Who is Saint John Henry Newman? Long story short - Saint John was a priest, popular preacher, writer, and prominent theologian in both the Anglican and the Catholic Church.
Many of you who were involved in Catholic ministry at college or who had children who were will be familiar with the name ‘Newman’. There are 2,000 Newman centers across the US - but where does this name come from? Who is Saint John Henry Newman? Long story short - Saint John was a priest, popular preacher, writer, and prominent theologian in both the Anglican and the Catholic Church.
Saint John Henry Newman spent the first half of his life as an Anglican, and the second as Roman Catholic. A London native, he studied at Oxford’s Trinity college where he was the vicar of the university church for 17 years. His writings from this time of his life became well known - publishing eight volumes of Parochial and Plain Sermons, two novels, and a famous poem that was set to music by Sir Edward Elgar, “Dream of Geronitus.” He soon became a prominent member of the Oxford Movement, a phenomena in the 19th century that sought a renewal of catholic thought and practices within the Church of England, in opposition to the Protestant tendencies within the church. The ideas of the movement were published in the writings Tracts for the Times. Twenty-four of the ninety editions of these writings were written by Newman.
Historical research on Newman’s behalf during this time led him to suspect that the Roman Catholic Church was the true church that Jesus had first established. These suspicions continued to grow until 1845 when he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church, becoming ordained a priest two years later. When asked why he had converted, he replied, “I consider the Roman Catholic Communion the Church of the Apostles.” For him, the Catholic faith didn’t just claim to offer the truth - it was the truth. Change, of course, is never an easy thing, but he recognized that it was an essential component of authentic, personal growth, saying, “In a perfect world it may be otherwise, but here below to grow is to change, and to be perfect means to have changed often.” Shortly after he joined the Congregation of the Oratory, and upon his return to London began founding Oratory houses around the surrounding area. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII made Saint John a Cardinal, honoring his extraordinary work and devotion to the faith. At his death in 1890, 20,000 people lined the streets to pay their respects to the, “just man made perfect.”
Influence on the Faith
Saint John’s transition to Catholicism was not easy, many people believed he was a closet Protestant, and he often felt that his writings were less powerful among the people. However, his belief in Christ’s Eucharistic presence sustained him, and he continued to work on his ministry - one which we can learn much from.
Newman cared greatly about education. His works emphasized that not just the clergy, but the lay people as well should have a strong understanding of the Church’s teachings. He promoted multiple educational efforts, leading to the preservation of his legacy when he was named the patron saint of Catholic campus ministries at public universities. Since then, thousands of students have experienced formative years of spiritual and intellectual development at Newman Centers on college campuses nation-wide.
Newman also wrote extensively about our conscience. He discussed its role in the way we come to know God, as well as the moral importance of listening to its promptings. As mentioned earlier, Newman firmly believed that he was bound to adhere to the truth, regardless of personal cost. This adherence to his conscience is what led him to the Catholic faith, even though it cost him close friendships and fellowship at Oxford. In fact, his commitment to the truth put him at odds with many prominent church leaders and theologians. Although this did not make him popular among his peers, following the moral implications of his conscience built him into the saint we know him as today.
Finally, Saint John re-defined the relationship between doctrine and history. Newman became the first Catholic theologian to compose a complete theory of doctrinal development. Prior to his writings in, Essay on Development, most Catholic theologians believed in what was known as a “successionist” understanding of Christian history, where Christ was believed to have handed a bundle of ideas to the apostles, who in turn transmitted these exact truths down over the course of history. Newman countered this idea with one that described the history of doctrine in a more organic way. He believed that the Church would gain a deeper understanding of the truths given to us by Jesus through ongoing reflection. This idea changed the conversation, laying the groundwork for future discussion.
In order to become a saint, The Vatican must authenticate two miracles accredited to an individual. Newman’s first miracle was curing a man’s spinal disease. In 2000, Jack Sullivan of Boston, MA had just completed his second of four years on his path to become a deacon when he was struck down with crippling back pain. He is quoted saying, "I certainly needed a divine favour at that moment, so I prayed: 'Please Cardinal Newman help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained.’” Waking up the next day he discovered his back pain had vanished overnight, allowing him to complete his third year of classes before the pain returned on his last day of class.
Newman’s second miracle was curing a woman’s unstoppable bleeding. In May 2013, expectant mother Melissa Villalobos was in danger of losing her child from unstoppable, internal bleeding. According to the Birmingham Oratory, founded by Saint John himself, "In prayer she directly and explicitly invoked Newman's intercession to stop the bleeding. The miraculous healing was immediate, complete, and permanent."
Today we honor Saint John Henry Newman as the patron saint of campus ministries, universities, and poets, although we can truly consider him a patron saint for all. Newman was a teacher of holiness and model example of the importance and courage it takes to trust in the Lord. In the words of Cardinal Vincent Nichols,
“Newman was absolutely clear that most holiness would remain unseen because most holiness lies in a person’s heart, in the way they go about their duty, in the way they go about understanding their duty as an obedience to God, most of their prayer is silent, their devotion is hidden.” Indeed, “that’s what distinguishes the disciple of Jesus; the disciple is always detached from the world because the disciple is attached to the Lord.”