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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London