Faith Matters

Who was John Henry Newman?

The canonisation of John Henry Newman on Sunday was a day for thanksgiving and celebration, says Fr J. Anthony Gaughan, who explains the new saint's significance in a world of fake news

J. Anthony Gaughan

St Peter's Square at the Vatican hosted the ceremony at which Cardinal John Henry Newman, along with four women saints, was canonised. Picture by AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

THE process for Newman's canonisation took quite a long time. There were sensitivities involved - Newman was an Anglican priest, a Protestant minister - during an important part of his life.

Then he was a prolific author - he published some 40 books. They had to be checked for orthodoxy.

But the cherished day arrived, and let us rejoice that we have seen it.

Who was John Henry Newman? He was born in London on February 21 1801. His father was a director of a bank.

He had three sisters and two brothers. He was educated at a private school at Ealing in London.

The school was conducted by a devout member of an Evangelical denomination, of which Newman also became a member.

After he went up to Oxford University, Newman joined the Church of England. He was ordained a deacon and a year later he was ordained an Anglican priest and was appointed to serve as a curate in St Clement's parish in the city of Oxford.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose achievements included founding the forerunner of UCD, was canonised on Sunday. Picture by: The Fathers of The Birmingham Oratory/PA Wire

In the meantime, Newman had become a fellow in the prestigious Oriel College in the university, where he joined a group of leading intellectuals and divines.

Among them were well-known figures in the Anglican Church, such as Edward Pusey and John Keble.

The group became known as the Oxford Movement. They set out for themselves two projects: first, to restore to the Anglican Church some of the liturgical practices of the early Christian Church which had been lost during the Reformation; and second, to prove to their own satisfaction that the Anglican Church had all the qualities of the Church founded by Christ and led by St Peter.

For them this involved meticulous research into the writings of the early Church fathers such as Saints Ambrose and Augustine, St Justin Martyr, Origen and Tertullian.

They published the results of their research and discussions in booklets or tracts and so were also referred to as the Tractarians.

Eventually Newman and a number of his colleagues concluded that the Catholic Church was the one with the greatest claim to have the qualities of the One True Church founded by Christ.

With other members of the Oxford Movement, Newman joined the Catholic Church. He went to Rome, where he was ordained.

On returning to England, he became a member of the Oratorians, a congregation founded hundreds of years earlier by St Philip Neri.

He established a community at Edgbaston in Birmingham, where they conducted a parish and a school and where Newman spent years in pastoral ministry.

In 1854 Cardinal Paul Cullen, leader of the Irish bishops, appealed to Newman to help set up a Catholic university in Dublin.

At that time there was a grave need for such a third level institution to which Irish Catholics would have easy access.

In 1854 Cardinal Paul Cullen, leader of the Irish bishops, appealed to Newman to help set up a Catholic university in Dublin 

Newman set up the Catholic university at 86 St Stephen's Green. He also had the University Church built as he regarded a church or chapel to be an integral component of a university.

From Newman's Catholic university, University College Dublin has evolved.

Newman built the magnificent University Church built on Dublin's St Stephen's Green. Picture by David Iliff/CC BY-SA 3.0

When I attended it in 1950 it had 3,000 students. It now has over 30,000 students and is the leading university on the Island.

While establishing the University, Newman delivered a series of lectures entitled The Idea of a University.

These were published and ever since are the classical source of what a university could be and should be.

Among his many other important publications were: Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Grammar of Assent.

The former was a defence of the development of his religious views against the distinguished littérateur, Charles Kingsley, who was severely critical of his change of allegiance from the Anglican Church.

The Grammar of Assent is a seminal work in logic.

In 1878 Newman was appointed a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. He took as his personal coat of arms 'Cor ad cor loquitur', taken to mean 'heart speaks unto heart' and thereby highlighting the importance of people speaking to each other in all sincerity, in all honesty, in all truthfulness.

My dear friends, we have seen how Newman spent his life in seeking the truth and in his coat of arms urging everyone to speak the truth.

Hence, he is a most appropriate model for all of us in our present world of fake news, aggressive and misleading PR presentations, slanted reporting and politicised news outlets.

Apart from his scholarly publications, Newman wrote poetry. The best-known is The Dream of Gerontius. He also composed hymns such as his Lead Kindly Light.

Many lovely prayers are attributed to him. The best known is this:

O Lord, support us all the day long

Until the shadows lengthen and evening comes,

and the busy world is hushed,

and the fever of life is over,

and our work is done.

Then, in your mercy,

Grant us a safe lodging,

And a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen

Fr J. Anthony Gaughan delivered the homily at the Mass of Thanksgiving for Saint John Henry Newman in the Newman University Church, the Church of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, on St Stephen's Green in Dublin on Sunday. The Mass took place as Pope Francis conducted the canonisation ceremony in Rome.

A tapestry portraying Cardinal John Henry Newman hangs from the facade of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Sunday. Picture by AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

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