Celebrating the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman


John Henry Newman
For all the Saints...John Henry Newman.

By Daniel Ang - Coordinator of Parish Services,
Institute For Mission

On 19 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI will preside at the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) in Birmingham, England, during a four-day tour of the United Kingdom.

It will be an event celebrated by many throughout the world who have encountered in Newman a profound spiritual voice, a remarkable theological vision and a pastoral intent that has drawn generations of Christians, Catholic and otherwise, to his life and works.

Much has been written of Newman’s life which saw him progress from a moderate Anglican upbringing, through a phase of unbelief, the fervour of Evangelical conviction, to the High Church tradition of the Oxford Movement, before his entry into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. The Oxford Movement, or ‘Tractarianism’, of which Newman had been an impassioned leader, had sought to emphasise the ‘catholicity’ of the Church of England, that is, its continuity with the faith of the primitive church. Through the writing of treatises or ‘tracts’, Newman, with others, sought to revive the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere of the Church of England amidst what they perceived as a growing liberalism within the Anglican fold.

It was Newman’s close reading of the Church Fathers, St Athanasius in particular, that led to Newman’s disillusionment with the church of his birth and his ultimate conversion to Roman Catholicism. In his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published soon after his reception into the Roman Church, Newman concluded, ‘Did St Athanasius or St Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own.’

Evoking the full demand and promise of the Gospel

Newman was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1847, went on to establish an oratory in Birmingham (an institute of secular priests), author novels and devotional works, as well as classic theses in theology and philosophy, before being elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Newman died in August 1890, at Birmingham, in the company of friends.Newman’s written works cover a multitude of themes. There are reflections on the lay faithful and their role in the transmission of the faith, the development of Christian doctrine and the growth of the Church, the dignity of conscience, and on the university and the need to teach knowledge truly universal in scope, including theology.

Newman’s sermons, both as Anglican pastor and Catholic priest, offer a robust spiritual itinerary that evokes the full demand and promise of the Gospel (‘We live here to struggle and to endure. The time of eternal rest will come hereafter’).

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Christian soul, the power of the Word of God, and the call of all Christians to the heights of holiness (by our seeking and obedience to the truth) are other central themes of Newman’s output which continue to speak with power to our experience of discipleship today.

Call for courageous witness and the proclamation of our faith

Newman’s authority as a classic spiritual voice, and indeed the foundations of his own sanctity, sprang from his intimate embrace of the deepest principles or spirit of the Christian tradition, equalled only by his familiarity with, and concern for, the spiritual welfare of his contemporaries. For instance, Newman knew too well the pain that accompanied the loss of friends (‘one draws the thought of those who remain about one, as in cold weather one buttons up great coats and capes, for protection’), the deceits of the human heart (‘he fancies that obedience to God is not much more difficult than to turn to the right instead of the left’), as well as the freedom and happiness that God alone could bring (‘One alone can be all things to us…One alone can give us tune and harmony; One alone can form and possess us. Are we allowed to put ourselves under His guidance? This surely is the only question’).

As we celebrate the beatification of John Henry Newman, just weeks prior to the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, we are invited into the depths of discipleship and to reflect upon the circumstances of our time which call for courageous witness and the proclamation of our faith.

In their life and works, these saints embodied and expressed a call to holiness in which we, too, share. It is this promise of God’s possibility which Newman calls us to receive in each moment of our days and years, for ‘to obtain the gift of holiness is the work of a life’.

Daniel Ang will be presenting a lecture on John Henry Newman on Wednesday 8 September, as part of the Catholic Diocese of Parramattta Institute For Mission's upcoming 'For all the Saints' lecture series.

Full details of the lecture series can be found at the Institute For Mission's site.

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