Soon-to-be-Saint John Henry Newman: An honest man’s faith journey

John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais (public domain - CNA)

By Agnieszka Ruck, B.C. Catholic

Canadian Catholic News

[Vancouver – CCN] – Brilliant homilist. Poet. Theologian. Convert. Champion of education. Cardinal John Henry Newman is widely known for many achievements, and he’ll soon be known for one more.

On Oct. 13, 2019 in Rome, Cardinal Newman will be declared a saint.

“Cardinal Newman presents to us an honest man’s journey in faith, a faith that grew and increased, came into a remarkable clarity,” Fr. John Horgan, pastor of St. Pius X Parish, said at a Vancouver event in honour of the future saint Oct. 2.

More than 90 people gathered at the John Paul II Pastoral Centre to hear four experts, including Father Horgan, celebrate Newman’s contributions to the Church.

The future saint’s journey did not start in Catholicism. Born in London in 1801, Newman was first introduced to a version of Calvinism by his mother. At age 15, he experienced a personal conversion and went on to study at Trinity College in Oxford. By 1825, he was ordained an Anglican priest.

Newman preached at St. Mary’s (a university church) and became known for sermons that were earnest, sharp, and full of illustrations. He quickly gained a loyal following.

“Newman’s motto was ‘heart speaks to heart,’” said David Klassen, a philosopher and instructor at St. Mark’s, Corpus Christi, and Catholic Pacific colleges. “He was really and personally present in his way of speaking and writing.”

Newman also emphasized the importance of embracing one’s faith for oneself, said Klassen. “Throughout his life, Newman encouraged a thinking faith, not just a passive acceptance.”

Newman’s continued studies of theology eventually led him to Catholicism. Not without many challenges and ostracism, he became a Catholic in 1845. “Newman always insisted that conversion must come about only when someone felt bound by conscience to take the step,” said Klassen.
Fr. Michael Shier knows something of what it must have been like for Newman to become a Catholic. He is an Anglican-turned-Catholic priest himself.

“It was in 1994 that Pope John Paul II ruled that women cannot be ordained into the priesthood. A year later, the Church of England proceeded to do just that,” Shier said. He and others were deeply distraught over that change in doctrine and a few other shifts in Anglican teaching. They looked to the Catholic Church to take them in.

“Our cries reached the ears of Pope Benedict,” who in 2009 proclaimed that Anglicans wishing to become Catholics could be embraced fully into communion with the Church while keeping some of their liturgical and spiritual traditions.

Pope Benedict allowed for the creation of ordinariates, which function like dioceses, for the former Anglicans. The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter includes all Anglicans-turned-Catholics in North America and was created in 2012 – the same year Shier and a dozen other members of his congregation became Catholics.

Entering the Catholic Church was a powerful experience for Shier. “We can echo Newman’s sentiments of his conversion: ‘it is like coming into port after a rough sea, and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption,’” he quoted.

Anglican ordinariates didn’t exist in Newman’s time, and Shier wonders what would have been different if they had been. “Traditionally a former Anglican would have to leave behind and abandon everything that smelled of Anglicanism,” he said. “Pope Benedict saw things differently. He asked us not to abandon, but to bring back to the Church the treasures of the Church.”

Cardinal Newman plays an important role in Shier’s community; he admitted to using large excerpts of Newman’s vivid sermons in his own preaching.

“His gift to us is seeing the interrelatedness of doctrine and devotion,” Horgan said. For example, Newman’s devotion to Mary, which had roots before his conversion to Catholicism, was based on reason and in love.

“Newman was convinced that belief in Mary was a safeguard for belief in the incarnation itself. Where Mary is not honoured, so is her son ignored and misunderstood,” said Horgan.

“He composed many ardent prayers and poems to the Blessed Mother that are expressions not only of the best of 19th-century English writing, but the tender affection of a son towards his mother.”

Horgan brought relics of Cardinal Newman to the event Oct. 2.

“My hope and prayer is certainly that all of us turn to his example, especially to his words, so that we may find guidance and strength in our own journey,” he said.

Germain McKenzie, a theologian and assistant professor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges, said there exists some speculation Cardinal Newman might not just be named a saint Oct. 13. There is a movement to also have him declared a doctor of the church.

Michael Goco, president of the Newman Association of Vancouver, said Newman is “praised for his humility, unstinting care for souls, and contributions to the intellectual life of the Church.”