All Saints Day worshippers will have an added cause for celebration this year. John Henry Cardinal Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in mid-September in Birmingham, a large English industrial city.
The famous convert from the Church of England to the Church of Rome was born in February 1801 and died in August 1890. Clearly his life spanned the 19th century that witnessed the Anglican Church’s inclination away from a basically Protestant, Bible-centered, low-church ambience toward a more Anglo-Catholic, liturgically oriented, high-church atmosphere.
The Rev. Newman and his several friends from Oxford – Froude, Pusey, Keble – were instrumental in this renewal of the comfortable, established, liberalized English church into which they had been ordained. Newman contributed greatly to this religious revival by his talents both as preacher and as writer. He and some of his friends were known as tractarians because of the numerous tracts or pamphlets which they wrote and circulated recalling the Church of England’s ancient, ecclesiastical Christians roots.
After his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845 at Littlemore, Father Newman spent some time in Rome studying and was ordained there in 1847. He returned and spent much of his Catholic priesthood as an Oratorian father near Oxford. He founded and served briefly as rector of a Catholic university in Dublin and also served at the famous Brompton Oratory in London with Father Faber, another celebrated English convert and prolific hymn writer. Blessed Newman became a great English literary figure writing his autobiography as well as scholarly works on the development of doctrine, the nature of a university, and the meaning of faith. Newman was also a noted poet and hymnist penning the familiar “Praise to the Holiest” and also “Lead Kindly Light” written during a storm on the Mediterranean Sea as well as the more ambitious “Dream of Gerontius” which was put to music by another English convert, Sir Edward Elgar, author of the famous "Pomp and Circumstance.”
Newman was successfully sued in an English court for libel against a renegade Dominican priest. He was fined 100 pounds but his legal fees came to 14,000 pounds! Some have wondered why Newman was never awarded a miter. He was cautious about papal infallibility which might have distanced him from Pius IX. Warmly recommended by highly placed English laymen, Newman was eventually elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII. His remaining years were marked by declining health.
Some have speculated that Cardinal Newman’s personal religious history was a search for religious certitude. The English churchman himself wrote, “From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.” In spite of Cardinal Newman’s association with Anglo-Catholicism which was often marked by dreamy “smells and bells,” his true religious life was a reaction to the tendency toward merely personal opinion that was insinuating itself into Protestantism. Newman wanted a solid doctrinal framework for his spiritual and priestly life which greatly attracted him to Roman Catholicism’s enduring apostolic roots.
The thoughtful Newman observed, “To be deep into history is to cease to be Protestant.” The basic Protestant instinct was (and is) individual Biblical enlightenment. Protestantism held tradition and history as suspect. Tradition was viewed in Protestant circles as encrusting, even hiding, the core message contained in the Bible. Protestants thought that tradition or history had to be eliminated to get to authentic Christianity. Newman disagreed with this attempt to read Scripture apart from tradition. He saw that tradition or history clarified Scripture, explained Scripture, defined Scripture. The deeper the believer penetrates into the fathers of the church, the doctors of the church, the scholastics, the contemplatives, the teaching authority of the church and the daily life of the church the more one begins to appreciate the depth and breadth and height of authentic Christianity. Christianity must be understood as a heritage, a legacy from the apostolic age refined and developed over the centuries. In Newman’s mind, tradition or history or dogma is simply the Gospel message lived effectively and definitively over the years and now received as a guide for each generation. Creedal convictions taken to heart are the best expression of religion.