Young Mr. Newman – St. John Henry Newman


Young Mr Newman

Chris McDonnell CT Friday October 11th2019

John Henry Newman was a true Victorian. Born on February 21st 1801, his early years matched the time of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. His life spanned the decades of the 19thcentury with his death coming in early August, 1890. We now celebrate his momentous life in our recognition of its sanctity.

But what of the early years? The Church tends to recognise the benign smile, captured by Millais in the famous portrait in the red regalia of Cardinal.
Recognition of his life with that honour came in 1879,  just before his death in 1890.

Newman was four when the battle of Trafalgar was won by the English fleet under the command of Nelson. This London-born boy was later to enter Trinity College of Oxford University in 1817, beginning a brilliant academic career that would see his name become prominent in those pre-Victorian years. He became a nationally known figure.

Ordained a deacon in the Anglican church  in 1824, it was on Trinity Sunday, in May 1825, that he was ordained a priest in Christ Church Cathedral by the Bishop of Oxford.

A year later, in 1826, came his Fellowship at Oriel College. Hurrell Froude was appointed at the same time and the two men formed a strong bond of friendship. Froude was described by Newman as “one of the acutest, cleverest and deepest men” he ever met.

When Froude died in 1836, at the young age of 33, Newman was invited by a friend to select a book from his library by way of memory. In addition he further added ‘Take that’.
Newman records in the Apologia that the suggested volume  “… was the Breviary which Hurrell had had with him at Barbados. Accordingly, I took it, studied it, wrote my Tract from it and have it on my table in constant use till this day.”

The Oxford Movement that grew up round a group of clergy and academics in the 1830s were often called the Tractarians, for they published brief articles or Tracts on matters of faith, Newman himself contributing to many of them.

The most famous of these, Tract 90, was written by Newman and published in 1841. In this Tract, Newman  examined the 39 Articles, and suggested that the text of the Articles was not directed against the authorized creed of Roman Catholics, but only against popular errors and exaggerations. It marked the last four years of his time within the Anglican communion. He resigned his position at the university church of St Mary’s in 1843 and from there retired to live at Littlemore, just outside the city. It was during his time at the university church that the substance of the ‘middle way’, the ‘via media’was developed through his sermons and his writings.

In contrast to his previous experience of life within the university, his life at Littlemore with a few close friends was one of prayer and seclusion. It was there on a night of pouring rain, October 9th 1845, that the Italian passionist priest Dominic Barberi received Newman into the Church of Rome. His formative and highly influential days in Oxford were at an end.

He records in the Apologia that he spent the weekend towards the end of February 1846 alone at Littlemore, leaving on the Monday morning. He writes that “I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires from the railway“.   A footnote in the Apologia records that he did return, in February 1878, after a thirty two year absence.

I have referred to the ‘Apologia’ a few times.  Newman’s essay was written in response to a personal attack by Charles Kingsley impeaching Newman’s truthfulness and honor. The  Apologia Pro Vita Sua – a History of my Religious Opinions – was a spiritual autobiographical response to Kingsley’s attacks.

It was written over a six week period, with Newman standing at a desk hand-writing the text over many hours each day. It is said that the MSS still shows signs where his tears shed when recalling those earlier years made the ink run on the page. It was published in 1865 and remains in print to this day.

A number of familiar hymns come to us from the writings of Newman, possibly the most famous arising from a poem he wrote in 1833, The Pillar and the Cloud. We now know it as ‘Lead kindly light’.

During illness whilst travelling home from Italy to England, he told the servant who was caring for him “I have a work to do in England”. He was later to write his famous lines whilst his ship was becalmed at sea.

The first verse concludes with these words. “….keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me”.

Young Mr. Newman walked a long way.


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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    I enclose, below, the leading article in this month’s Open House here in Scotland. I have asked Mary Cullen, the Open House editor, if I could share it on our ACP site and she is happy for that to happen.

    Newman’s legacy

    The canonisation of John Henry Newman is a reminder of how long the church has been struggling to free itself from the impact of its ‘long nineteenth century’. When papal infallibility was declared by the First Vatican Council in 1870, the church was shaped by a dominant theology of papal absolutism and Roman centralism, unqualified by a developed theology of the episcopacy, the local church and the laity. The declaration of infallibility cemented an ethos of hierarchical authoritarianism at all levels of the church, from which many would argue it has yet to emerge. We still lack the structures and habits which would enable all the baptised to participate fully in shaping the church’s priorities. Newman thought the campaign for infallibility ‘unfortunate and ill-advised’.

    Vatican II’s vision of the church as the people of God, whose mission is the work of all believers, upended the top down structures of the old order and signalled the rehabilitation of the laity. But rehabilitation proved to be a difficult process. The debates of Vatican II display the tensions it generated. While some bishops who took part in the debate on the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People wanted to retain the traditional organisation of the ‘lay apostolate’ through lay associations, with their overtone of church control, others thought it was time to involve lay people in all aspects of the church and to respect their maturity. Behind the debates were fundamental tensions about the church’s mission, the relative roles of the laity and hierarchy in accomplishing it, and the freedom and autonomy of lay people. Newman believed that the church flourishes when it is at one with the faithful.

    Pope Francis’ efforts to create a church of Vatican II which draws on the gifts and insights of all its members are an attempt to address the legacy of the past. Without greater involvement of the laity, the church cannot thrive. Perhaps Newman’s canonisation will help generate support for Francis’ reforms and reaffirm the work of the Newman Association in promoting open discussion and greater understanding within the church. The contribution made to adult education by local Newman Circles is immense, not least because it has kept alive the hope of a Vatican II church. In Scotland as elsewhere we owe a great deal of gratitude to all those who have organised, and continue to organise local programmes of lectures and debates, year on year. They do the church a great service.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Colin Barr’s devastating account of Newman in Ireland (Oxford Handbook of JHN) ends with this: “As the Irishman Constantine Curran put it, in place of a university Newman ‘gave us a book.’ It was though ‘an excellent book.'”

    Newman did not have a warm relationship with the Irish, though the Irish political cause engaged his sympathies. His friendship with Charles Russell of Maynooth is always cited, but it is hard to think of any other Irish friends that he had.

    He sought to run the Dublin university from Birmingham. The bishops let him have his high-handed way. Their deal of August 1857 was that Newman would continue as Rector for two more years, and spend only nine weeks a year in Dublin. But in the academic year 1857-8 he spent only 33 days in Ireland. Without oversight the university went to pot. Archbishop Cullen had a full-scale nervous breakdown in the summer of 1858, largely as a result of the mess Newman had created, which involved the waste of vast sums of money. He urged Newman to return to residence for the 1858-9 academic year, but Newman refused. Newman resigned in November, and never visited Ireland again.

    It is thought that Gerard Manley Hopkins died as a result of the bad drains in the university. One wonders what the Rector’s responsibility was.

    Nonetheless, when a university has such an eminent founder, and is linked with the most famous book on university education, it cannot afford to slight his memory.

  3. Eddie Finnegan1 says:

    In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis’s four principles, or mantras, include: “realities are more important than ideas”. Realities of a University may indeed be more important than the Idea – though nobody could deny the greatness of that book of Newman’s. Maybe, like Francis, Newman was a visionary and process starter. A lot depends on who and what follows the kicking-off of the building or demolition process. Visionaries get canonised. Efficient and effective CEOs, Managers or Site Foremen should usually settle for less, but they may still work miracles, even secular miracles

  4. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    The Irish Times article Paddy #3 refers to above is by Katie Ascough, who was formerly president of the UCD students’ union. She was badly treated by the students’ union.
    Yes, Paddy, the church in Belfield is still standing and at the service of the students and staff.
    Former Senator Brendan Ryan challenges Katie’s article in a letter to the editor on 12 October: He wrote: “But if she wants to challenge she will have to be specific in both evidence and refutation.”
    However, in his challenge, he himself makes a number of charges without being specific in evidence for them. He wrote: “UCD when I arrived there in the late 1960s was a nominally secular but in reality staunchly Catholic institution. Sociology and philosophy were firmly under Catholic control and medical ethics reflected only the view of one church … It is hard to believe that women in trousers weren’t allowed use the main library up until then! But the change for the good was not encouraged or sought by church authorities, it was forced into place by forces inside and outside the university, often in the teeth of staunch Catholic resistance.”
    I graduated from UCD in 1963. Yes, there was a noticeable presence of Catholic staff at the time – I wonder what it was like at Trinity College? The question is not whether the presence was there, but whether it affected adversely the education offered. My recollection is that the quality education offered depended more on the competence and communication skills of the individual lecturer. Brendan Ryan does not offer evidence to back up his charge of “Catholic control.”
    I have no recollection of women in trousers not being allowed into the main library; he does not offer the evidence for this, nor for change “often in the teeth of staunch Catholic resistance.”
    He concludes: “For the record, I remain, in spite of the horrendous behaviour of most Irish bishops, a church-going Roman Catholic.” It is good to hear this. However, he offers no specifics for precisely what was the “horrendous behaviour”, nor for his statement that it was by “most Irish bishops.”
    Brendan Ryan is a man of principle, and has done much good work. He may have evidence to substantiate his charges, but he does not offer it. We cannot rely on a “the dogs in the street know” argument. It’s unlike him to fail to maintain the standards, a lack of which he lays at the door of Katie Ascough.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    I see Hopkins taught in the university only from 1884, 26 years post-Newman, so my naughty suggestion above is baseless. Here is the time-line:

    1861 – Bartholomew Woodlock appointed Rector and served until he became Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise in 1879.

    1879 – Henry Neville, Dean of Cork appointed Rector (while still retaining his role as Parish Priest in a Cork parish).

    1880 – The University Education (Ireland) Act 1879 brought in by Disraeli’s government led to the establishment of the Royal University of Ireland (incorporated by charter in 1880) which was a non-teaching, degree-awarding institution.

    1882/83 – The Catholic University reorganised to avail of the indirect endowment from the state through the Royal University of Ireland. The St Stephen’s Green institution was renamed University College and its management was transferred to the Jesuits.

    1883–1888 – Fr William Delany SJ appointed the first president of University College.

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