Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Cardinal John Henry Newman, doubtless the most influential Churchman of the 19th-century English-speaking world, is in the news, owing to reports of his "apparently imminent beatification" (as the London Tablet quaintly described it; see the 17 Jan. issue).
Rarely, if ever, does a nation, or for that matter, does a century of time, produce so brilliant and faith-filled a Church leader. Newman is like an early Church Father redux.
Born and raised within the Anglican tradition, Newman became an Anglican priest whose association with Oxford University as a scholar, preacher, writer and pastor quickly ensured him a place as one of the most respected and admired English clerics ever. A collection of his books, writings and sermons constitutes a library in itself, as well as a substantial theological thesaurus. In addition, he became the prime mover and the inspiration for the famed Oxford Movement, a scholarly, spiritual pilgrimage, which eventually led, in 1845, to his embracing Roman Catholicism.
One of the great scenes of all history, I often think, is that of Newmans agonizing, from the deck of a becalmed ship bound for England from Sicily, over the options which then lay before him. The year was 1833, and he knew that his life must somehow change; how, he knew not. The ships delay gave English-speaking Christians the enduring hymn, The Pillar of the Cloud, which begins: "Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,/ Lead Thou me on!"
This prayer (which I say every day) was a prelude to one of the most memorable sermons ever preached, Newmans farewell homily at Oxford, a veritable masterpiece entitled, "The Parting of Friends." The sermon was reported by the London Times, which noted that as Newman made his final exit down the main aisle of the historic Chapel at Littlemore, not a dry eye appeared in the congregation.
By January of 1845, Dr. Newman was writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Sometime before he completed this celebrated manuscript, he had made up his mind to be received into the Roman Catholic Church.
In Rome, at St. John Lateran, on 30 May, 1847, John Henry Newman was ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church, as he carefully argued in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which had continuously, from the very beginning, remained essentially the One, Catholic, Apostolic Church founded by the Lord Jesus upon Peter and the Apostles. Interestingly, the priest whom Newman chose to guide and receive him in the Church of Rome was an Italian missionary, the first Passionist stationed in England, and one who has already been beatified: Blessed Dominic Barberi. Newman assessed Father Dominic as a friend as well as a holy priest. Father Dominic, arriving at Oxford at Newmans request, recalled: "The door opened what a spectacle it was for me to see at my feet John Henry Newman begging me to hear his confession and admit him into the Catholic Church!"
The news electrified England and the Continent. Oxford Don Brian Martin wrote in his biography, John Henry Newman (1982): "[Prime Minister] Gladstones worst fears were realized. The newspapers proclaimed the establishments fury "
As a Catholic priest, Newman founded an Oratory in the tradition of St. Philip Neri. He had also hoped to establish a great Catholic University in Dublin, one that would restore Irish academic excellence before the world. Serious problems undermined the Dublin project.
Newman continued to write books and essays, to preach and to function as a leading Churchman. To this period belong monumental literary contributions, such as his The Idea of a University (1853), the Apologia pro vita sua (1864), and A Grammar of Assent (1870). (Earlier, Newman had produced some novels and poetry.) While writing the Apologia he composed one of our languages most profound poems on death, The Dream of Gerontius, which was put to music by Sir Edward Elgar. Newmans writings (especially his incomparable prose), his preaching, sacramental ministry and pastoral outreach, all eventually led to his being singled out by Pope Leo XIII as a Cardinal, an honor which he received with his usual humility. (To those who would cite his priestly holiness, he once said, "It is enough for me to black the Saints shoes.")
One final note. Even Newmans acceptance speech of the Papal nomination for the College of Cardinals known as his Biglietto Speech is an English literary classic.
When I offered my farewell Mass as Pastor of St. Catherine Church in Broad Brook some years ago, the parish gave me a framed precious letter, signed by Cardinal Newman. And the schola sang as a postlude, "Lead, kindly Light." The framed letter hangs above my desk at my residence.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor ofThe Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.