The Venerable John Henry Newman: A Priestly Life

Author: Fr Gerard Skinner

The Venerable John Henry Newman: A Priestly Life

Fr Gerard Skinner*

Addressing the English and Welsh hierarchy on 1 February this year [2010], the Holy Father said, "Much attention has rightly been given to Newman's scholarship and to his extensive writings, but it is important to remember that he saw himself first and foremost as a priest. In this Annus Sacerdotalis, I urge you to hold up to your priests his example of dedication to prayer, pastoral sensitivity towards the needs of his flock, and passion for preaching the Gospel. You yourselves should set a similar example".

Over 20,000 people lined the streets on the day of Newman's funeral in 1890 — the Birmingham Daily Post reporting that, "Men thought he was the servant of the unseen and eternal powers, and when they came near him it was easier for them to believe in God and in God's nearness to mankind".

Newman touched people's hearts and whilst, as Pope Benedict said, Newman is now remembered principally as an inspired thinker, he was also a man prayerfully and practically engaged in the various ministries with which he was entrusted throughout his long life. Indeed the Bishop of Birmingham, the city that Newman made his home, declared that when speaking to Newman, "I found some little caution necessary", because he was "always so prompt and ready to go even beyond the slightest intimation of my wish or desires".

Newman's Christian ministry began on 13 June 1824, when at the age of 23 he was ordained as an Anglican deacon in Oxford. "I am thine, O Lord"; he wrote, as he commenced life serving as a curate the small Oxford parish of St Clement's. The following year he was ordained as an Anglican priest, whilst continuing to work in the same parish. In his Journal he recorded the words "I have the responsibility of souls on me to the day of my death". And from the beginning the young Newman strove to guide and encourage those under his care with individual attention. He made a thorough visitation of the parish and carefully recorded his visits to the sick and dying. Due to the great age of the Rector of St Clement's it fell to Newman to organize all that was necessary for the rebuilding of the parish church whilst also continuing with various academic responsibilities.

In 1826 Newman resigned from St Clement's to become a tutor at Oriel College, Oxford, a role which he considered to be primarily a pastoral calling in order "to have the care of souls". Two years later Newman was also appointed the Vicar of St Mary's, the University Church, and from this church's pulpit he delivered sermons to both university and parish that would make him renowned as a preacher. "Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St Mary's, rising into the pulpit, and then in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were religious music — subtle, sweet, mournful?", recalled one listener. These sermons were published, along with other writings that Newman and his colleagues wrote — the Tracts for the Times — and a new movement for reform arose among the Anglicans.

This movement sought to restore ancient practices and customs especially with regard to the Liturgy and the sacraments. Already as an Anglican, Newman was drawn to the importance of frequent Confession and the presence of Christ in the Sacraments. He wrote, "At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave. Thus in many ways He, who is Judge to us, prepares us to be judged, — He, who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready".

Thus with his conversion to Catholicism at the hands of Blessed Dominic Barberi on 9 October 1845, Newman had already come to an understanding of the most important "holy arms and
defences" that he would know as a Catholic priest. After a year of formation at the Collegio di Propaganda, Rome, Newman was ordained as a priest on 30 May 1847 at Propaganda. A brief period of further formation followed during which Newman embraced the life of St Philip Neri's Congregation of the Oratory, returning home to England to ultimately settle in the industrial city of Birmingham.

Despite the demands placed upon him by attempting to establish a Catholic University in Dublin and being ever ready to defend the Catholic Faith against a number of poisonous attacks from
unscrupulous but prominent individuals, Newman was constantly engaged in some matter or other of the life of the Birmingham Oratory parish. As his Bishop, William Ullathorne, noted, "Then arose under your direction the large convent of the Oratory, the church expanded by degrees into its present capaciousness, a numerous congregation has gathered and grown in it; poor schools and other pious institutions have grown up in connexion with it, and, moreover, equally at your expense and that of your brethren, and, as I have reason to know, at much inconvenience, the Oratory has relieved the other clergy of Birmingham all this while by constantly doing the duty in the poor-house and gaol of Birmingham... the mission and the poor school at Smethwick owe their existence to the Oratory. And all this while the founder and father of these religious works has added to his other solicitudes the toil of frequent preaching, of attendance in the confessional, and other parochial duties".

When Bishop Ullathorne asked that two of the Oratory Fathers go to assist a parish in the midst of an outbreak of cholera, Newman volunteered to go. Less than a year before his death, the frail and elderly Cardinal Newman made his way through the snow-lain lanes to mediate on behalf of young Catholic women in an industrial dispute. Many other acts of kindness remained unseen until after his death — one Birmingham doctor's surgery, until it was destroyed in the Second World War, was reputed to have proudly displayed doctor's bills for the poor that Newman had paid. Above all, Newman understood that "the office of intercession... is ever characteristic of the Priestly Order" and so throughout his life he kept lists of all those he was praying for at any given time.

Towards the end of his life Cardinal Newman wrote to a friend saying that "A long life is like a long ladder, which sways and jumps dangerously under the feet of the man who mounts it, the higher he goes, and, if there is any one needs prayers for perseverance, it is a man of 80". From very early in his life Newman was conscious of the demands of fidelity to his vocation and so warned one correspondent that "Another trial lies in the distant future. Masters in the spiritual life will tell you that the great difficulty in a high vocation is perseverance. This trial may not come for 20 years. I say this, not to deter you — but that you may in your prayers now pray for perseverance then".

Throughout his ministry Newman aspired to the example of the motto that he took for his coat of arms once he was created a Cardinal — "Heart speaks unto heart". In his own life he felt the hand of God guiding him and sought to encourage others in their lives' pilgrimages: "All God's providence', all God's dealings with us, all His judgments, mercies, warnings, deliverances, tend to peace and repose as their ultimate issue. All our troubles and pleasures here, all our anxieties, fears, doubts, difficulties, hopes, encouragements, afflictions, losses, attainments, tend this one way... after trial and temptation; after sorrow and pain; after daily dyings to the world; after daily risings unto holiness; at length comes that 'rest which remaineth unto the people of God'. After the fever of life; after wearinesses and sicknesses; fightings and despondings; languor and fretfulness; struggling and failing, struggling and succeeding; after all the changes and chances of this troubled unhealthy state, at length comes death, at length the White Throne of God, at length the Beatific Vision".

*Priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster and author of "Newman the Priest — A Father of Souls", published by Gracewing, 2010

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 September 2010, page 9

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