sabato, luglio 26, 2008

Saintly, but very human

Saintly, but very human

By Roderick Strange

Beatification of John Henry Newman, England's most famous convert to Catholicism, is not far off, according to Cardinal Martins, the curial official in charge of canonisations. Such recognition should excite not only Catholics in Britain but Anglicans too, says the author of a new study of Newman

John Henry Newman is likely to be beatified before long. The precise timing may be uncertain, but not, it seems, the event. And while canonisation would declare that he is a model of holiness for the universal Church, this earlier stage, beatification, marks him out more locally.

In fact, one irony touching Newman's cause has been the way that from the beginning his international reputation and the devotion he has aroused have been intense, while more immediately in Britain and in Birmingham, his home for the 40 or so years up to his death, the cause has been slow to gather momentum. We British aren't excited so easily. But his beatification is meant to speak first of all to us. What might it be saying?

What it is not saying is that Newman was perfect. He made the point himself about one of his theological heroes, St Cyril of Alexandria, who could be a ruthless political operator. We are not obliged, Newman remarked, to defend aspects of his ecclesiastical career: "It does not answer to call whitey-brown, white." Pope Benedict echoed that view last January when he observed at a Wednesday audience that "the saints have not ‘fallen from heaven'. They are people like us, who also have complicated problems. Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned." These are comforting words, giving us hope for ourselves, but also reminding us in this instance that Newman's beatification does not oblige us to agree with everything he said or defend everything he did. Nevertheless he has much to teach us.

Newman has often been compared with his contemporary as cardinal, Henry Edward Manning. When they were younger, they were friendly without being close; later they clashed. Part of the mythology, peddled long ago, presented Manning as practical, a brilliant administrator, at ease with the affairs of the world, while Newman was pictured as intellectual and remote. This caricature does justice to neither of them. But what struck me when I first began to study Newman was his practical energy, his commitment to pastoral matters, and his skill as an administrator.

When he took up his first curacy at St Clement's in Oxford in 1824, he was an earnest evangelical Anglican who, while not believing in predestination, was convinced that more people were damned than saved. But his care for his parishioners changed that. He wondered how the majority of such good people could be destined for hell.

Then when he became a tutor at Oriel College, Oxford, he could not see that role as a matter merely of intellectual instruction; there needed to be a more personal, a moral dimension as well. Later, as vicar of the University Church and a leader of the Oxford Movement, he was full of pastoral energy. His preaching from that time has become legendary. "It is of the essence of the Movement," as Professor Owen Chadwick has noted, "that its best writing should be enshrined in parochial sermons."

After he had been received into the Catholic Church in 1845, the same energy drove him on. He established the Oratories in Birmingham and London, and founded the Catholic University in Dublin. He also set up the Oratory School. In all these projects his administrative gifts as well as his pastoral instinct were fully engaged. There is something very British about Newman's pastoral practicality, a healthy pragmatism. That pastoral instinct was also evident in his vast correspondence and found further expression in his other writings where his devotion to what was real, as he would say, rather than the merely notional, was always evident. He had no time for theories, however splendid, if they could make no impact. As he remarked later in his life: "I do not want to be converted by a smart syllogism; if I am asked to convert others by it, I say plainly I do not care to overcome their reason without touching their hearts."

Touching hearts was one of his fundamental preoccupations. It inspired his commitment to education. There is an entry in his journal in January 1863 in which he described education as his "line". He wanted to touch hearts and win minds.

He did not bludgeon in argument. He did not go toe-to-toe with adversaries, refusing to concede a jot. It was a method not always appreciated in Rome. In his "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk", answering Gladstone's attack on the Vatican Council and papal infallibility, for instance, he remarked, "Now, the Rock of St Peter on its summit enjoys a pure and serene atmosphere, but there is a great deal of Roman malaria at the foot of it."

Some were not amused. Could such irreverence be passed over in silence? But his bishop, William Ullathorne, wrote to explain the method. Newman argued, he said, "ex abundantia concessionis". He made allowances, as we might say, for the sake of argument, so that people who had difficulties and struggled did not feel that an intransigent door was being slammed in their faces. There is something very British about this style of argument too, calm and confident. Hearts are not touched nor minds won by hectoring.

One query about Newman's beatification, however, obvious in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, might be his contribution to ecumenism. How could someone who was for so long an influence in the Church of England, but who changed his allegiance, be regarded as influential still? It seems natural to assume that he could have little to offer. Yet that assumption would be mistaken.

Soon after Newman was received, his loyal friend, Edward Pusey, spoke of his conversion as "perhaps the greatest event which has happened since the Communion of the Churches has been interrupted". He gave his reason: "If anything could open their eyes to what is good in us, or soften in us any wrong prejudices against them, it would be the presence of such a one, nurtured and grown to ripeness in our Church, and now removed to theirs." Those who are hostile to Newman will, of course, disagree, but those like Pusey, who are more sympathetic, will regard him as a bridge.

If these are matters that can cause the Church in Britain to rejoice when Newman is beatified (he was proclaimed "Venerable" in 1991), there are also others. In particular there is the witness to holiness, his fidelity throughout a long, often difficult, life. As an Anglican, the hopes he had cherished for the Church of England collapsed and his reception into the Catholic Church brought about a terrible parting from many of his dearest friends.

Then during his Catholic years he had to endure persistent hardships: he was tried for libel and found guilty by a prejudiced jury; the university he founded in Dublin faltered because he was denied the support he needed to make the venture succeed; he was asked to become editor of the Catholic periodical The Rambler, but almost immediately, at the first hint of a problem, encouraged to resign; his plans for an Oratory in Oxford were mischievously frustrated; and there were clashes as well with Manning and other famous converts such as Fr Faber and W.G. Ward.

Newman was not blameless in all these difficulties, but he remained faithful in following what he saw as God's will for him. In his Anglican days, he expressed the matter most simply: "The planting of Christ's Cross in the heart is sharp and trying; but the stately tree rears itself aloft, and has fair branches and rich fruit, and is good to look upon."

When Newman is beatified, we will have much to celebrate.