On Sunday the 13th October, Bl. John Henry Newman will be canonised during a papal celebration of Holy Mass in St Peter’s Square in Rome. At a canonisation, the Successor of St Peter declares that a person practised heroic virtue and lived in fidelity with God’s grace to such an extent that we may now be certain that he is interceding for us in Heaven. Verified miracles are accepted as proof that our saint is working on our behalf at the Throne of Grace, and as evidence that God looks favourably on the canonisation. While beatification allows public veneration in particular localities and congregations, canonisation raises a saint to the altars for the purpose of liturgical cult throughout the whole Catholic Church on earth.
Blessed John Henry’s canonization is a great blessing for the London Oratory. Although now we correctly talk about the English Oratories in the plural, what would become the Birmingham and London houses began life in 1848 as one English Oratory, founded by Father Newman with the blessing of Bl. Pope Pius IX. A year later, Newman settled in Birmingham and Father Faber was sent to found a house in London, but Newman remained “Father” of both communities until October 1850 when the English Oratory was officially divided into two distinct congregations. We shall mark the canonisation of our first Father with a High Mass of Thanksgiving at 6.30pm on Thursday 17th October, celebrated by His Eminence Vincent Cardinal Nichols, and with a sermon preached by the Provost of the Birmingham Oratory. Please keep an eye on our newsletters and website for details of the Novena we shall be praying in the days before the canonisation, in addition to events taking place at the other Oratories in England.
Newman’s canonisation is also, of course, a wonderful and timely gift to the whole Church. In these tumultuous times when the Body of Christ on earth seems more politicised than ever, and the Holy Father himself talks about the possibility of schism, Newman’s wisdom should bring us serenity of heart and hope. As an Anglican clergyman and Oxford don, his research into the Arian heresy, which from a purely human point of view had seemed likely to extinguish the light of authentic Catholic teaching on the Incarnation in the Fourth Century, made him realise that orthodox doctrine inevitably prevails in any dispute that rages within the Church. It was, in fact, his studies on the Arian crisis that convinced him of the truth of the Catholic Church. In his Apologia he writes: “I saw clearly that in the history of Arianism, the pure Arians were the Protestants, the semi-Arians were the Anglicans, and that Rome now was what it was then. The truth lay, not with the Via Media, but with what was called ‘the extreme party’.”
Oratorians avoid contention wherever possible, but with Newman’s searing intellect, his dogged adherence to the quest for truth, and his aversion to towing any party line, it was inevitable that he would find himself embroiled in and bruised by the ecclesiastical controversies of his time. His famous Biglietto Speech, which he delivered in Rome on 12th May 1879, the day on which it was announced he was to be a cardinal, is best remembered as a robust attack on the spirit of liberalism in religion – the absurd notion “that one creed is as good as another” and “that revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste” – and for its accurate predictions of the disastrous effects that this would have on society. But in the Biglietto Speech Newman was also defending himself against allegations that he was not a real Catholic. The source of these slurs had been a number of extremists within the Ultramontane party in the Church who had been pushing for a maximalist interpretation of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. This powerful and highly favoured faction consisted of the sorts of people who would have us believe that all popes are chosen by the Holy Ghost (rather than by fallible cardinals in a conclave), that every utterance of a pope carries the authority of the inspired word of God, and that if the reigning Pontiff sprinkles salt on his porridge in the morning, then all Catholics are bound by precept to do the same. Needless to say, Newman had no truck with such silliness, and so the champions of exaggerated papal prerogative maligned him as a half-baked convert who was disloyal to the Pope. When Newman embraced the moderate and traditional interpretation of Papal Infallibility as it was eventually defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870, he distanced himself from those liberals who rejected it and put themselves outside the Church.
It might be assumed that the extreme Ultramontanists and liberals stood at opposite poles of the ecclesiastical landscape, with Newman somewhere in between. In reality, there was error (extreme Ultramontanism and liberalism) at one extreme and Catholic truth (Newman’s position) at the other. With a powerful prophetic insight that was nourished by his extraordinary appreciation of history, Newman would not have been at all surprised to see extreme Ultramontanism and liberalism one day fused together into a noxious mélange. Were he alive today, his stubborn refusal to tow any party line would almost certainly attract the ire of the spin doctors in the media who have set themselves up as gatekeepers of the Magisterium, and who use Twitter to denounce as un-Catholic and subversive anyone who fails to “get with the programme” of their own agenda.
Amongst other things, Newman’s life, trials and writings teach us that whatever disputes and politicking hinder the effective proclamation of the Gospel in any age, the truth of traditional Catholic doctrine in continuity with the Deposit of Faith entrusted to the Apostles always prevails in the end. While his confidence in the earthly hierarchy of the Church was always limited, his trust in the divine guarantees which Our Lord had invested in His Mystical Body was rock solid. In the final paragraph of the Biglietto Speech, having lamented the dire effects of liberalism in religion and on the society of his own country, he inspires in us the cultivation of peace of mind, civility and prayer: “Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it. I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.”
Let us give thanks to God for the life and for the canonisation of this great Oratorian and apostle of Christian Hope. May he intercede for us, and for our Holy Church which he understood and loved so well.
Father Julian Large