On Tuesday the 20th of October, Brian Harold conducted a Spiritual Reading Group via zoom on the life and spirituality of St John Henry Newman. Here is Brian’s paper, interspersed with selected quotes.
Part 1 The biography of St John Henry Newman.
John Henry Newman was born in London in 1801 to a prosperous family and was the eldest of six children. His religious upbringing was as a conventional Bible-based evangelical member of the Church of England.
A brilliant student at school, Newman at 15 experienced what he was to describe as a profound religious conversion.
He said, of the experience, ‘I came to rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.ʼ In other words, were he to doubt everything else, he was convinced of his own existence and of the existence of God. In his long life he was never to deviate from that belief.
So intellectually advanced was he, John Henry was accepted for a place with a scholarship at Trinity College, Oxford, when only 16. Influenced by his lecturers and fellow students, his religious views began to develop away from his early evangelicalism. His close friend and contemporary Hurrell Froude, who could be described as Anglo-Catholic, urged him to read the Early Fathers of the Church - Saints Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and the early Church Councils. This study had a profound effect on Newman’s spiritual progress.
John Keble, a revered figure at Oxford, was concerned to lead the Anglican Church away from what he saw as ‘its evangelical complacency to a greater emphasis on the spirituality, theology, and sacramental life of the early Christian Churchʼ.
In 1822, Newman was made a Fellow of Oriel College, a much-prized appointment.
In 1825, he was ordained priest of the Church of England.
In 1828, he became Vicar of St. Maryʼs Church in Oxford.
His preaching there became legendary. The colleges would empty on Sunday afternoons to crowd into the church to hear sermons which could last up to more than half an hour.
Many years later Matthew Arnold wrote of his memory of those sermons: “The charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St Maryʼs, rising in the pulpit, and then in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music. The sweetness of the voice, low and soft, but also ‘piercingʼ and ‘thrillingʼ.”
In 1832, Newman joined Hurrell Froude and Froudeʼs father an Anglican Archdeacon, on a Mediterranean tour. They visited Malta, Sicily, Naples, and finally Rome. It was his first experience of seeing the Roman Catholic Church in operation, as it were. He wrote home to his mother that this first-hand taste of the ‘Popish Church of the Antichrist’ distressed and puzzled him. He said his imagination and his heart had been touched by what he had seen but his reason had not been affected at all. The Roman Church still upheld a “polytheistic, degrading, idolatrous religion.”
Newman decided to return from Rome to Sicily rather than return to England with the Froudes. While there he came down with a severe dose of typhoid fever. Although not superstitious, he did see it as retribution for what he said was his wilfulness and ingratitude to his friends.
On recovery he felt newly energised. He declared that ‘I have work to do in England. God has a special place for meʼ.
On the voyage home he wrote the poem The Pillar of the Cloud later to became a popular hymn.
“Lead Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on, the night is dark and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on,
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene, - one step enough for me.” (and so on)
Later in the 1860s, he was to write the epic poem The Dream of Gerontius - ‘Firmly I believe and truly, God is three and God is oneʼ - set to music as an oratorio by Edward Elgar in 1900.
Shortly after Newmanʼs return to Oxford, John Keble preached a sermon which criticised the prevailing secularism and the growing indifference to religious faith. It proved to be the springboard for the so-called ‘Oxford Movementʼ, which was in essence a religious revival with holiness of life as paramount.
Two months later Newman published the first three of the Tracts for the Time,s as they came to be known. Over the next eight years the Tractarians, spearheaded by Newman, were to publish 90 of them. In two of them, published in 1838, Newman argued for what he called the Via Media, a proposition whereby the Anglican Church was situated between a truly historical Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers.
The Via Media was free of Roman excesses such as the centralised, overweening authority of the Pope, overdone devotion, even adoration of the Virgin Mary, the cult of the Saints, Transubstantiation, Purgatory, etc. The centuries-old standard objections.
Yet, within only two years, he came to see that this Via Media had never existed in the historical Church. He called it a ‘paper theoryʼ only. By his continued reading of the Early Fathers and St Augustine he was able to say that ‘the theory of the Via Media was absolutely pulverisedʼ.
Newman was becoming increasingly convinced that Rome possessed the fullness of truth, yet was unable to bring his loyalties and emotions into accord with his intellect. In the final Tract 90, he argued that subscription to the 39 Articles of the Church of England was compatible with holding Roman Catholic doctrines like the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or prayer for the dead.
This met with hostile rejection not only from clergy but many in the general population as well. Newman gave up active ministry and retreated to Littlemore, a village near Oxford, part of St Maryʼs parish, where he had restored the church and built a lovely chapel. There, he and a small band of followers, lived a quasi-monastic life of prayer, fasting and reflection.
In October 1845, Newman finally recognised where his logic had long since led him and he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
The next year, 1847, Newman accompanied by his fellow Anglican convert Ambrose St John went to Rome to be trained for the Catholic priesthood. After only eight months he was ordained. Much of the time he and Ambrose skipped lectures, preferring to take in the sights and churches of Rome. After all, there wasnʼt much to teach him that he didnʼt know already.
He decided to join the Oratorians, a society of diocesan priests founded in the 16th century in Rome by St Philip Neri. They live in common, follow a Rule, but do not take vows and are allowed their own money and possessions.
He was asked by the Pope to set up Oratories in London and Birmingham with him as Superior and Rector of both. He chose to live in Birmingham, preferring the quieter city to London where he imagined too many public demands would be made of him.
In 1851, he was invited by the Archbishop of Dublin to found a Catholic university in that city. He was to spend seven years going backwards and forwards between Dublin and Birmingham. It proved a fruitless task, as Newmanʼs ideas of what higher education should aspire to did not match the narrower vision of the Irish bishops. They wanted a kind of Catholic college with no mixing with Protestants.
Back in Birmingham, Newman, encouraged by his bishop, Bernard Ullathorne, bought land in Oxford for a church and a house, there hoping to set up an Oratorian mission. However, this came to nothing also. The English bishops and the Vatican opposed his plans fearing that the environment of Oxford was not suitable for young Catholic men. They might be corrupted.
In 1856, the London Oratory successfully appealed to Rome to have Newman removed as Rector. His theology was not Roman centred enough for them.
In 1859, Newman published an article titled ‘On Consulting the Laity in Matters of Doctrineʼ. It caused an uproar in church circles in England and Rome. In it he argued that apostolic tradition expresses itself in various times through different means - sometimes through the hierarchy, sometimes by theologians, sometimes through the people, sometimes through the liturgy or through customs or movements thrown up by particular historical moments. Consequently, he wrote, the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the tradition of revealed doctrine, and their consensus throughout Christian history is the voice of the infallible church.
Newman wrote: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it”.
His writings were anathema in the Church of Pope Pius the 9th, Pio Nono. Even his own Bishop, Bernard Ullathorne, asked him ‘Who is the Laity?ʼ Newman replied that ‘the Church would look funny without themʼ.
Henry Manning, soon to be the next Archbishop of Westminster, in denying Newmanʼs hopes for an Oxford foundation, declared that it was inadvisable for the laity to be better educated than their priests. Later, Manning forbade Catholics to attend Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Newman continued to be unappreciated and even vilified in Catholic circles. He had lost the friendship of so many of his old Oxford friends and was estranged from his own family. One of his dear sisters never spoke to him again after his conversion. His other sister did not communicate again for nearly 20 years.
He remarked to a friend in 1863: ‘As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, not my life - but as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion. ʼ
This was a low time for him. His writings were being seriously misunderstood. He was under great suspicion at the Vatican and was not supported by many of the English hierarchy.
However, Newmanʼs fortunes were to change for the better. He was accused in a newspaper article by the author and clergyman Charles Kingsley of being indifferent to the truth. He wrote ‘Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergyʼ.
Newman replied with an account of his entire spiritual journey to Catholicism. Published with the Latin title ‘Apologia Pro Vita Suaʼ, it proved an instant success.
Eamon Duffy has written: ‘It proved to be a triumph of self-vindication, one of the most persuasive portrayals of mind and heart in movement in English or in any other languageʼ.
Catholics hailed him as a brilliant apologist who presented their unpopular religion in a new and sympathetic light. And Anglicans remembered that he had transformed the Established Church for the better. Old and dear friends from the Oxford days sought him out again. It was hailed in the secular press as a classic.
In 1868, Newman gave permission for thousands of his Anglican sermons to be gathered together and published. He was happy to write a Preface for the edition. Only slight amendments were made with some deletion of terms as ‘Poperyʼ and ‘Papistryʼ. The sales of these sermons and the earlier Apologia were phenomenal and gave Newman financial security for the rest of his life.
In 1873, his various writings on higher education were gathered into one book and published as ‘The Idea of a Universityʼ which became almost at once a classic and has remained the most widely read of all his works, endlessly reprinted and cited in every discussion of the nature and purpose of higher education.
In 1875, his dear friend Fr Ambrose St John died. His regular companion on visits to Rome and on occasional holiday trips. Ambrose, unlike Newman, was a good linguist and was indispensable when they were away from England. Another Oratorian priest William Neville became his guide and companion for the last 15 years of his life.
In 1877, Newman was delighted to be elected as the First Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. His old undergraduate college. He enjoyed renewing old acquaintances there and also visited Littlemore where he was enthusiastically greeted by many of the older parishioners.
In 1879, the new Pope Leo the 13th removed all doubt that might exist about Newmanʼs orthodoxy by creating him Cardinal. Newman asked not to have to attend Rome for the ceremony, pleading frailty. Henry Manning, made Cardinal in 1875 and Archbishop of Westminster, somehow misinterpreted Newmanʼs request as a refusal, which he passed on to the Vatican. However, Newmanʼs supporting Bishop, Bernard Ullathorne, sorted out the problem and Newman received his red hat to wide acclaim throughout England.
He did visit Rome at a later date and was made most welcome by the Pope. His last decade was passed in relative serenity free of the controversies and restrictions which has marked his earlier life. He died in 1890. Crowds lined the Birmingham streets in homage as the cortège passed. Victorian England had got used to Roman Catholics living in their midst and Newman had played no small part in that acceptance.
In this presentation I have chosen a few crucial quotes that I believe capture some of Newmanʼs seminal ideas. Itʼs just a selection and by no means comprehensive of his writings.
A strong theme that emerges in his extensive body of work is that Newman was an ardent believer in dogma, Christian revealed truth’ he was equally ardently opposed to dogmatism. Dogmatic declarations give rise to the “mischievous fanaticism of those who imagine that they can explain the sublime doctrines and exuberant promises of the Gospel, before they have yet to know themselves and to discern the holiness of God”.
Another theme central to Newmanʼs ideas was the notion of the heart as a way of understanding beliefs. For example, he believed that “the heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”
He wrote: “With our Saviour’s pattern before me, the best
preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to
cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately
When Newman, was made a Cardinal he choose as his motto “ Cor ad cor Loquitor”: Heart speaks to heart.
Newman was much concerned with bringing people to a real assent, where the heart of a human being was open to the mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Newman was a passionate believer in the objectivity of Christian truths and the obligation of the Catholic Church to declare and interpret it.
Newman once observed that there were “Saints who are only made more eloquent, more poetical, more profound, more intellectual, by reason of their being more holy.”
It was one of Newmanʼs deepest held convictions that to cling to the literal letter of the past was to lose its essential spirit, and therefore to betray it.
Other key lines of thought are found in these concluding quotes from Newman’s works:
“In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”.
“Man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. Conscience, as the voice of God, is key; and yet religion without dogma slides inexorably into mere sentiment”.
“It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a God, and has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it. Will not the next century demand Popes who are not Italians?”
“I have no tendency to be a saint. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write tales. We read, we are affected, softened, or roused, and that is all”.
Newman - A Biography’ by Ian Ker
‘Newman and his age’ by Sheridan Gilley
‘John Henry Newman - A Mind Alive’ by Roderick Strange
‘John Henry Newman - of Developing Spirituality’ by Austin Cooper
‘John Henry Newman - A very brief history’ by Eamon Duffy