Feast of John Henry Newman (February 21)   11 comments

John Henry Newman--Sir John Everett Millais

Above:  John Henry Newman, by Sir John Everett Millais

Image in the Public Domain




John Henry Newman left The Church of England, his native denomination, in 1845 for Roman Catholicism.  Holy Mother Church, in the person of Pope Benedict XVI, beatified Newman on September 19, 2010.  He will certainly be St. John Henry Newman one day.  That is a technicality, however.  Newman is already on the calendars of saints of The Church of England (on August 11) and The Episcopal Church (on February 21).  I wonder what he would have thought of that.  His feast on the Roman Catholic calendar falls on October 9.

One should celebrate the life of Cardinal Newman without necessarily agreeing with him on any given point of doctrine.  Intellectual concurrence is not a requirement when recognizing a person’s sanctity.  One man who needed to learn that lesson was one of our saint’s younger siblings, Francis William Newman (1805-1897), also an intellectual.  Francis William who became a prominent Unitarian with few kind words for Roman Catholicism, was, according to the article about him in Volume 20 of The Encyclopedia Americana (1962), “versatile,” for he wrote about matters as diverse as religion, theology, history, mathematics, economics, social reform and the necessity of it, health, and northern African languages.  On the other hand, he was, according to that article a “humorless, crotchety man” who wrote a “trenchant” book about his famous brother in 1891.  Contributions Chiefly to the Early History of the Late Cardinal Newman was unkind.  I, as an Episcopalian of the Anglican-Lutheran-Catholic (in that order) school, recognize much in Newman’s theology I affirm while finding much with which to disagree.  The disagreement is within the spiritual family, so to speak.  C’est la vie.

The Newman family was of the moderate school of Anglicanism.  The father, John Newman, was a banker in London.  The mother was Jemima Fourdrinier, a descendant of Huguenots.  John Henry Newman, the eldest of six children, encountered Calvinism while attending the Ealing School.  There, in August 1816, at the age of fifteen years, our saint had a conversion experience under Calvinist influence.  Newman matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, in December 1816.  Calvinism faded from his theology as time passed.  In 1821 Newman abandoned Plan A–the pursuit of a career in law.  From 1822 to 1843 he was a fellow of Oriel College.  In 1824 our saint joined the ranks of Anglican deacons.  From 1824 to 1826 he was the Curate at St. Clement’s Church, Oxford.  In 1825, the same year he became a priest, Newman began to serve as Vice Principal of St. Alban Hall.  Excessive work and study caused a severe illness in 1826 and 1827.  In 1827 and 1828 Newman served as the public examiner in classics.  Then, from 1828 to 1843 he was the Vicar of the college church, St. Mary’s, Oxford.  He also helped Richard Whately write Elements of Logic (1845).

Newman was a Tractarian, one of those who wrote tracts supporting the Oxford Movement, the Roman Catholic revival in The Church of England an in Anglicanism in general.  He was, in fact, one of the original Tractarians.  Many of the Tractarians remained within Anglicanism, which they transformed.  Our saint, however, moved toward Roman Catholicism.  On September 18, 1843, Newman resigned as Vicar of St. Mary’s.  During the next two years he wrote An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845).  On October 9, 1845, Newman joined the Roman Catholic Church.  He studied in Rome in 1846 and 1847.  On March 30, 1847, he became a Roman Catholic priest.

Newman spent most of the rest of his life at Birmingham, England.  There he founded the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and the boys’ school attached to it.  For a while our saint suffered from vicious rumors and even a libel lawsuit.  In 1864, in response to the Reverend Charles Kingsley’s attack on his credibility, Newman composed Apologia pro Vita Sua, an account of why he converted to Roman Catholicism.  That volume marked a turning point in our saint’s reputation; afterward he enjoyed more respect.  Newman was a skilled orator, great intellectual, and capable writer.  He was, like his brother, versatile.  Our saint wrote influential volumes of poetry, prayer, history, prayers, fiction, philosophy, and educational theory.  In 1877 he became an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

Newman considered the timing of the declaration of the doctrine of Papal infallibility (in 1870, in the context of the loss of the Papal States and the unification of Italy) inopportune.  He recognized what the article about him in Volume 16 of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1955) called “acknowledged historical difficulties” and feared that the newly proclaimed doctrine might interfere with many conversions to Roman Catholicism.  Nevertheless, he affirmed the doctrine itself.  Despite Newman’s difficulties with the Church hierarchy, frequently in context to his position on Papal infallibility and issues related to its timing, Pope Leo XIII created our saint a cardinal in 1879.

Throughout his life, regardless of his theology at any given moment, Newman stood for the primacy of the spiritual in life.  He was correct on that point.  Our saint died at Birmingham on August 11, 1890.







God of all wisdom, we thank you for John Henry Newman,

whose eloquence bore witness that your Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,

and who made his own life a pilgrimage towards your truth.

Grant that, inspired by his words and example,

we may ever follow your kindly light till we rest in your bosom,

with your dear Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit,

whose heart speaks to heart eternally;

for you live and reign, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Song of Solomon 3:1-4

Psalm 48

1 John 4:13-21

John 8:12-19

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 235


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