From the Shadows of Schism to the Light of Truth: Blessed John Henry Newman

Studies prove that after Cardinal Newman’s conversion, hundreds of Anglican churchmen converted to Catholicism by his edifying example.

Newsroom (30/12/2021 09:34, Gaudium PressFew men have represented in such an exemplary way the whole historical and religious conjuncture of a nation as John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest who, as an example for many Englishmen who, since the 19th century, abjured Anglicanism and embraced the true Church, became Prince of the Holy Catholic Church

John Henry was born in London in mid-1801 to a wealthy, aristocratic family. Given the young man’s character and qualities, his family preferred that he pursue a career in letters at the famous Oxford University, where he always stood out as the best student.

However, when he was to take the final exams for the university course, he chose the more difficult exams, an option commonly chosen by exceptional students. Contrary to expectations, John did not achieve the required score and failed the final exams. Although he took the exam almost three years before the expected age – which excuses his alleged lack of ability – the failure echoed deeply in Newman’s young soul: “why devote yourself to something merely earthly just to be well regarded?”

At the Heart of Anglicanism

Then there was a strong jolt in Newman’s conscience, something analogous to a conversion, no doubt foreshadowing the one he would experience later: it was the call to something higher than the common life of other men; it was the priesthood – albeit an Anglican one – in which one immolates one’s personal interests for the sake of Christ’s flock. With the supernatural goal in view, Newman was able to brilliantly finish his studies – now at the expected age… – and receive ordination.

Thanks to his great natural qualities, combined with a generous and dedicated spirit, his pastoral work far surpassed that of the old and expert ecclesiastics of England; in fact, Anglicanism had long been experiencing a sharp decline. Not yet knowing the true paths of religion, John Newman saw it as his duty to oppose such a situation. And this was, perhaps even less explicitly, the genesis of the Oxford Movement,[1] which at least kept the Church of England united to its Christian foundations common to Roman Catholicism.

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“Sell your possessions and then follow Me”

But while the English faithful were orbiting around the spiritual figure of Newman, something seemed to distance the now experienced priest from the practices and ideas he had hitherto defended: it was the call of Rome!

He, who up to now had not once denied what God had asked of him in his inner self, seemed opposed and hesitant; he had always learned that Roman Catholicism was a distortion of true religion, an exaggerated application of rules and precepts that robbed man of the freedom taught by Christ.

It was glaring, however, the evident infecundity of the English religion in contrast to the exuberance and fertility of Rome; moreover, a simple analysis of the dissensions between the two religions was enough to deprive him of arguments to support his orthodoxy.

The height of this touch of Grace came one day when he was studying St. Augustine: as he ran his eyes over the saint’s harsh rebukes of the heresies of the time, it struck him how far they – Newman and the English Anglicans – were not so different from the dissenters of the 4th century.

The Divine Light illuminated this point thoroughly, and, as the outcome of a long process of more than 10 years, Newman decided to abjure Anglicanism and to embrace the Roman Catholic Church; he thus truly did what the rich young man of the Gospel was unable to do: he sold his possessions and followed the Lord.

Through great storms, the flight to Truth

At the age of 45 Newman converted to Catholicism. Through Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God,[2] he was able to learn the rudiments of Roman Catholicism. Already in the first interviews with the saintly priest, it was decided that John should enter the Roman seminary.

In fact, Newman had to sit in the seminary stalls alongside 20-year-old novices… but this gave him no worries: his goal was higher. After two years he received his Catholic orders and was able to join the teaching Church of England. This, as well as many other facts in which the humble spirit of Newman emerged, earned Cardinal Wiseman – his superior and one of his greatest opponents – the beautiful testimony: “I assure you that at no time has the Church received a convert who has come to her with greater docility and simplicity of faith.”

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This deep humility of John Newman would be further tested during his arduous life. The state in which the Catholic Church found itself in the British Isles was pitiful: scarcity of priestly vocations, discouragement in the apostolate, lack of religious and intellectual instruction, disunity, etc. To embrace a religion in such a condition was not only heroic but above all a challenge, which Newman took on wholeheartedly.

But slander and betrayal pursued him relentlessly in this endeavor, and John Newman saw all his hopes dashed, often by the hand of his brothers, the Catholics. The English prelates themselves cut him off from numerous initiatives, such as the founding of quality Catholic universities, which he could not achieve at all.

Now, to persevere in such circumstances is nothing but the fruit of great virtue, a constant and daily adaptation and resignation to the Divine will. Benedict XVI, still a Cardinal, very rightly commented: “Newman was throughout his life a person who was converted, who was transformed.”

The purple

Due to the numerous slanders that compromised his image before Catholic public opinion, fabricated by Charles Kingsley, he published in 1864 the Apologia pro Vita Sua, a warm autobiographical testimony about his conversion and performance as a Roman Catholic. However, the recognition of the Church still took some time: in 1879 Pope Leo XIII elevated him to the dignity of Prince of the Church, granting him the cardinalate.

Converted, after a lifetime of perseverance and resignation, the integrity of his image was confirmed. In fact, even Leo XIII claimed that he felt enormously proud to have been able to distinguish a man like Newman.[5] Later, John Paul II pushed forward the cause of his beatification, which was carried out by Benedict XVI on September 19, 2010.

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Time, fortunately, was prodigious enough to attest to the merits of Cardinal Newman’s life before his death. A victim of severe pulmonary congestion, he died on August 11, 1890, at the age of 89. “We have just lost our greatest witness to the faith…” sighed the preacher before the inert body of the celebrated purpure.

In his epitaph, chosen by himself, we read the motto that comprised his double transit: Ex umbris et imaginibus ad veritatem; from the shadows of schism to the light of Catholic truth, from the penumbra of earthly life to the Eternal Truth.[6]

By André Luiz Kleina

References:

NEWMAN, John Henry. Apologia pro Vita Sua. Traducción: Daniel Bueno. Madrid: Buey mudo, 2010.

CARDINAL JOSEPH RATZINGER. Address on the centennial of the death of Cardinal John Henry Newman, April 28, 1990.

BELLENGER, Dominic; FLETCHER, Stella. Princes of the Church: a history of the English Cardinals. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2001.

PENIDO, Teixeira-Leite. Cardinal Newman. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1955.

[1] The Oxford Movement was a major reform in the religious spirituality of Anglicanism, although it did not fully achieve it; it focused on restoring to the English religion its character as an integral part of Christianity, but did not propose a rapprochement with Rome. Newman and other Oxford intellectuals are found to be the proponents of this movement.

[2] Dominic Barberi – in religion, Dominic of the Mother of God – was born in 1792 in Viterbo, Italy; he was a priest of the Passionists and a missionary in England for many years, during which he achieved great and impressive conversions, like that of Newman. He died in 1849. His remains are in Sutton, England.

[3]PENIDO, Teixeira-Leite. Cardinal Newman. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1955, p. 98.

[4] CARDINAL JOSEPH RATZINGER. Speech on the centenary of the death of Cardinal John Henry Newman, April 28, 1990.

[Cf. PENIDO, Teixeira-Leite. Cardinal Newman. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1955, p. 180.

[6] Cf. PENIDO, Teixeira-Leite. Cardinal Newman. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1955, p. 185.

 

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