Late in the 19th century, Jemima Charlotte Newman brought one of her grandsons to visit her famous brother, Cardinal John Henry Newman. The boy, who had been eagerly anticipating the visit, promptly asked Newman: “Which is greater, a Cardinal or a Saint?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Newman responded: “Cardinals belong to this world, and Saints to heaven.”

Though John Henry Newman emerged to become the leading cleric of his generation and the first public theologian in modern times, this incident reveals the modesty with which he viewed himself. A remarkable man who could claim many titles — pastor, poet, priest, preacher, essayist, author, debater, violinist, scholar, mystic and theologian — Newman retained a deep sense of humility about himself and his contributions.

Born in London in 1801, Newman was the eldest of six children. His parents, John and Jemima, were prosperous enough that they could send him away at the age of seven for an education. With an interest and temperament for spirituality, Newman experienced a conversion in his early teens, becoming an evangelical Christian. However, upon entering Oxford’s Trinity College and delving deeply into his studies, Newman began to re-consider his evangelical experience and became a member of the Church of England (Anglican).

He went on to study theology and, in 1825, was ordained an Anglican priest with clearly liberal, rational ideas and approaches to the faith. Those, however, were again re-considered as he began to delve into the works of early Church Fathers. His admiration for the theological developments of early Christianity grew and would remain foundational for the rest of his life.

In 1828, because of his talents as a both preacher and pastor to intellectuals, Newman was appointed vicar to the university church of St. Mary’s in Oxford. There, his immersion into the history and theology of the early Church became formative.

From 1833 until 1841, Newman wrote several pamphlets which were part of Tracts For The Times published in Oxford. These pamphlets, written by Newman and other Oxford scholars (Pusey, Keble, Marriott, Froude, Wilberforce, Williams, Palmer), became widely read and referred to as the Oxford Movement or the Tractarian Movement. The writers, including Newman, who was most influential, argued that the Church of England needed to recover and reinstate ancient Christian traditions into Anglican life, liturgy and theology. Because Newman’s writings left the impression that he considered the Anglican Church a branch of the Catholic Church, he began to be denounced by many members of the Church of England hierarchy.

In fact, Newman’s Tract 90, published in 1841, interpreted the 39 Articles — a foundational document of the Anglican Church — as compatible with the theology of the early Church Fathers and, by implication, with the theology of the Catholic Church. Many readers interpreted this to mean that Newman was now an emerging Roman Catholic. Consequently, that tract resulted in his censure by the University of Oxford.

Additionally, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford was flooded with requests from people all over England insisting that this undercover Catholic be suspended. The bishop demanded that Newman neither write nor publish any more tracts. The controversy forced Newman to resign his position at St. Mary’s Church and was the beginning of the end of his connection with the Church of England. Newman himself wrote: “From the end of 1841, I was on my death-bed, as regards my membership with the Anglican Church, though at the time I became aware of it only by degrees.”

Without formal responsibilities, Newman moved to the village of Littlemore. There he began living a monastic life that is more common in Catholicism than among Anglicans. His journal entries for this time reveal both his sincerity and austerity in this manner of life:

“I have this Lent abstained from fish, fowl, all meat but bacon at dinner; from butter, vegetables of all sorts, fruit, pastry, sugar, tea, wine and beer and toast. I have never dined out. I have not worn gloves. . . .On Wednesday and Friday I abstained from all food whatever to 6 p.m. when I added a second egg to my usual supper. I sometimes drank a glass of cold water in the morning. . . .” 

His routine revolved around a daily schedule of reading from the Roman Breviary, meditation, fasting and the study of Early Church Fathers. Soon, others joined him creating a small, informal monastic community. One who joined Newman was Ambrose St. John, also an Anglican priest who, like Newman, was also moving toward the Roman Catholic Church. The two would remain lifelong friends.

Newman’s time out of the public eye allowed him to pray and reflect on his relationship with the Anglican Church. Thus, by early 1845, Newman felt led to enter the Roman Catholic Church and was formally received on Oct. 9, 1845. After a brief study period in Rome, Newman was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847. His conversion to Catholicism was a seismic event in British church history. In his book, Eminent Victorians, A. N. Wilson describes the impact:

His conversion changed the religious complexion of England. Neither the Church of England nor the Church of Rome were ever the same again. The Church of England lost thousands of converts to Rome following Newman’s conversion, and that inevitably changed the nature of the Roman Catholic Church [in Britain]. For instead of being a backwater Church, followed by a few heroically stubborn English families and the Irish section of the working class, it now became a Church to which clever middle-class English people felt attracted. 

Newman returned to Birmingham, England, where ecclesiastical authorities had authorized him to establish an oratory, a religious house — not a parish church — set aside for the purposes of prayer, the celebration of Mass, instruction of lay Catholics and attracting converts. This area of Birmingham also had a sizeable population of poor Irish immigrants among whom Newman was pleased to minister.

A few years later, in 1854, Newman was instrumental in helping establish the Catholic University of Ireland. The university would have five faculties or departments: law, letters, medicine, philosophy and theology. Though funding was established and a faculty developed, the government of Ireland refused to recognize it as a university, declaring that it did not offer recognized degrees. Because of that handicap, it was unable to attract sufficient students.

Newman left the institution in 1857. However, his labors there were not in vain. By the early 20th century, the school was transformed into two entities: The National University of Ireland and University College, Dublin. Both were recognized by Ireland’s university system, and students could sit for Royal University degrees and receive recognized degrees.

One area where Newman unexpectedly found himself the source of major controversy among the Catholic hierarchy revolved around his high view of the laity. Newman wrote an essay entitled “On Consulting The Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” In it he argued, “the tradition of the Apostles. . .manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people. . .It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect.”

During the Arian heresy of the fourth century, Newman argued that it was the laity who defended the historic faith more than did their bishops. The laity were crucial to the life and health of the Church, Newman implied. This view brought him a storm of criticism including a letter written by Msgr. George Talbot (a converted Anglican priest, selected by Pope Pius IX as one of his chamberlains) to Henry Manning, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster: “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have not right at all. . . . Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England.” In spite of criticism, Newman’s views — decades after his death — are generally credited as the foundation for Vatican II. In fact, Pope Paul VI referred to Vatican II as “Newman’s Council.”

Humble Awareness of His Gifts

Throughout his long and controversial life, Newman had a profound but humble awareness that he had been graced with gifts and talents which had to be used for the common good, something taught by the apostle Paul:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully (Rom 12:6-8). 

That there was a purpose for his gifts, is made clear in this prayer, entitled “The Mission of My Life,” written by Newman:

God has created me to do Him some definite service.

He has committed some work to me which

He has not committed to another.

I have a mission; I may never know it in this life,

but I shall be told it in the next.

I am a link in a chain,

a bond of connection between persons;

He has not created me for naught.

I shall do good — I shall do His work.

I shall be an angel of peace while not intending it

if I do but keep His commandments.

Therefore, I will trust Him…. 

Newman’s ministry was felt all over England via his writings. He published more than 40 books, six volumes of sermons and wrote 21,000 letters, which Oxford University would later publish in 31 volumes. Because of his intellectual gifts, deep spirituality and the leadership he provided for British Catholics, Pope Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal in 1879.

Though Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and is on the path to sainthood, Newman never saw himself as a saint. In an 1850 letter to Miss G. Munro, for whom Newman was a spiritual director, he wrote: “I have nothing of a Saint about me as everyone knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one. . . . I have no tendency to be a saint — it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales.”

Newman died on Aug. 11, 1890. He chose as his epitaph Ex Umbris et Imaginis in Veritatem — “From Shadows and Images Into The Truth.” A mere three years after his death, a Newman Center was started for Catholic Students at the University of Pennsylvania. Five years later another was started at Oxford University. Today, many universities and colleges worldwide have a Newman Center ministering to Catholic students, revealing the ongoing spiritual power and intellectual influence of John Henry Newman. TP 

Rev. Parachin, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), writes from Tulsa, Okla.