The window in Cardinal Newman’s private oratory at Oriel College, Oxford, upon which are painted the words of his famous text ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. The window in the background is Newman’s own bedroom at the college.

The central window in Cardinal Newman’s private oratory, depicting him in his Anglican robes and beneath, his motto – ‘cor ad cor loquitur’ (heart speaks to heart).

An icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which hangs on the wall of Cardinal Newman’s private oratory in Oriel College, Oxford.

Cardinal Newman in his later years.

The United Kingdom is celebrating the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman, our first new British Saint in some fifty years.

Cardinal Newman was declared ‘Blessed’ by Pope Benedict during his visit to Great Britain in September 2010, and he was canonised by Pope Francis at the Vatican on 13th October 2019.

Constantly in search of Truth, John Henry Newman found himself on a journey which would take him from Anglicanism, to the Church of England, and on to the Catholic Church. It was a difficult journey and one which cost him dearly, losing family and friends along the way; but his integrity drive him forward. He was often ridiculed and contradicted – and on each occasion, he responded always with charity, good humour and wit, often winning round those who spoke out against him.

The times he lived in added to the difficulty – in England at that point, there was a broad mistrust of Catholicism, coupled with the idea that the Catholic Church was idolatrous – and even that the Pope was the anti-Christ. Whilst Newman held these vies himself in the beginning, his journey would reshape his opinions.

Comparisons have been made between Newman and the great Saint Augustine – both living out an arduous journey and both writing of their experiences in the process. Both experienced interior transformation along the way; and both now shine as exemplars for us of the Faith.

When once described by an elderly lady as ‘a Saint’, Newman replied – “I have nothing of the saint about me”. Today, however, the Catholic Church has a different view – he is very much a Saint. 

And this is his story.

John Henry Newman was converted at the age of fifteen, while still at school, his religous views being quite evangelical initially, to the extent that he believed the Pope was the antichrist. Much later, his views had changed substantially, but he thought of his initial conversion as the salvation of his soul. He studied at Trinity College, Oxford, graduating in Classics, before reading for fellowship at Oriel College, considered at the time to be ‘the acknowledged centre of Oxford intellectualism’. He was finally elected to Oriel College in April 1822. On Trinity Sunday, 1825, he was ordained a priest of the Church of England at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. He returned to Oriel College as a tutor the following year, the same year he was made a fellow there. Two years after this, he was appointed Vicar of the Univeristy Church of Saint Mary, a few streets away from Oriel. Also around this time, he began reading the Church Fathers.

Although his religious views were changing fairly dramatically, still he considered the Catholic Church to be ‘degrading and idolatrous’. In 1832, he visited Europe and Rome, and became seriously ill at the end of his travels. Recovering, however, he had the sense that God had work planned for him in England.

The ‘Oxford Movement’ with which Newman is closely associated essentially began with a sermon on ‘national apostasy’ preached by his friend, John Keble, in July 1833. Shortly after this, Newman began to publish articles he called ‘Tracts For The Times’, the intention being to bring about some changes to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England. Also at this point in his life, he delivered a series of talks at St Mary’s Church on the ‘via media’, the ‘middle way’ of Anglicanism, coming between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Within six years, he was having doubts about some of the theological tenets of Anglicanism. He had been reading St Thomas Aquinas and noted later that his words “struck me with a power I had never felt from any words before”; the effect of that power was to shatter his Anglican theology forever, leading him to the conclusion that the Church of England was not apostolic.

By 1842, he had moved to Littlemore, joined by several friends, and there he lived a fairly simple – almost monastic – life. He called the place “the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Littlemore”. The following year, he published – albeit anonymously – a formal retraction of all the negative things he had said or written about the Catholic Church. Two years later, in October 1845, Newman was received into the Catholic Church by a Passionist Priest called Father Dominic Barberi – who has himself now been declared ‘Blessed’.

His move to Catholicism cost him dearly, with the loss or family and friends, and a polarisation of views in his regard. Speaking of Newman at the Vatican in October 2019, Monsignor Roderick Strange noted that “the planting of Christ’s Cross in the heart is sharp and trying; but the stately tree rears itself aloft, and has fair branches and rich fruit”.

Within a few months, he had gone for a while to Oscott Seminary and then on to Rome, where he was ordained a Catholic Priest by Cardinal Fransoni. He was also awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by the Holy Father, Pope Pius IX.

Returning to England, he settled in Edgebaston, an area of Birmingham, where he founded the ‘Birmingham Oratory’, more properly known as the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri. Having experienced something of community life in Rome, he determined that something similar would provide him with a way to live out his vocation, and so he was granted the necessary permission by Pope Pius. This vocation would continue there for the next forty years, in the company of other Priests and lay-brothers who were bound together in community although without taking specific vows, other than the common bond of charity.

In 1851, Newman presented nine ‘lectures on the present position of Catholics in England’, at the Brighton Corn Exchange, speaking there each week. These lectures looked at the current state of antiCatholic ideiology in the country – which was strong as England has had, since the Reformation, a marked anti-Catholic bias which persists to some extent to the present day.

In his later years, Newman accepted the offer of Pope Leo XII to create him a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, although he asked for permission not to be consecrated as Bishop first, and also to be allowed to remain at Birmingham. Giving his permission, Pope Leo elevated Newman to the Cardinalate on 12th May 1879. He was made Cardinal Deacon of the Church of San Giorgio al Velabro.

After this, he returned to England. His health began to fail him and he celebrated his last Mass on Christmas Day of 1889. He died the following year, on 11th August 1890, as a result of pneumonia. The pall covering his coffin had embroidered upon it the motto which is now synonymous with Cardinal Newman – “cor ad cor loquitur” or ‘heart speaks unto heart’. He was buried a week later in the cemetary at Rednall Hill, Birminghim. By his express personal wish, he was buried in the same grave as his long-time friend, Father Ambrose St John.

There his remains lay until the grave was finally opened in October 2008 as part of the process leading to his canonisation. Having obtained the required public permissions, the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory had planned to move any remains from the cemetary to the Oratory, where a marble sarcophagus had been made for this purpose. However the opening of the grave revealed that the body of Cardinal Newman had entirely disintegrated and there were no remains at all, other than a little hair, the original brass plaque from the wooden coffin and some cloth.

An exceptional thinker and theologian, and clearly a man of great personal integrity, Cardinal Newman certainly has something to say to the Church in our own day; a Church where battles rage as fiercely as they did in his own day, albeit then it was between differing branches of Christianity. Commenting on this aspect, His Royal Highness Prince Charles said this – “In the age in which he attains sainthood, his example is needed more than ever – for the manner in which he could advocate without accusation”.

A very timeous message for us all.

Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us.