AT A TIME of polarisation, John Henry Newman is a figure who can bring people together, the press have been told at a Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefing.
The briefing was held in readiness for the canonisation on Sunday of Newman, the “lost” Oxford Movement leader whose secession from the Church of England in 1845 ultimately paved the way for his elevation as a cardinal in 1879. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
Newman was symbolic of the “outward-looking Britain” that would remain after Brexit, journalists were told on Monday, after questions from the room sought to tease out the connections between his canonisation next Sunday and the political issue dominating the Westminster agenda.
“Cardinal Newman, to me, sort of exemplifies the outward-looking nature of the UK as a country, because he’s somebody who has had a global impact,” the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, said. “I think he very much is part of that outward-looking Britain that we will remain.”
When Pope Francis declares during a two-hour mass in St Peter’s Square on Sunday that Newman can be venerated in the Church as an example of holiness that can be followed with confidence by Roman Catholics, Newman will be the first English person who has lived since the 17th century to be so recognised by the see of Rome (News, 5 July 2019).
Other countries, such as Spain and Italy, had “lots of saints, every year”, Ms Axworthy noted. “But not British ones.”
Among the tens of thousands of people expected to congregate in the square will be an official British delegation, led by the Prince of Wales. It will include the heads of Newman’s two Oxford colleges, Trinity and Oriel; a group of parliamentarians led by Rehman Chishti, the UK’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief; and the Mayor of Birmingham (where Newman spent his later years), Mohammed Azim.
An official Anglican delegation will be led by the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, and include the Bishops of Oxford and Aston, Dr Steven Croft and the Rt Revd Anne Hollinghurst; the Vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford (a successor of Newman), the Revd Dr William Lamb; and the Vice-Chair of the General Synod’s House of Laity, Elizabeth Paver.
On 17 October, the Archbishop of Canterbury will preach at a special solemn vespers in Westminster Cathedral.
The first response to the Holy See’s announcement in July, arriving within minutes, had come from the Anglican communications department, ready to issue its own press release, the Newman Canonisation Committee’s press officer, Jack Valero, reported.
PAPope Benedict XVI during the mass to beatify Cardinal Newman in Birmingham, on 19 September 2010
“The battles that existed in the 19th century are no longer the battles that we have today,” he said. “We are now united as Christians, trying to give witness to Christ in a world that is being dechristianised . . .
“When Cardinal Newman became Catholic, he lost everything, lost all his friends, his job. Forty-five years later, when he died, it was OK to be Catholic, to become Catholic, because he had single-handedly changed public opinion — that’s an amazing feat.”
Newman was “liked by all kinds of Catholics and Christians”, he said. “Rather than framing this as the battle for the soul of Newman, I was thinking of it as ‘Here is somebody who is attractive to everyone.’ In an age of polarisation, we have somebody who can actually bring people together.”
Mrs Axworthy, noting that the 19th century had been a time of polemics, observed that Newman had been “quite outspoken” — at one point referring to the pope as the Antichrist. But she saw him as “a bridge between the two traditions” (Anglican and Roman Catholic). Although not an ecumenist, he was “an ecumenical figure, because by the impact he had on both Churches, he brought them closer together”.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, began his remarks by reading from an article published in The Times after Cardinal Newman’s death in August 1890: “Whether Rome canonised him or not, he will be canonised in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England.”
“We’ve caught up,” he commented.
He went on to focus on Newman’s theological beliefs, including his emphasis on “the role and nature of conscience”. One of the most powerful examples of his influence had been the work of the White Rose movement, which spoke out against the Nazi party in the 1940s, he suggested (Features, 20 April 2018). One of its members, Fritz Hartnagel, had taken two books of the Cardinal’s sermons with him to the Eastern Front, describing them as “drops of precious wine”.
Asked whether the canonisation was an opportunity to “reaffirm the fact that the UK is part of a broader community”, Cardinal Nichols sought to emphasise the distinction between Europe and the European Union.
“I think what has preoccupied us for so long now is the British relationship with the institutions of the European Union, which are not the same as Europe,” he said. The current “deadlock” was “an institutional question. It’s not a cultural question; it’s not a deeper European-identity question.”
Having recently returned from a meeting with bishops from across Europe — from Russia to Portugal — he was aware of “a much broader commitment to each other than is the one expressed through the European institutions, and I don’t see that that should be weakened.
“I think, whatever the outcome of this, certainly from an ecclesial point of view, our relationships and our bonds across Europe remain the same, and, in fact, if anything, might be made more resolute.”
Asked to expand on this, he described a common exploration of the question: “What does holiness look like?”. Bishops in Eastern Europe were beginning to seek out “figures who teach us how to live with freedom, and how to live in a culture which extols self-determination above all else” and the meeting had begun to explore some of Newman’s insights “into what is the highest use of your freedom?”
The “very strong common themes” articulated might “help to get beyond populism, narrow nationalism, and the forces that might push us towards conflict”, he suggested.
“And, at the end of the day, that was the real purpose of the European Union, of the European project. The European project was not about being a trading bloc: it was not about economic solidarity: it was a response to years of chaos, generations of chaos, trying to find the foundations on which we could build.
“And, obviously, the economics are an important part of that; but I suspect that what the whole of Europe needs to learn again is the deeper horizons that were the original horizons of the European project, and I think the solidarity between people of the same Christian faith and the exploration of contacts with other faiths is a major contribution to keeping that longer horizon in view and trying to identify some of its features.”
Attempts were made to exhume Newman’s remains in 2008 (News, 22 August 2008), but none were found. He had requested burial with earth that would decompose his body very quickly, Cardinal Nichols observed — evidence, Mr Valero speculated, that he “wasn’t very keen on relics”.
Among those present on Saturday will be the two American Roman Catholics whose cures were attributed to miraculous intervention by Newman: Jack Sullivan, a deacon cured of a crippling spinal disease, and Melissa Villalobos who suffered severe bleeding during pregnancy.
In addition to Cardinal Newman, four women are being canonised: Dulce Lopes Pontes; Marguerite Bays; Josephine Vannini; and Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, the Indian founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Feature: John Henry Newman: The light of holiness in encircling gloom