John Henry Newman Lost Family and Friends When He Converted, But Soon He Will Be Canonized a Catholic Saint
John Henry Newman captivated England with his sermons, writings, and holiness for much of the 19th century. The sanctity of the man was witnessed by many in his day, and is now being attested by the universal Church. Pope Francis will canonize Bl. John Henry Newman in October 2019.
John Henry was born in 1801 to a middle-class family. Although he was raised in the Anglican faith, Newman held a skeptic’s view as a teenager. His first conversion to Christianity, as he named it, came in 1816. A year later he started his studies at Oxford University, his first step into an institution that would define much of his life as a Protestant. In 1822, he was elected a Fellow of Oriel College—in short, a blend of a tutor and residential assistant. He was ordained a priest in the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church) in 1825, and ministered in St. Mary the Virgin parish in Oxford for 15 years.
John Henry was one of the principal agents in the Oxford Movement that revitalized the Anglican Church in the 1830s and 1840s. Newman’s exhaustive reading of the Church Fathers forced him to realize the universal and apostolic foundation of Christianity. The Church of England had lost its bearings being part of the governmental establishment, and needed to be directed back to its roots. Those in the Oxford Movement published tracts on matters of faith, doctrine, and theology. The members of the movements then started to be called Tractarians. We can look in hindsight and see this step as John Henry’s first toward full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, but he had zero intention of becoming Catholic for much of his time at Oxford.
It’s strange for a 21st century American reader to conceive of it, but the position of Catholics in England in the 1800s was still unfavorable. From King Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1535 until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, Catholics were banned from holding seats in Parliament. The Relief Act allowed Catholics to have rights in the social sphere again, but it was a far cry from being an edict of toleration—for example, anyone joining the Jesuits immediately incurred a misdemeanor and was to be banished from the United Kingdom for life. The culture remained solidly anti-Catholic. The reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy of bishops in 1850 unleashed a wave of anti-Catholic violence against churches and priests. Incidentally, the newly Catholic John Henry Newman was asked to preach at the very first synod of bishops in 1850.
So how did a staunch Anglican find his way into the Catholic Church? The doctrinal controversies that Newman regularly engaged in as a Tractarian helped him discover the Church Fathers, frequently a source of conversions to Catholicism even in our day. Also, hierarchical challenges and policy changes within the Church of England caused him to despair of its claim to an apostolic foundation. Initially, Newman intended only to give up his clerical duties and any public presence in the Anglican Church. Retiring into a quiet life of obscurity sounded to him like the best way to stay true to his conscience. Yet his work writing An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine forced him to acknowledge that the Catholic Church was indeed the universal and apostolic communion for which he’d been searching for many years. The last shoe to drop for Newman was his yearning to meet a simple, holy priest. Providentially, a Passionist, Fr. Dominic Barberi, came through Newman’s town as a missionary. The evident holiness of Fr. Barberi was the last thing Newman needed. Fr. Barberi received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845.
The Catholic Years
Newman left Oxford in February 1846 and went to Rome in 1847, where he was ordained a Catholic priest. During his time in Rome, John Henry visited the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, whose community life and spirit greatly appealed to Newman. He returned to England in 1848 with the permission of Pope Pius IX to establish an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, which is still in operation today. Together with a fellow convert, John Henry also established an Oratory in London. Aside from his time spent in Dublin from 1854-1858, Newman spent nearly all of the rest of his years in Birmingham.
In 1854, the Catholic bishops of Ireland invited John Henry to establish the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. Newman worked as rector there for four years, and then returned to Birmingham. One of his landmark works, The Idea of a University, was a sort of mission statement for the university. That series of lectures still inspires Catholic educators today.
Perhaps one of the most landmark events in his life was writing his Apologia pro Vita Sua in 1864. More will be said about it below. John Henry was invited to be a peritus, or theological advisor, at the First Vatican Council in 1869-70. He politely declined. Although not entirely thrilled with the timing of the definition of papal infallibility from the council, John Henry nevertheless wrote a defense of it in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. Pope Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal in 1879—news rejoiced by English Protestants as well as Catholics. John Henry died on August 11, 1890.
Newman was beatified on September 19, 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI in Birmingham. After a second miracle was approved, Pope Francis announced on July 1, 2019 that Newman would be canonized on October 13, 2019. His feast day is October 9, the day that Newman was received into the Catholic Church.
What’s What About Him
Why should we pay much attention to a new saint that died over a century ago? Bl. John Henry Newman had many qualities that made him a popular figure then as well as someone to emulate now: as a communicator and evangelizer, how to question the faith, his willingness to fight for the faith, and how to suffer like Christ.
Communicator and Evangelizer
His intellectual gifts are apparent—he had a great mind and writing ability. And, not everyone can translate the works of the early Church Fathers from the original Greek and Latin. That doesn’t make a saint, however, and not all writers can reach others the way that Newman did. One of his biographers pointed out that he was “an extremely sensitive and penetrating observer of the workings of his own mind, and of the arguments of other minds” (Meriol Trevor, Prophets and Guardians pg. 96-97). Sound doctrine was absolutely crucial; knowing how we believe and how truth comes to us are two fundamentally important questions. Newman could talk to people, and not just at them. His preaching at St. Mary’s parish in Oxford and his public lectures drew people from all around the region. He’s a great model of evangelization for us.
How to Question the Faith
Newman can also teach us how to cope with doubts and difficulties in the faith. “I have never been able to see a connexion [sic] between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and on the other hand doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate” (Apologia pg. 214). One of the ways Newman sorted through difficulties without resorting to doubt was to count on the Roman Catholic Church. Does the Church have the authority to teach doctrines? Is it in fact the “oracle of God,” as John Henry called it? If the answer is yes to both of those questions, doubt should fly out the window. There may be difficulties with evidence, explanation, questions, or other hang ups. If we begin at the right spot—relying on authority instead of calling it into question—difficulties can be surmounted.
Willingness to Fight for the Faith
He stepped into the ring to fight for the soul of the Anglican Church, which turned out to be the path that led him to the Catholic Church. The Oxford Movement began in 1833 in response to the downsizing of bishoprics in the Church of Ireland (that is, the Anglican Church in Ireland). For the London government, this was a simple administrative change that saved some money. Newman and his similarly-minded friends saw this as nothing less than a threat to the Church of England’s apostolic foundation. The bishops were the successors of the apostles, serving the Church established by Christ; how could they be treated as a mere governmental agency? The young students and tutors in the Oxford Movement issued tracts aimed at renewing the Church of England. With his combined preaching and writing, John Henry Newman carried a position of great influence in England.
Suffering Like Christ
Newman suffered in silence for nearly twenty years after becoming Catholic. He didn't return the many insults and barbs that came his way. It was only the charge of dishonesty from an anti-Catholic writer that finally spurred Newman to action. He exhausted himself writing a 500-page response over the course of a couple months called the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The response within England was overwhelmingly positive. Protestants marveled that a Catholic could express himself so well; and for the Catholics that received his conversion with hesitation, the Apologia removed any reluctance. It was a turning point in Newman's life, and it benefited the position of Catholics in the country as well.
Newman was willing to risk everything for the truth. The two largest hits he took were issuing his famous Tract 90 in 1841 and converting to Catholicism in 1845. In Tract 90, he listed and recanted everything erroneous he ever said about the Catholic Church. At this point, Newman still intended to stay an Anglican; Tract 90 aimed to assuage the fears of fellow Anglicans who leaned in a Roman Catholic direction. This tract produced the opposite effect: a largely negative reaction, with the requisite accusations of popery. And when Newman finally converted, he literally lost everything. He lost many life-long friendships, his job, his income, and everything he’d worked for at Oxford over the previous 30 years. Becoming a Catholic certainly incurred the wrath of his anti-Catholic countrymen, but he received a lukewarm welcome from Catholics. Some of his theological opinions weren’t popular among some Catholic bishops in England; one even reported him to Rome for heresy.
The loss of his Anglican life also meant the loss of his alma mater, Oxford. In a small line, buried at the end of one of the chapters of the Apologia, Newman almost casually mentioned his absence from Oxford. He left in February 1846, not long after converting to Catholicism, and remarked, “I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway.” John Henry’s own footnote from a later edition mentioned that he returned in 1878 “after an absence of just 32 years” (pg. 213). What a heartbreaking line to read, knowing how much of his life had been invested at Oxford.
Soon-to-be-Saint John Henry Newman’s works are absolutely worth reading for Catholics today. He had immense gifts for theological writing, academic writing, poetry, devotionals, and sermons. His canonization will be a blessing for the nation of England, and for all of us that will benefit from his prayers!