Saint John Newman will affect more than Catholics

I’m normally with those who give a slight shudder at the news of the latest saint and the inevitable miracle he or she had to perform, alive or dead, in order to make the grade. But in John Henry Newman they’ll have a saint worthy of the name. No saint in the sense of a suspiciously vague creation but a big figure who did much to remove the stigma of disloyalty from English Catholics and did what he could to bring England and Ireland closer together. And yes, he “turned,” but managed to keep the respect of Anglicans and allay the suspicion of Rome, which made him a cardinal. Some politician. And as far as I can make out, he’ll be the first English saint since the seventeenth century, though someone may correct me. At any event, Newman’s canonisation is big news indeed. I’m no Newman scholar, but I’ve been inspired by Elgar’s setting of his Dream of Gerontius And “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” is a cracking hymn.

Newman did it all. First in the Church of England, he was at the head of what may turn out to be last ever major Christian revival in England, but could not halt decline, as his contemporary Matthew Arnold memorably described it in his great poem “Dover Beach”.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…”

Newman “turned” in the terrible old Protestant term, and did more than anyone to remove the stigma of disloyalty from English Catholics. Devout, strict, even mystical, he never claimed that the existence of God could be “proved.” In Ireland, he founded what became UCD, rejecting the idea of a Catholic seminary in favour of a modern multidisciplinary university. as a recent tribute makes clear.

Above all, he was perhaps the first English Catholic to set the Church in its actual political and social context – a skill he acquired earlier as a member of the Church of England establishment and through a somewhat strained friendship with the profoundly high Anglican Prime Minister William Gladstone.

#The recent Newman lecture by journalist Paul Vallely charts a course to post- 7/7 that is recognisably Newmanesque.

I can’t discover any English saint since the terrible days of the 17th century. Perhaps someone will find one. But Newman is worthy of the title, a substantial, unsentimental figure. He made important contributions to the religious thought and lay education on both sides of the Irish sea; and to the equal status of English Catholics, under a cloud since the Reformation.

Why else might Newman matter, to many a figure almost as remote as the Celtic saints? Because he leaves a record of the contemplative life, which many can learn from even if few believe.

  • Pete Baker


    “Why else might Newman matter..”

    Well, this might be of interest..

  • McKelvey



    “Why else might Newman matter..”

    Well, this might be of interest..
    Posted by Pete Baker on Jul 19, 2008 @ 10:42 PM

    Thanks for posting a link to one of the more obnoxious threads in Slugger history!

  • Rory

    From the Birmingham Post article this gem:

    “The Commission of Theologians, which will meet in Rome in September, is expected to recommend the Pope to beautify Newman.”

    Which, given that his eminence was never very pretty to begin with, might prove more tricky than simply beatifying him.

  • WerthersDerivative

    Newman did it all. First in the Church of England, he was at the head of what may turn out to be last ever major Christian revival in England

    I wouldn’t bet on it. Secularisation theory is looking shaky right now if you look at the details. Or at least it looks like merely part of a greater story. It is Evangelicalism, and particularly Pentecostalism that is fuelling Christian growth both in the world and in Britain. It may never become mainstream, but I still think that it qualifies as a “revival”. 34% growth in seven years in church attendance in England, and the majority of it is not due to immigration.

    This trend, though relatively dramatic, is not
    absolutely large enough to register with the media and the establishment, but it probably will eventually. They seem to focus on how immigration bolsters Catholicism and Orthodoxy which are nevertheless in overall steep decline. The growth of Pentecostalism seems invisible.

    If Christianity is bacteria and secularisation is antiobiotics then Pentecostalism is looking like it could be MRSA.

  • Brian Crowe

    The timing of the canonisation of John Henry Newman is interesting, even if coincidence – today a leading Anglican bishop (Tom Wright of Durham) described the Anglican Communion as a “slow-moving train wreck”.

    With Anglicanism’s theological wars only set to intensify, it will be interesting to see how many of us Anglicans look to Newman’s example as an alternative to the “train-wreck”.

  • cynic

    Forgive me, but exactly what are Saints for in the Catholic Church these days?

  • Rory

    They are akin those honours given in secular society to worthies who have supported the status quo, most especially if they have have been able to fool the public that there was some altruism involved. Step forward – Sir Elton John; Sir Terry Wogan; Sir Bono (no laughing at the back); and Sir Bob Geldof, the 20th century version of Caligula’s horse.

    What else did you expect – the things of men are run by men. The old gods did things much classier. Think Narcissus and Finn McCool and the Salmon of Knowledge.