Who was Blessed J. H. Cardinal Newman?
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman was the leader of the Oxford movement and a pivotal figure in 19th century England. As the corrosive effects of modernity beset the Church, Newman advocated a faith more firmly rooted in tradition and the sanctification of the soul as the primary purpose of the Christian religion. His commitment to the truth eventually led him to seek communion with Rome at great personal expense. His influence is very much with us today. Pope John Paul II referred to him "an outstanding defender of the rights of conscience" (Splendor of Truth, #34).
Blessed J.H. Newman embodies the best in the Catholic intellectual tradition. He was one of the great thinkers of the 19th century and is widely considered to have been the greatest English speaking Catholic theologian of that century. As a thinker and writer, Newman covered the gambit of intellectual inquiry as a historian, philosopher, theologian, and psychologist. Hew was a man of rare insight and prophetic ability. In 1822 he became a Fellow at Oriel College, and tutor at the University of Oxford. He was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1824 where he helped minister to the souls of his parish and was known for his homiletic skills. In 1828 he was appointed Vicar of Saint Mary's, the University Church in Oxford. In 1833 he and a number of his friends formed the famous "Oxford Movement" dedicated to opposing liberalism in the Church of England. This liberalism had crept into the Church with the view that there is no positive truth in religion, that one creed is as good as another and that all views are to be tolerated since all are matters of opinion.
The Oxford Movement sought to establish a well defined Christian teaching based on dogma and the New Testament teaching that there is one visible Church that channels invisible grace through its sacraments. Newman and others promoted this understanding in the midst of great opposition in the Protestant idea of the "invisible Church of the elect." Eventually Newman's publications and especially Tract 90 caused a great deal of consternation and uproar in the Church of England. Convinced that he was faithful to Christian tradition, in 1843 he resigned his position on matters of conscience and retired to the village of Littlemore just outside of Oxford where he lived a quasi-monastic life of prayer and penance. He had come to this through his ardent love and renowned study of the Fathers of the Church, especially the Arian crisis of the fourth century. He continued his study of the Church Fathers and during this time he wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In 1845 he was received into the Catholic Church by Blessed Dominic Barberi, C.P. and in the following year he was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome, Italy.
While in Rome he found that the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri was very close to his own spiritual ideals and brought the Oratory back to England, to both London and Birmingham. After a number of years he was asked to found a Catholic University in Dublin, Ireland. His success there was short lived and failed due to the lack of support from the hierarchy in Ireland and England. He had aroused suspicion against him for having desired to make the laity a "substantive power" in the Catholic Church. He later remarked, "What I aim at may be real and good, but it may be God's will that it should be done a hundred years later..." This was prophetic, foreshadowing the teaching of the Vatican II decree on the Apostolate of the Laity . In his next work, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, many of the ideas about the role of the laity that were later expressed in the Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, can also be found, especially with regard to the sensus fidelium or sense of the faith that the laity possesses. For this reason he is often referred to as the "father of Vatican II."
In 1879 he was elected to the College of Cardinals and became a figure of national pride in all of England. He died on August 11, 1890 and was mourned by people of many faiths and ranks of society. Pope John Paul II who had great esteem for Newman, wrote of him, "imitate his humility and his obedience to God; pray for wisdom like his, a wisdom that can come from God alone." Today we can learn much from his writings about the duties of conscience as well as the "Second Spring" of renewal in the Church. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have taught that renewal through the teaching of the Church Fathers must be embarked upon because it is from the font of their teaching that the Church ever draws its renewal and is invigorated by the freshness of their insights.
Fr. Ian Ker, leading Newman scholar and biographer explains: “In the 1830s in Oxford, Newman and his fellow Tractarians launched a forerunner of the movement of ‘ressourcement,’ [which arose] in France a hundred years later. It was this return to the scriptural and patristic sources that made possible the theology of Vatican II. Newman most clearly anticipated the Council in his theory of doctrinal development and his personalist understanding of revelation (Dei Verbum), his stress on the role of the laity and more fundamentally his understanding of the Church as communion (Lumen Gentium), his sense of the need for the Church to engage with the modern world and to abandon the siege mentality (Gaudium et Spes), and his cautious support for ecumenism in its early days (Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism).”
In his beatification homily on Sept. 19, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI said, “In Blessed John Henry, that tradition of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord has born rich fruit, as a sign of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit deep within the heart of God’s people, bringing forth abundant gifts of holiness. Cardinal Newman’s motto, cor ad cor loquitur, or ‘Heart speaks unto heart', gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God. He reminds us that faithfulness to prayer gradually transforms us into the divine likeness… The definite service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’. His insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly based and wide-ranging approach to education were not only of profound importance for Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world… And indeed, what better goal could teachers of religion set themselves than Blessed John Henry’s famous appeal for an intelligent, well-instructed laity…”