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A biographical brief on John Henry Newman

Out of the shadows and images and into the truth

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem
Born in London on 21 February 1801 into a committed Anglican family, John Henry Cardinal Newman’s father was a banker and mother a descendent of the noted Huguenots, the French Protestant refugees in England.
One of six children, he became one of the greatest names of the 19th century whose thought and direction were ahead of his time. He was a preacher and a prolific writer of sermons, correspondence and literature, especially known for his books on religion and education.
Given his intensity, character and convictions, during his lifetime Newman was either much loved and admired or equally loathed and persecuted. He did not seem to garner indifference.
Early knowledge of the scriptures impressed high moral standards on the young man so that for a period of time as a 15-year-old, he was tempted to unbelief and self-sufficiency.
He wanted to be virtuous and proper without being religious and devotional. In the summer of 1816, he became ill and came across some theological books through the kindness of a clergyman.
The occasion effected a profound change of thought in him and has since been called his first conversion. He regarded it as one of the most important graces of his life as it led him to such a keen awareness of God’s presence that he came to distrust material phenomena and paid more attention to the invisible world.
Following this conversion, he accepted the doctrine of the revealed religion of Christianity.
He saw the importance of the great dogmas of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the work of redemption of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the souls of the baptised and the Catholic belief in the unending warfare on earth between the powers of good and evil.
He understood that Christian perfection was a not merely an intellectual theory, but would involve daily commitment through practice.
Newman had been known to say that one of his guiding mottoes was holiness rather than peace. As the years progressed, he found that fidelity to this principle caused him much difficulty for often, when he could have chosen the road of compromise and made peace, he chose not to sacrifice his principles, but held onto his ideals until the end.
The second principle which directed his life was development. He saw clearly that growth is the only evidence of life, because all living things grow and develop. When this process stops, life stagnates and dies.
This he applied to great ideas and truths, as although people live them and put them into practice, they remain what they always were.
This principle would ultimately lead him into understanding firstly, the role the Blessed Virgin Mary played in Redemption and subsequently, the Truth of the Roman Catholic Church.
At 16, Newman entered Trinity College, Oxford. There he met and associated with men of learning and soon began to be known and respected for his acumen.
At the age of 21, he was elected Fellow of Oriel College. This was an accolade of distinction and it was then that he decided on a clerical and celibate life. He was ordained priest of the Church of England in 1825.
At 27, he was appointed vicar of St. Mary the Virgin at the University Church of Oxford. For 15 years from the pulpit of that church he commanded respect and admiration. His sermons were not merely well known, but were documented.
Newman had begun a systematic reading of the works of the fathers of the Church. Those doctors of the lived faith of the early centuries of Christianity instilled in him a dissatisfaction with the spiritual state of the Church of England.
On a journey with friends to the Mediterranean, he was struck down with a high fever as he travelled through Sicily. Whilst bedridden, he kept repeating the words that he had not sinned against light. It was then that he composed the beautiful Compline prayer, Lead Kindly Light.
Newman also had a premonition that he would not die. He did recover and returned to England, humbled by his trial and confident that God had work for him to do.
This was the Oxford Movement which he led in collaboration with several friends. It focussed on a return to primitive Christianity that had weakened and which he felt had be to be restored.
After five years of the Movement, the theory about the Anglican Church being a via media (the middle road) between the errors of Protestantism and the corruption of Rome became less marked.
The Fathers of the Church, but especially St. Augustine, continued to inspire him and Newman began to see that the Church of Rome was the legitimate successor of the apostles.
He answered to conscience and resigned from his various offices in the Anglican Church and withdrew to Littlemore, a small settlement in Oxford. During that time of prayer and study, he overcame certain difficulties he had with regard to several doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church.
It was finally the principle of genuine development that Newman elucidated which enabled him to see in the teachings of the Church of Rome the growth of the doctrines taught by the apostles and guarded closely in the first centuries.
Though accidentals differ, the substance of doctrine remained unchanged and in fact, later dogmas authenticated developments of the original revelation.
Newman felt gravely bound to the true Church of Christ. He understood the sacrifice he had to make—the abandonment of people he loved, the disappointment of friends and the rejection of the Church of his birth.
He delivered his last sermon as an Anglican priest, The Parting of Friends, at St. Mary’s in Littlemore, on 25 September 1843. On 9 October 1845, Blessed Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist missionary working in England, received him into the Catholic Church.
He described the experience as coming into port after crossing rough seas. He studied for the Catholic priesthood and on Trinity Sunday, 30 May 1847, he was ordained a Catholic priest in the College of Propaganda Fide in Rome.
Newman looked into establishing an institute of the Oratory of St Philip Neri. At the time of Newman, Birmingham was a growing city with people travelling to the Midlands looking for employment. There were few churches, hence the need was great.
He studied the Oratorian Rule in the St. Philip Neri Novitiate at Santa Croce in Rome and returned to Birmingham in December1847. He founded the first Oratory on 2 February 1848, the eve of the Feast of the Presentation.
There he stayed and worked amongst the poor for two years until he was appointed by Pope Pius IX and the bishops of Ireland to be the first rector of the new Catholic University in Dublin.
He remained there for five years trying amidst the many difficulties of putting into practice his ideas on Catholic education.
Newman’s thinking was ahead of his time. His dark nights turned into years of suspicion as communities and bishops failed to understand him and his orthodoxy was even questioned as suspect and he was brought to Rome for an examination.
In 1864, he was publicly challenged in England to defend his integrity to which he responded by writing the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which won him fame and respect.
Newman continued to write and in 1870, he published A Grammar of Assent, which analyses philosophically how the act of assent to revealed truths can be experienced with certitude in both general and specific terms by those who are either the most learned or by those who are uneducated.
Newman led a quiet life and remained in the Oratorian in Birmingham for the rest of his days. He had, by then, produced a literary output of over 80 volumes and 20,000 letters. He was made the first Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, in December 1877, and in 1879, the newly elected Pope Leo XIII conferred on him the honour of the cardinalate.
God called Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to himself on 11 August 1890. He was buried, in the church grounds outside of the Oratory in Birmingham, next to his life-long friend, Ambrose St. John.
On Newman’s coffin, the following words were inscribed: Cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart). The friends share a common memorial stone: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (from shadows and images into truth).
During the process of sainthood, his grave was opened on 2 October 2008 with the intention that his remains be transferred for veneration inside the church. No bones were found. The coffin had disintegrated.
Although the explanation of damp and type of soil might have led to the condition, a forensic expert, who tested the soil samples, said the total disappearance of the body was unlikely within the timeframe.
John Hunter, from the University of Birmingham, went as far as to say that conditions which could remove bone would also have removed the coffin handles, the only things left.
●  Caroline Hu
• An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Assumption Press 2013;
• An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Doubleday 1992;
• Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Penguin 2004;
• John Henry Newman a biography, Ian Ker, Oxford 2010;
• The Idea of a University, Rinehart 1960; and various sites for verification of dates and facts.