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Godzdogz

The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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The Hidden Sanctity of John Henry Newman

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

By Br Bede Mullens, O.P.“The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not... The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretence... with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man.” Br Bede reflects on Newman's more personal side.

I twice started the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and on neither occasion did I finish it. Which is not to say I didn’t read the end; the first chapter and the last I quite enjoyed, but the long slog in between I could never get through. The stumbling-block the first time round was the seemingly interminable record of letters concerning the attempt to appoint an Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. Newman records the matter in such detail, of course, because it was such a crucial turning-point in his own feeling about the true character of Anglicanism; a sympathy for the details of 19th century ecclesiastical politics didn’t come easily to my 18-year-old self. The intellectual ferment of Newman’s adolescence and youth, and the touching scenes of departure from Oxford and Anglicanism, appealed to me rather more.

In a similar vein, several people have said to me, “I don’t like Newman for his books or his public importance – I admire the man and his journey.” All to the good that he wrote about conscience – but what matters more is that he followed his own, at considerable personal expense. Yes, he founded the Oratory in England, a fine fact for the history books – but his warm concern for the poor in Oxford, Littlemore and Birmingham evokes our admiration. He was indeed created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII – but he remained a priest, and it was as a priest that Newman strikes us like a saint.

As it happens, I admire Newman’s prose and, despite my difficulties with the Apologia, I like a lot of his writings. Even so, I think he would be glad to be remembered more for his person than for his scholarship or status. Much of the point of a work like the Grammar of Assent is that belief won’t do for words only – it must be lived in fact and sprung from the heart: that is the difference between a merely notional and a real assent. As for status, Newman once received a rather pompous invitation to preach at a church in Rome to "an audience of Protestants more educated than could ever be the case in England". Newman responded rather pointedly: “Birmingham people have souls; and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work which you cut out for me. And I beg to decline your offer.”

Towards the very end of his life, as he was approaching 90, the Cardinal made a visit to the Birmingham Cadbury’s factory, to intervene on behalf of some Catholic workers who were threatened with the loss of their job if they did not attend an approved Sunday school (the Cadbury’s were Quakers); Newman worked out a compromise which would allow them to attend Mass instead. This quaint story makes the point that Newman never really considered anyone or any human situation beneath him. It demonstrates the same pastoral zeal which made him expend so much time and effort in educating the impoverished children of St Clement’s parish, Oxford, at the same time as he had the University Church to attend to, with its promising undergraduates and learned fellows. In the best sense of the phrase, Newman was ‘no respecter of persons’.

For all the talk of Newman as a candidate for doctor of the Church, or a forerunner of the Second Vatican Council, or a prophetic figure for our times – all of which may well be true – the saint was hidden in the persisting affection for friends and family, the quiet attentiveness to persons, the praying heart that followed after God’s kindly light. It is a characteristically Oratorian aspiration, ‘nesciri amare’, ‘to love to be unknown’. It was this quality in Newman that Pope Francis singled out in his homily for the canonisation, quoting from Newman’s own words: “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not... The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretence... with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man.”


Br Bede Mullens O.P.

Br Bede was born in Enfield and grew up in Essex. He read Literae Humaniores at St Hugh’s College in the University of Oxford. It was in Oxford that he first met the Dominicans, and he joined the Order in 2017 after completing his degree. The writings of Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger greatly influenced his development in the Faith. He retains a wide interest in literature; among religious authors, he particularly admires St Augustine and St John Henry Newman. | bede.mullens@english.op.org


See also our posts about Newman's canonisation and about Bishop Robert Barron's lecture in Oxford on Newman and the New Evangelisation.

Comments

Lennie commented on 30-Oct-2019 10:37 AM
I am not a person of letters, however "St John Henry Newman keeps popping up everywhere I go lately. (strange?)... More than hidden treasure to be found in his writings. The wise sage will seek this wisdom out. Pray for me and my family x Thank you FR. More gifted writings & thoughts from your good self.

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