John Henry Newman was one of the most formidable and famous English Catholics of the 19th century. Born an Anglican in 1801, he was subsequently ordained a priest in 1825. His intellectual brilliance brought him to the faculty at Oxford University at an early age. There, in what become known as the Oxford movement of the mid-19th century, he began to champion the then-new Anglican theological efforts to reclaim their ancient Catholic elements. Initially, Newman was very critical of the Roman Catholicism of his day, and wrote strong words against the Catholic sentimental piety of the time.
His serious study of the fourth century and all the theological currents of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) convinced Newman that the early Church had accepted new philosophical categories in order to remain faithful to the New Testament. The strong Protestant currents in the Anglican Church after Henry VIII seemed to Newman to have moved his English Church away from its true Catholic roots. After much soul searching and no little anxiety, he finally broke ranks with his close, reforming Anglican friends at Oxford and, on Oct. 9, 1845, was received into the Catholic Church by a Passionist priest now venerated as Blessed Dominic Barberi.
Because of that move, Newman was initially denounced by former Anglican friends as having been secretly Catholic all along, but also viewed with some suspicion by his new Catholic colleagues. He traveled to Rome, met with Pope Pius IX, and was ordained a Catholic priest before returning to Birmingham, England.
There, Newman founded an English religious community of Oratorians (after the earlier example of 16th century St. Philip Neri in Rome) and, as a Catholic, wrote some magnificent treatises on the development of doctrine. Pope Leo XIII named him a cardinal in 1878. With that papal approval, Catholics finally began to trust him as one of “their own.”
As I have explained in past years, a delightfully eccentric aunt who joined the WACs in 1942 (because as she once whispered to me, “it was the only honorable way I could get out of Racine”) was stationed in Paris after the war and fell in love with that city. Eventually, she became an insurance actuarialist and settled in Los Angeles. At her death a quarter of a century ago, she left money to me with the stipulation that I “should travel to places I couldn’t go otherwise.” What a marvelous gift. Thus, each year I have traveled to go on retreat as a pilgrim in jeans and a sweater, at some theologically significant site.
This year, as yet another part of her gift, I chose to make an exotic and genuinely serious spiritual retreat at the tomb of recently beatified John Henry Newman in Birmingham. Much to my surprise, the parish church staffed by Newman’s current colleagues has become a site for the celebration of the pre-conciliar liturgy in the “extraordinary rite” of the pre-Vatican II Church — with Mass facing the sanctuary wall (ad orientem), funerals in black Roman vestments and many things I now only vaguely remember from my childhood. I wondered what Cardinal Newman would have thought about it all.
The title words of this article, proclaimed in their original Latin, namely, Ex umbris et imaginibus ad veritatem, now mark the memorial plaque to Blessed John Cardinal Newman (+1890). They are now inscribed in the courtyard of that parish church of the Immaculate Conception in Birmingham, where the Cardinal lived for the final decades of his pilgrimage.
Although it was initially suggested that I leave when the church was closed each morning and afternoon, the rector made an exception and kindly allowed me to remain in the chapel of Newman’s relics, where I was able to pray throughout the morning and into the afternoon each day. As I read Newman’s Apologia pro Vita sua (written in his later life to defend himself from some rather scurrilous attacks on his integrity), his brilliance came alive, as did his deep sense of faith in a living Church.
Thoughts from his writings were eventually woven into the documents of the Second Vatican Council to the extent that Newman is at times called an “invisible” Father of Vatican II.
In Birmingham, I found myself conscious again and again of how God’s Church certainly includes all the seekers, wherever they may be, and is always and inevitably broader than any of us realize (or perhaps erroneously think it should be).
In the pamphlet rack of the Oratory, I found a small card with the picture of the Cardinal, together with the words of the very prayer which we said at the end of each day many years ago, when I was a young lad in our minor seminary here
“May He support us all the day long, till the shadows 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 last. Amen.” Blessed John Henry Newman’s words remain the perfect prayer for our busy world.