St John Henry Newman

In the December 2019 edition of the Arundel and Brighton News, a very interesting article appeared on page 7. It was a homily preached by Fr Sean Finnegan, Parish Priest of the Sacred Heart Church in Caterham.

This refreshing homily was given at Solemn Vespers in Arundel Cathedral on the day of the Canonisation of Blessed John Henry Newman. It is well worth reading!

St John Henry Newman

HOMILY PREACHED BY FR SEAN FINNEGAN

Somewhat rashly I accepted the Diocese’s request to speak today to you about St John Henry Newman. My reluctance is not least because his personal achievement is so very large, and there is no way that I can attempt a preçis of that for you, but also because he has been adopted as patron saint of so many different causes that I think he would himself have wondered how he might have ended up in the strange contexts that his name has found a home. 

Here in Arundel and Brighton we have only a few connections with the new saint. His    family lived in Brighton for a while; when still an Anglican, and before the railways made journeys much easier, he visited them from Oxford via Horsham; on one such journey his horse was lamed at Mannings Heath and he had to walk the rest of the way to Brighton; these things weren’t unusual back then. He did think Sussex the finest of English counties—I can’t think why, but then I come from Surrey. Probably the closest connection in later years lies in the Adur Valley parish: his sister Jemima was the wife of the Rector at Old Shoreham, and his dear friend Bloxam (who had been his Anglican curate at Littlemore) was the incumbent at Upper Beeding, where the Towers Convent is today, and Newman even visited him there on his way back from Rome, his new Cardinal’s hat stowed, no doubt, in his luggage.

But for our diocese, that is about that. Some of you will be aware that this beautiful cathedral originally was intended to have been an Oratory of St Philip Neri, a house of the religious family that Newman introduced to England, and the evidence is very clear if you look around: until our Diocese of Arundel and Brighton was created in 1965 this was the church of St Philip Neri, and the Duke of Norfolk who built it intended that one day it would be in the charge of Oratorian priests. But it wasn’t Newman and his Birmingham Oratory who were involved in its creation, but the London Oratory, as Fr Wilfrid Faber (a man whose reputation still awaits its just resurrection) was a close friend and spiritual guide of the Norfolks in those days. In fact, though Newman was invited to the opening of this church (it wasn’t actually consecrated till the 1950s), he declined to attend and sent along Fr Ambrose StJohn to represent him.

But there are many other things for which Newman stands, and one of these many causes may have brought you here this evening. Perhaps you are here because this is a historic occasion: after all the first canonisation of a modern-age Englishman, one who is not directly connected with the Reformation; my own grandparents were born in his lifetime. Perhaps you are someone who has become one of the many heirs of Newman’s unquestionable influence on the Church of England, whether you are still an Anglican, or whether you have accompanied him across the Tiber. Perhaps you admire his startling departure from the propositional scholastic theology of his age and his mastery of a new and profound discursive method, creating a new and wonderful  fusion of patristic discourse and Anglican homiletic skill. Others still may be here simply because you are Catholics who wish to honour another Christian raised to our altars. There are those, too, who honour Newman’s unquestionable influence on the nature of a university, asking and answering questions concerning just what tertiary education is all about. There are those who admire Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk, drinking to the Pope, but to conscience first. And there are those very different people who admire his Biglietto speech, in which he rejoiced in the fact that he had rejected and resisted liberalism all his life. Finally, let us not forget that there are even those who admire him as a sort of improbable gay icon, the Newman who directed that he be buried with his dear friend Ambrose StJohn.

But perhaps what strikes us most is the profound change in his life brought about by his conversion to the Catholic Church in 1845. The anniversary of this event is the date chosen to celebrate his feast day, and this has caused not a little disquiet among his Anglican admirers,  perfectly understandably. There were, however, good reasons for it; 11 August, the day of his death is already the feast of St Clare, and August in general is overloaded with feast days. But for us in the Catholic Church it was that decision of his which proved so influential in the sudden growth of the Church in the nineteenth century, what Newman himself was to call the Second Spring, and, as an Ordinariate priest recently wrote on his blog, 9th October is, after all, the  commemoration of the only day when Newman was both an Anglican and a Catholic.

October 9th is not just the feast of St John Henry Newman, but also the feast of another man whom God called from a comfortable home into an unfamiliar world, and whose faith in God’s command and in his promise, in the words of St Paul, justified him. I’m speaking of course of the prophet Abraham. Like the man with whom he shares a feast, Newman was called out from a place that was congenial to him in so many ways towards a future that must have seemed so uncertain. Catholicism in England was not then what it was to become later in Newman’s life; though beginning to grow, we were still a very small and largely despised group, reeling from  centuries of persecution and just about clinging on to life, internally torn between the strongly-Jansenist secular clergy, (of whom Fr Tierney, the chaplain right here at the castle was a prime example) and the priests of the religious orders who adhered to the Roman view. In what is now our diocese there were very few places of Catholic worship, mostly in or around country houses, and even of those there were fewer than there had been a century before, with the loss of Firle and Cowdray.

This was the shadowy English Catholic Church that Newman joined, the promised land to which he journeyed, and it is no wonder that so many thought his choice a strange one.  During his time in the Church of England, Newman had been asking the most important questions about what the Church is in herself. His life was mostly an academic one, but he also had a congregation of interested students who listened with fascination as he connected the Gospel that they heard preached with those who had done so throughout the Church’s history. But he made the connection not just with the great Protestant reformers, but he suggested that if the Church is truly of Christ, then surely one must read and digest all that has been spoken of our Lord from the earliest days. The reformers had believed sincerely that they were returning the Church to its early apostolic form and doctrine: Newman, on actually reading those early sources, demonstrated controversially that the reformers were doing nothing of the kind, but on the contrary were creating something new, which the Fathers of the Church would have found strange. The more he looked, the more he found that he needed to be in communion with the Catholic Church if he was to be true to what he had found.

I suppose that that is the most familiar image we have of Newman; the scholar, that slight figure bent over books, studying and writing. This indeed was his main work during his Anglican period, but like Abraham, following that kindly light led him into new and unfamiliar lands, led to a complete change in his work. Though he began his ministerial life as an academic at Oxford, once he had become a Catholic, he lived it in the most different circumstances you can imagine; while continuing to write, he worked not among dreaming spires, but among the factories and smoke of Birmingham while it was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Though he continued to write books and engage in intellectual disputes, he now also worked as a simple pastor among the poor. There is a story of an old woman who came to talk to him about some trouble she had; it had been raining, and she turned up at the Oratory on the Hagley Road soaking wet. Though he was already a prince of the Church, he sat her down and helped her off with her soaked boots, setting them to dry by the fire, and simply talked to her about what she had come to say. When we read his sermons of this period, we find no longer the carefully crafted academic discourses of earlier years, but simple notes on pastoral topics. He confined his intellectual work to his writings, discourses to his brethren and to public lectures.

Newman is a very complicated character, as are most great people. Many people have wondered at the fact that it has taken so long to actually canonise him. In so many ways he is an obvious candidate for it; his luminous and profound theological and philosophical writings suggest strongly that he should be honoured as a doctor of the Church, even if he were never to have been canonised.

What bothers people is that Newman had personal flaws. He could be waspish and difficult and, in my view, in his dispute with Faber and the London Oratorians he should take the  larger part of the blame. But we need to look deeper. From the past perhaps we have inherited a view that, somehow, saints are people who from childhood were perfect. Butler’s Lives of the Saints records that St Nicholas as an infant would, on a fast day, refuse his mother’s milk. If the plaster statue version of a saint is held up to us an example of what we need to achieve in order to enter heaven, then it is all over with me. This is perhaps a hang-over from the Jansenism that so dominated the Church in former centuries. But when I hear that St Jerome had a bad temper, that St Wilfrid too was touchy and rather given to the splendid side of the Episcopate, that St Thomas Aquinas was over-fond of his dinner, it isn’t that I rejoice in their flaws, but I know that the fact that they had them didn’t disqualify them from becoming saints. It is precisely in doing our best to tackle our flaws that God’s grace works its miracles in us; for as St Paul puts it—when we are weak, then we are strong. Our very faults, when entrusted to the grace and mercy of God,  become the things that God uses to save us.

God and the Church offer us saints precisely to encourage us. Newman was a complex and extraordinary man. A saint who has no flaws at all is of no use or encouragement to me. But somebody who has struggled as I have to do with my selfishness and my habits is somebody that I can genuinely admire, emulate and ask for intercession. His profound theology and philosophy is something that only a few of us will get to grips with, but he would be the first to say that actually this isn’t the important bit.

In this, perhaps, is Newman’s greatness, and is where his sanctity lies. Even in his lifetime he was known to be one of the greats, but still, in his Oratorian community, he was simply ‘The Father’, and to his parishioners, simply their pastor. The purpose of this homily today isn’t    somehow to preçis Newman’s writings for you, nor to enlist his support as many have done for some particular school of thought, but simply to encourage you to see him as a brother Christian who contributed far above the average to Christian Theology but who was more importantly a Christian like you and me who had to work out his salvation in fear and trembling. And succeeded. His writings were so extensive and so meticulously preserved that we have close knowledge of how his mind worked, and even how his soul worked. A saint is someone we are encouraged to study and emulate: with Newman there is no end of material. But also a saint is someone we should ask for intercession. Intercession above all for our young people, as he ministered to the youth of Oxford to bring the truths of the faith home to them; also for our    scholars and intellectuals that they seek God and to discover and preserve the truth of our religion as the Church has handed it down to us; for the poor of our inner cities; for our hierarchy, at whose creation he played no little part; and not least for all of us who struggle to find the truth in our lives.

Finally, in his own words, let us pray; May God support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.