Cardinal John Henry Newman may soon exchange the title "Venerable" for "Blessed" if the Vatican recognizes either of two apparently inexplicable healings as miraculous.

In October 2005, Father Paul Chavasse of the Birmingham Oratory in England and postulator of the Newman cause, announced, "At last we have a miracle cure." The first purported miracle attributed to the intercession of Cardinal Newman is the sudden recovery of a Massachusetts man from a spinal-cord disorder.

The second healing under investigation is the recovery of a New Hampshire resident who suffered a severe head injury in a fall. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has to rule on the evidence of these two cases, but Catholics who have been praying for the canonization of Newman are hopeful.

Bumpy road to faith

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was one of the great minds of the 19th century, a brilliant writer, an inspired preacher, a man who after his own conversion displayed a rare gift for drawing countless other souls to the Catholic faith. At the heart of his conversion was the realization, based on in-depth reading of the ancient Fathers of the Church, that the Catholic Church is the Church that has preserved and taught the Christian faith as Christ gave it to his apostles. Or as Newman put it, in the Catholic Church he found "the one true Fold of the Redeemer."

Newman's parents were nominally Anglicans. They went to church on Sunday, but there was no religious fervor in the family. He was still a boy when his grandmother and an aunt introduced him to the Bible; soon he was enchanted by the stories, the miracles, the poetry and the wisdom of Sacred Scripture. That was the beginning of his often-bumpy road into the Church.

The boy entranced by Bible stories became a haughty teenager convinced that all humankind was depraved and that the pope was the Antichrist. By the time he finished his studies at Oxford University, however, Newman had moderated his views and decided to enter the Anglican ministry. In 1824, he was ordained.

His bishop assigned him to a church in Oxford, which delighted Newman. He loved the atmosphere of the university town, the access to the excellent libraries and the opportunity to stay in close touch with friends from his school days who were teaching at various Oxford colleges.

Anglican troubles

Newman's 20 years as a clergyman at Oxford coincided with a crisis in the Anglican Church. As the national church of England, it had been closely tied to the English government from the day in 1534 when Henry VIII broke with Rome.

Now Newman and his friends noticed that government meddling in church affairs was on the rise. Two examples that especially upset dedicated Anglicans were Parliament's decision to abolish half of the Anglican dioceses in Ireland and the passage of new law that permitted non-Anglicans and even non-believers to interfere in the life, work and organization of the Anglican Church. In addition, there was a growing sense in English society that when it came to religious doctrine, there was no absolute truth -- one man's opinion was as good as another's.

Newman and a number of his friends at Oxford opposed these ideas, first in sermons and public lectures and then in a series of booklets or pamphlets that came to be called "Tracts for the Times." The tracts ranged in length between eight and 10 pages.

In each one, Newman and his friends looked back to the writings of the early Church to prove that the doctrine, liturgy and organization of the Anglican Church had roots that reached back to the age of the apostles. Typically, Anglicans had always traced their origins back to the Reformation era of the 16th century.

The idea that the origins of Anglicanism could be found in the first century caused a sensation in Oxford and then throughout the country. Newman and his friends became known collectively as "the Oxford Movement," or "the Tractarians." The point of all this reading of ancient sources and publishing of little tracts was to make the case that the Anglican Church was sacred and not something Parliament could play with.

Stopped in his 'tracts'

Newman thought by all this publishing activity he was defending Anglicanism. In fact, little by little, he was reading and writing his way out of Anglicanism and into the Catholic Church. Once he recognized that he was drifting in the direction of "popery," as he called it, he made desperate efforts to stop. He tried to argue that the Anglican Church, like the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, could trace its origins back to the apostles, but his arguments weren't very persuasive -- Henry VIII's rejection of the pope and wholesale destruction of Catholic religious life and practice in England were insurmountable stumbling blocks. Even more desperate was Newman's assertion that the 39 Articles, the basic outline of the faith of the Anglican Church, were perfectly compatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Even Newman's supporters saw this claim as nonsense: The 39 Articles recognize only two sacraments, deny the spiritual authority of the pope and reject transubstantiation, the doctrine of purgatory, the invocation of the saints and the veneration of sacred images and relics.

It took another three years before Newman was ready, intellectually and emotionally, to convert. The moment came on Oct. 9, 1845, when he was received formally into the Catholic Church by Blessed Dominic Barberi, an Italian priest who had come to England to establish the country's first community of Passionists. Four months later, Newman set out for Rome, where he was ordained into the Catholic priesthood and joined the Oratorians.

When he returned home to England, Newman established the country's first community of Oratorians in Birmingham. A few years later he founded a second Oratorian congregation in London, and he longed to establish one in his beloved Oxford, too, but the project was delayed. The Oxford Oratory was did not open until 1993, more than a century after Newman's death.

University man at heart

Although Oratorians are expected to do parish work, Newman was never much of a parish priest. He was not at ease with the poorly educated Irish immigrants who poured into Birmingham to work in the city's factories and mills. In the confessional he tended to speak like a university lecturer, so that many of his penitents went away confused rather than consoled.

At heart, he was a university man, and he would always be more comfortable among professors, students and books. Then, in 1854, what looked like rescue arrived. The bishops of Ireland invited Newman to serve as rector of a new Catholic university in Dublin. The invitation was the result of nine public lectures he delivered two years earlier in Dublin on what a university should be; now he had an opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

It proved to be an uphill struggle. At its opening in November 1854, the university's first students (there were 17 of them) could choose among classes in literature, philosophy, theology, law and medicine. Whether the 17 should have bothered to register at all was thrown into question when the Irish government, which was hostile to the idea of a Catholic university, announced that it had not licensed the school and would not recognize any degrees awarded by it. Funding became a problem after about half of Ireland's bishops reneged on their promise to send financial support. Furthermore, Newman discovered to his dismay that he had no talent for administration. After three frustrating years, Newman resigned and returned home to Birmingham.

Defending the faith

By chance, Newman's conversion coincided with a revival of Catholic life in England. Blessed Pope Pius IX restored the hierarchy to England, appointing the first Catholic bishops and archbishops the country had seen since the Reformation. Religious orders from the European continent were opening monasteries and convents in England. And the ranks of the country's tiny Catholic minority suddenly boomed thanks to wave after wave of Irish Catholic immigrants.

These developments disturbed some of the more militant Protestants in England, and as the Catholic Church in England's most prominent convert, Newman became a target for anti-Catholic feeling. In 1864, Charles Kingsley, one of the leaders of the anti-Catholic faction, published an article in which he took a swipe at the Catholic Church and Newman. "Truth for its own sake has never been a virtue of the Roman clergy," Kingsley wrote. "Father Newman informs us that it need not and on the whole ought not to be."

Those were fighting words. Newman demanded an apology and a retraction. Kingsley refused. So Newman wrote a lengthy reply that went beyond a rebuttal of Kingsley's false charge; he wrote an intimate spiritual autobiography, the story of what had led him to the Catholic faith. Originally Newman's reply was published in a magazine in weekly installments.

The public's interest was so intense that the following year all the magazine pieces were collected and published as a book with the title "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," "A Defense of His Life." Since 1865, this book has never gone out of print.

A cardinal at last

In the years that followed, Newman continued to do what he did best -- write and preach. There had been talk from time to time of making him a bishop, but nothing ever came of it. He remained an ordinary priest. In 1878, Blessed Pius IX died, and Leo XIII was elected pope. Encouraged by the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, Pope Leo announced only a few weeks after his election that he would name Newman a cardinal. England's Catholics cheered and Newman wept when the appointment was announced.

At age 78, he made the trip to Rome to receive his red hat from the pope. In the traditional speech made by a new cardinal, Newman took the opportunity to make a declaration of his faith and condemn a trend that still flourishes in our day. "To one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself," Cardinal Newman said. "For 30, 40, 50 years I have resisted to the best of my powers ... the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. .... Never did Holy Church need champions against [this idea] more sorely than now, when, alas! It is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth."

Intellectual giant

Elderly and often ailing, Cardinal Newman spent the last 11 years of his life quietly at the Oratory in Birmingham. He rarely wrote anymore, but he did make visits to London to see an old friend, R.W. Church, the Anglican dean of St. Paul's Cathedral.

He said his last Mass on Christmas Day 1889. From that day forward he grew increasingly feeble until he died quietly of pneumonia on Aug. 11, 1890. Cardinal Newman was 89 years old.

If Cardinal John Henry Newman is canonized, he will join the company of the great intellectuals of the Church -- St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Edith Stein. Like the great Catholic minds that came before him, Newman used his intellectual gifts to defend the truths of the faith, to make it understandable and persuasive to an unbelieving world.

The goal of Cardinal Newman's books, and sermons and debates was always the same -- to draw souls to God.

Newman influenced many converts

Some biographers of Cardinal John Henry Newman have estimated that when he entered the Catholic Church in 1845, approximately 875 other Anglicans followed him, about 250 of whom were either Anglican theologians or Anglican clergymen. Such numbers are hard to prove. We do know, however, that inspired by Newman's writings in which he explained very precisely why he converted to the Catholic faith, tens of thousands in the succeeding decades followed him into the Church. In fact, by the 1930s, the average annual conversion rate in Great Britain was an astonishing 12,000 a year, and many of these new Catholics attributed their conversion to the writings of Cardinal Newman. What follows is a partial list of famous converts who cited Newman as an important influence in drawing them to the Catholic Church.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): Jesuit priest and poet. He was received into the Church by Newman himself.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): Playwright, author and wit, notorious for his homosexual liaisons. At age 22, he admitted, "I could hardly resist Newman," but scholars say he waited until the end of his life to convert.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973): Author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." Newman's writings persuaded him that Catholicism was the true Church of Christ.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966): Author of "Brideshead Revisited." He succumbed to the influence of Newman that was still pervasive in English society 40 years after Newman's death.

Newman's two most influential works

More than 100 years ago, John Henry Newman recognized the beginnings of the intellectual and religious crises that plague us today. In "The Idea of University," he laid out very clearly what a Catholic college or university is supposed to do. In "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine," he explained the only authentic method by which Catholic doctrine develops.

For many years now, there has been a school of thought that religious faith and secular knowledge must always be at each other's throats. Newman insists that the Church has nothing to fear from any branch of knowledge because "knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith." All branches of knowledge are connected, he said, and all of them point to their creator. Reason serves the Church, too, because "reason rightly exercised, leads the mind to the Catholic faith."

A Catholic university that will not teach the Catholic religion, Newman says, sends its graduates into the world with an incomplete education. The purpose of a Catholic university must not be merely to produce well-rounded, well-read individuals, but to turn out students who, by studying their faith, have grown in virtue as well as in knowledge. Nothing would have made Newman happier than to see a graduating class full of saints-in-the-making.

Modernists like to claim that "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine" is Newman's manifesto in defense of their notions that there is no absolute truth, and that Catholic doctrines must be modified to suit "the spirit of the age," even if that means discarding doctrines that haven't kept up with society's latest trends. Either the Modernists haven't read the essay, or they didn't understand what they were reading.

Newman insists that the Catholic doctrine Christ gave to his apostles was complete from the beginning. It was given to them, and they have passed it on to us. Doctrines developed, he says, only through "the investigations of faith and [in response to] the attacks of heresy." He offers the doctrine of purgatory as an example: "As time went on, the doctrine of purgatory was opened upon the apprehension of the Church, as a portion or form of penance due for sins committed after baptism."

For Newman, doctrines such as purgatory are not innovations but a case of the Church coming to understand a truth of the faith that in earlier times had not been obvious.

Academic legacy

Venerable John Henry Newman's writings on the importance of Catholic students being able to keep true to their Catholic identity inspires many contemporary organizations. Today, the Cardinal Newman Society-- www.cardinalnewmansociety.org -- urges fidelity to Church teachings at the nation's 224 Catholic colleges and universities. As well, many schools have Newman Centers that serve Catholic students' spiritual needs at non-Catholic campuses.

The Oratorian Fathers

St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) founded the Oratorian Fathers and Brothers some time after 1551, the year he was ordained a priest. In a small room he called his oratory, Philip led informal conversations on a reading from the Bible or from one of the Fathers of the Church. These conferences always included prayer, of course, and since St. Philip loved good music, a brief sacred concert with congregational singing. St. Philip's concerts became so popular that they gave rise to a new musical form known as an "oratorio."

After the saint's death, such great composers as Bach, Scarlatti and Handel wrote masterpieces in this new style.

In time, a group of priests and lay brothers gathered around Philip to form what they called the Congregation of the Oratory. Their purpose was to bring sinners back to the faith and deepen the spiritual life of practicing Catholics. To achieve these ends, they paid particular attention to offering Mass with great reverence and solemnity, spending long periods in the confessional guiding souls and delivering well-crafted sermons.

In the United States today, there are seven Oratories -- in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Brunswick, N.J., Rock Hill, S.C., Pharr, Texas, and Monterey, Calif. New Oratorian communities are forming in other dioceses, as well, including Chicago and Kalamazoo, Mich.

Thomas J. Craughwell is the founder of www.antiqueholycards .com and the author of Our Sunday Visitor's "Cardlinks" series.