Towards the Canonization of John Henry Newman

Author: Maurizio Fontana

And the boy asked: "Who is greater?"

In some way, the child who once asked John Henry Newman: “Who is greater, a Cardinal or a Saint?”, was an unwitting prophet. Newman replied: “You see, my little one, cardinals belong to this world; saints to heaven”. This was probably one of the earliest teachings of the British Cardinal who will be canonized on 13 October. Following the Holy Father’s announcement of Newman’s canonization during the Consistory of 1 July, Father Mauro De Gioia, Postulator General of the Confederation of the Oratory of San Filippo Neri and Provost of the Genoa Oratory, described Newman as “a great gift for the universal Church”, explaining that, “on the one hand, there is the Cardinal’s attention to daily holiness, the simple kind, comprised of small gestures, but more radically, there is the idea that true reality is the one that comes from heaven”.

Is this the aim expressed in the epitaph he wanted on his tomb: “out of shadows and images into truth’’?

Precisely. It is living daily life as a serious commitment to the small things, but conscious that the ultimate reality is what awaits us. To me, this seems to be even revolutionary with respect to contemporary sensitivity, in which hopes are often short-lived and the escatological dimension is not embraced. To use a ‘Newmanesque’ expression, we could say that the “kindly light” we find in daily life is a foretaste of eternity.

More than 50 years after Vatican II, the Church will raise to the glory of the altars the Cardinal who was described as one of the “absent Council Fathers". How absent was he from the Council assembly?

Physically absent but very, very present. Basically, I would highlight two themes and an attitude. First of all, the ecclesiological theme of the value of the sensus fidei in the laity. Indeed it sprang from Newman’s reflection On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine which is also mentioned in number 12 of Lumen Gentium. Indeed, I would speak of a canonization of his theology. Then there is the theme of conscience which is revisited several times at the Council and which we find in particular in number 16 of Gaudium et Spes. Moreover, immediately after Vatican II, Newman was also cited explicitly on the theme of conscience in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

A moment ago, you also mentioned “an attitude"...

I was referring to the way in which Newman placed himself within the context of ecumenical relations: never biased and always profoundly positive towards the non-Catholic world. It may seem paradoxical for a person who approached Catholicism after a journey that led him to discontinue his previous path. But he always recognized what was once good in the Anglican world. An attitude which was profoundly inspiring in that ecumenical dialogue raised by Vatican II. Never a sense of rupture but always a fruitful discussion. Even more so when the need for conversion was developing in him as fidelity to the truth. It was a process that he never experienced contentiously. This also resulted in misunderstandings because for a large part of his life Newman was considered a traitor by Anglicans and ambiguous by some Catholics. In reality he revealed himself to be more evangelic in substance and more fruitful in pastoral practice.

Thus could his canonization mean another bridge between Catholics and Anglicans?

Actually, Newman himself is the bridge. And this was already evident at the end of his life: when the Cardinal died he was by then a national hero. Throughout the English-speaking world he was simply considered glorious. And this already constitutes an element of unity and dialogue. It is not by chance that first his beatification and now his imminent canonization are not being seen as a form of triumphalism, but rather as a great joy for everyone. It is what I experienced at the time of his beatification in England. There was a climate of shared joy. And I think that this will recur even more noticeably on the occasion of his canonization.

Newman’s timeliness has often been talked about. What teachings did he leave to the Church and to the men and women of today?

I think the main thing is the healthy use of reason. Newman is the man in whom faith and reason converged, albeit not always without difficulty. He offers us the lesson of how the Christian is a complete person who uses both head and heart. This gives rise to all the consequences for spiritual life, the philosophical quest and, last but not least, the existential plane. Ironically, Newman, who was one of the most refined Catholic intellectuals of the 1800s, was a man of simple devotion, very much a man of his time. He wrote novenas, prayers; he regularly preached to Birmingham’s labourers. He demonstrated how all forms of humanity can and should be used in the relationship with the Lord because in his Incarnation, the Lord took them upon himself and redeemed them.

What is the relationship between faith and reason that Newman delves into in his “Grammar of Assent"?

The rational dimension has always accompanied the path of Catholic theology. The risk lay in developing intellectual projects that were an end unto themselves and only accessible to an elite. Using even technical language, with the theoretical elaboration of an expert, in Grammar of Assent Newman attests to the common man’s rationality of the act of faith. This is truly revolutionary because it helps one to understand how each act of faith, being a human act, involves rationality, and this rationality is authentic even beyond the formal exercise of intellectual research. There is a beautiful passage by Saint Thomas which says that in her act of faith, an elderly Christian woman has greater knowledge of God than the greatest philosopher of ancient times. And Newman justifies the rationality of this act of faith.

The supremacy of conscience is one of the cornerstones of Newman's reflections. A theme which in the era of “liquid thought" and of exasperated relativism can lead to misunderstandings. What did the Cardinal mean regarding the relationship between conscience and truth?

I would start with the well known definition that “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”. Christ is Truth. And conscience is listening to the truth, which the subject does freely and responsibly. Therefore there is no conscience without relation to the truth. To contemplate a conscience that autonomously creates good and bad is the very opposite of Newman’s thought. The individual evaluates the reality he encounters in the light of the truth he has known. The necessity of formation and listening is implicit in this. This idea is so powerful that Newman develops proof of God’s existence, a journey towards God beginning with the motives that render the voice of conscience authoritative for man himself.

A question on the “Oratory" is inevitable: What connected Newman to Filippo Neri?

Apparently one could say very little. In terms of character, they were very different from each other. Filippo Neri was not an intellectual even though he was educated, a 16th century Italian also well known for the joyful nature of his personality. On the other hand, Newman is an example of a 19th century Englishman, more formally self-restrained. There is however a most profound harmony between them which the Cardinal himself admitted, saying he was fascinated, enamoured of this elderly Italian priest. What is the reason behind such harmony? The profound love of humility. And consequently of a lifestyle that Newman found very congenial in the Oratory. Moreover, I would like to recall that Newman’s masterpiece Apology Pro Vita Sua: A Defense of One’s Life not only expresses explicit gratitude to the fathers of the congregation, defined as his family, his home, but — in a less evident way to those unfamiliar with Filippo Neri — it actually begins with a quote from the Florentine Saint. In fact Newman uses the expression Secretum meum mihi (My secret is my own), the very phrase that Filippo Neri used when he was asked for information on his ecstasies and mystical phenomena. It is as if Newman were saying: “Have I to speak of myself, I would not do so; I speak of myself only to promote greater love of the Church and of the Catholic priesthood”.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English 
26 July 2019, page 9

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