Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) has been called the “Father of the Second Vatican Council”. His writings on conscience, religious liberty, vocation of the laity, the relation of church and state, were extremely important in the shaping of the Council’s documents.
Cardinal Newman spent half of his life as an Anglican, and the other half as a Roman Catholic. He was a priest, a popular preacher, a writer and an eminent theologian in both churches. He was to become a ‘Kindly Light’, just as the first disciples would become a ‘light amid the encircling gloom’.
Born in London, England, Cardinal Newman studied at Oxford’s Trinity College, was a tutor at Oriel College and for seventeen years was vicar at the University Church. He eventually published 8 volumes of Parochial and Plain Sermons.
After 1833 Newman was a prominent member of the Oxford Movement, which emphasized the Church’s debt to the Church Fathers and challenged any tendency to consider truth as completely subjective.
Then came the turning point of Cardinal Newman’s life. The year was 1845. He was received into the Catholic Church. The man that Cardinal Newman requested to receive him into the Church was Blessed Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist. Newman would write of Blessed Dominic: “Fr. Dominic of the Mother of God was a most striking missionary and preacher and he had a great part in my own conversion and in that of others. His very look had a holy aspect. No wonder then I became his convert and penitent”.
Fr. Dominic had this to say of Newman: “He is reputed to be the most learned ecclesiastic in England. In my judgement he is one of the most humble and loveable men I have met in my life”.
What Pope Paul V1 called “the drawing together of these two holy men”, was to have a lasting effect on the life of the Church. The following is a description of this meeting: “Blessed Dominic’s journey to Littlemore was made sitting on the roof of a stagecoach, and then three miles on foot. Torrential rain meant that when he arrived, he was soaked through. As he stood at an open fire trying to dry out, Newman entered the room, fell at his knees and asked to be received “into the one true fold of the Redeemer”. Blessed Dominic, as a boy, took care of sheep on the family farm. Now he is a Shepherd of Souls.
Two years after this memorable meeting, Fr. Newman was ordained a Catholic Priest in Rome and joined the Congregation of the Oratory formed three centuries earlier by St. Philip Neri. Returning to England, Fr. Newman formed Oratory Houses in Birmingham and London and for seven years served as Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. He eventually wrote 40 books and 21,000 letters that survive. Among his most famous books was his spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua( A Defense of One’s Life.)
Pope Leo X111 admired Newman’s fierce religious orthodoxy and appointed him a Cardinal in 1879. The Pope was so fond of him, that he referred to him as ‘my Cardinal’. The news that Newman was to be a cardinal came as a conclusive vindication of his orthodoxy and his loyalty to the Catholic Church. Cardinal Newman himself declared “the cloud has lifted forever. For 30, 40, 50 years I have resisted to the best of my powers, the spirit of liberalism in religion”.
In October 2019, Pope Francis canonized Cardinal Henry Newman. The new saint was called a ‘Unifier in a Divided World’. In his homily quoted from Cardinal Newman’s famous hymn, “Lead Kindly Light”, Pope Francis encouraged us: “Let us ask to be Kindly Lights amid the encircling gloom.”
Fr. Theodore Walsh, C.P.