Cardinal Newman would not have thought himself a saint but, as Mgr Anthony Stark writes, in the first of two articles, the Church may soon decide otherwise.
"HERE ARE we preaching a crucified Christ; . . , a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."
Those words from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians can be taken as expressing the whole life and mission of the Apostle of the Gentiles. They can also be taken as an apt description of the life and mission of a man who centuries later faithfully followed in St Paul's footsteps and whose Cause has just completed its Diocesan Process, 28 years after it was formally opened by the late Archbishop Grimshaw of Birmingham.
The conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus has become one of the classic tales of religion. In that mystical experience, Saul of Tarsus met the crucified and risen Christ whom he was to serve and preach for the remainder of his days.
The conversion of John Henry Newman to Catholicism at Littlemore on October 8, 1845 is seen by many as another classic incident in the tale of religion, perhaps the most noteworthy conversion since St Augustine's, Such a view is understandable but a little wide of the mark.
The encounter with Blessed Dominic Barberi on that wet October evening at Litt!more was not Newman's Road to Damascus, it was his homecoming. For 30 years his life had already been dedicated to Christ crucified whom he had faithfully preached as an Anglican minister for half of them. Indeed, some of the most moving and inspiring sermons ever preached on the Passion and Crucifixion were those of the Vicar of St Mary's Oxford in the late 1830's.
No, it was in the sick bay at Ealing School that John Henry, at the young age of fifteen, encountered Christ Our Lord in a moment of conversion which was to carry him along a personal Way of the Cross until extreme old age.
Cardinal Newman's friends pray and hope that the day is not too far distant when the holiness of his long life will be officially recognised by the Church which will then know that it can turn to him with complete confidence as being a very special friend of Almighty God. That, really, is what canonisation means.
In his lifetime John Henry Newman was thought by many to be a saint. This was a fact expressed by so many newspapers and periodicals in their obituaries. However, a life of such length and an output of writings as vast as Newman's took many years to be brought into perspective. It has only been in these more recent years that his Cause for Beatification has been formally introduced.
A question which I am regularly asked is: When will Cardinal Newman be beatified? To be honest, I cannot say. It is said that all the saints are unique but certainly John Henry's Cause is quite unlike anything the Holy See has previously experienced and, therefore, there are no real precedents.
However, given the requisite miracle, it would not be unreasonable to hope for a happy outcome by 1990 to coincide with the centenary of Newman's death.
Perhaps more pertinent questions would be, "was he a saint?" and, if so, "what kind of saint?"
In the strict canonical sense, we shall only know for sure if and when the format process is happily concluded. But in the more popular sense, there's now a truly international opinion that John Henry Newman is one of the Saints.
To be credited with holiness is, to a sane person at least, a matter of deep embarrassment. St Paul, who called his converts "saints" rather as we call our congregations today "the faithful", was well aware of the sinner in him despite all his strivings for union with God, the essence of sanctity.
Newman had personal experience of this, too. In a much quoted letter, John Henry dismissed any suggestion that he was in any way a saint, remarking: "It is enough for me to black the saints' shoes — if St Philip uses blacking in heaven."
Yet, to quote the distinguished Carmelite Newman scholar, Fr Philip Boyce, "saintliness or holiness was very much part of Newman's life and teaching. As a youth he was captured by the ideal of Christian holiness; as an undergraduate, tutor and preacher he pursued this goal; as a Christian believer he made heroic sacrifices throughout this life to keep faithful to the
demands of his ideal; and — who knows? — the day may come when his own humble judgment on the matter .. may be reversed by the infallible decree of the Church."
It is often said that Newman's contemporaries did not regard him as a saint and that the question of his canonisability only arose in the mid-20th century. This is utter nonsense!
Pusey stated that it was his most earnest prayer that God would make Newman "a great saint". This very term "saint" was used of John Henry during his own lifetime.
Ullathorne, Newman's bishop for almost the whole of his Catholic years, came to know the man as well as any outside the intimate circle at the Oratory. A hard-boiled Yorkshireman not given to sentimentality, Ullathorne wrote in a letter dated the same day as his last visit to the aged cardinal at the Oratory, "I felt annihilated in his presence; there is a Saint in that man!"
Bishops do not usually speak of their brother clerics in such terms. Perhaps even more
remarkable are the following lines from the Times of August 12 1890: "Of one thing we may be sure, that the memory of his pure and noble life, untouched by worldliness . . . will endure and that whether Rome canonises him or not, he will be canonised in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England."
However, simple sanctity was not the most obvious trait that struck Newman's contemporaries. This is natural and to be expected. The Victorians, like ourselves today, had become used to rather "simple" sorts of sanctity, exemplified by St Pius X or the Little Flower, with Pope John, Mother Teresa or Padre Pio as possible future popular saints.
Newman however, represents a more complex, even more heroic type of sanctity seen in some of the older Fathers of the Church, for instance, St Athanasius or St Augustine. The active and intellectual yet pastoral character of Newman's holiness was noticed by the men of his own day.
In the considered judgment of Fr Adrian Boekraad of Mill Hill, one of the greatest of Newman scholars, the addition of Cardinal Newman's name to the role of saints would be "one of the greatest blessings for us men in these modern times. The peculiarity of this type of sanctity is its ordinariness. It shies away from the miraculous, the extravagant, the external manifestations of mystical experience. It performs the task of living a Christian life in the complexity of the modern world well without ostentation."
This ordinariness must not, however, be mistaken for the commonplace or the easy-going. There is undoubtedly the element of the heroic in Newman's faith, containing as it did the fundamental willingness to place himself and his whole Career in the hands of Divine Providence — always seen to be kind and full of love in the darkest hour.
Mgr Stark is vice postulator of the Cause for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. He is also Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom.