dublin for seven years as Rector of the University crossing the sea backwards and forwards fifty-six times, often finding the crossing too much to stomach. Upon his final return to England, in 1858, Newman had to divide himself between the two communities, London and Birmingham, dealing with the routine needs of the day.
Ever the Oxford Don, Newman established a school that would be built next to the Oratory in Birmingham, and was opened on 2nd May 1859. The role of this school was to act as a feeder for the community. After an initial falling out with the first headmaster, Newman placed his old friend Fr. Ambrose at the helm as Head.
“O Loving Wisdom of Our God”
Fr. John Henry Newman was now approaching sixty. He had achieved so much in his life already as an Oxford Fellow, poet, theologian, Anglican and Roman Catholic priest. He had already left his imprint in the history books of both churches and nation. Like many famous men he began to take stock of his life.
Newman is famous for his writings, poems and hymns, that today form a part of the spirituality of this country. However, it was Newman’s own personal spiritual autobiography that may have catapulted him into the history books of the Churches of England and Rome. Known famously as his “Apologia pro Vita Sua” [Latin: a defence of his own life] and published in 1864, as a defence against much criticism from within the Church, Newman penned his spiritual
journey, mapping out his path from his time in Oxford, and the beginning of the Oxford Movement [1833-1841], to his journey to the Holy See and his reception and ordination to the priesthood. This book became a bestseller, and is still available to this day.
Fr. Newman referred to his departure from Oxford in 1843 as the “Parting of friends”. He had not only left behind him his former Anglican tradition, but also many friends, especially those who were involved in the beginning of the Oxford Movement. So it was with some reserve, on a summer’s day in 1865, that Newman reunited himself with his old friends John Keble and Dr. Pusey. Staying with John Keble, the three men chatted over old times. However, the years may have taken their toll and Newman found Pusey rather condescending, while Keble remained the same as Newman remembered him some twenty years before.
All through Newman’s spiritual life he was dogged with much criticism, that may have been disguised as resentment or even jealousy. He wasn’t liked as an Anglican by many people, and the same was true when he became a Catholic. However, what he did, established in the second chapter of his life as a Catholic, won him many influential followers, one of which was the Duke of Norfolk, who petitioned Pope Leo XIII to raise John Henry Newman to the
status of a Cardinal. This process can take a long while, and initially Newman was slightly reluctant to accept his red biretta. Newman wrote a letter to Rome expressing his surprise at this nomination, but later regretted what he had written on the premise that it was a misunderstanding, and how rude it would be for him to refuse such an honour. So it was on 12th May 1879 that John Henry Newman was made a Cardinal [deacon] of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Do to death as he has died”
Cardinal John Henry Newman returned to England a national hero. He was honoured by the Duke of Norfolk and Trinity College Oxford. He rose to the occasion and coped well with his fame. However, at the age of almost eighty, Newman began to get frailer and frailer. He withdrew to the Oratory at Birmingham, playing as full a part in the community as he could. He now had his own chapel. He said his last Mass on Christmas Day 1889. As holding the chalice was too much for his frail fingers, he continued for many months to go through the Eucharistic actions while Mass was being celebrated for him in his chapel.
In August 1890 Cardinal Newman offered his final duty as “Father” of the community. He received an Oratorian novice into full membership of the Order, personally giving the young man his habit. The Cardinal had a bad cold and was taken to his bed. He had a silk handkerchief round his neck, at his own request. As he was passing slowly from this world, the fathers from the Oratory came to see him and say farewell. Others stayed in his room tidying up the bed.
As Joyce Sugg wrote in her biography of Newman, “Death is a lonely experience, and Newman died without any further speech or recognition of his friends”.
His Eminence John Henry Newman passed into the vision glorious of the evening of 11th August 1890. After his funeral Mass Newman’s body was laid to rest in Rednal Cemetery, West Midlands.
As I write this paper, the Church is on the edge of All Saints’ Day. We can easily fall into the danger of placing these saints on the back of our spiritual burners, even dismissing them as distant, foreign and ancient.
It could be argued that although Newman had his eyes fixed upon heaven, he certainly had feet made of clay. As Eamon Duffy states,” Newman strove all his life after holiness, but he had more than his share of human frailties. He could be tyrannical in friendship, he was thin-skinned and easily offended, slow to forgive, even at times implacable”. It may be that if Newman was judged by the secular standards of today’s world, he could be regarded as a failure and out of kilter with society.
John Henry Newman was a man of the nineteenth century and from our own soil. His legacies from his writings, still form much of our Christian understanding to this day. His journey from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church has been retrodden by many Anglicans since. Newman attempted to find a common base that would support both traditions, blending together the Catholic and the Reformed. His hymns resound from the cathedrals, churches and college chapels of this land and far afield. His writings have inspired many people. And it is to the words that he wrote in 1833, while ill in Italy, that I conclude this paper:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on:
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me”
May St. John Henry Newman pray for us.
Feast Day is 9th October.
Fr. Robert. October 2019.
Hymns by Newman:
Praise to the Holiest in the height.
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom.
Firmly I believe and truly.
Acknowledgement: John Henry Newman [Eamon Duffy];
Snapdragon in the Wall [Joyce Sugg]; The Tablet; Newman’s Apologia;
Fr. Barry Carter, SSC., The New English Hymnal, A P Westbrook, [printers] Bexhill.