By Christopher Wells
When John Henry Newman is canonized on Sunday, it will be a “tremendous honour” and “hopefully a source of many blessings” to the Birmingham Oratory founded by the great English saint.
A gift to the universal Church
That’s according to the Provost of the Oratory, Father Ignatius Harrison, C.O., who is the “actor”, (the promoter of Newman’s cause for canonization) and current Provost of the Birmingham Oratory. However, Fr Harrison said, “we now see Newman as belonging not just exclusively to the English oratories which he founded, but after his canonization, he is given to the universal Church”.
Speaking in Rome on Friday with Vatican Radio, Fr Harrison said he believes that Newman’s holiness “stems from the fact that he was a spiritual son of St Philip Neri” who said that those who desire to be holy “should remain in the background when at all possible”, even being prepared “to give up their own opinions in favour of the wiser plans of the Church, and indeed of Divine Providence”.
A life of apparent failures
Father Harrison noted that in many ways, Newman’s life could be seen as a “series of failures”, pointing to disappointment, as an Anglican, with the fate of the Tractarian movement; the difficulties in founding a Catholic university in Dublin; and the failure to establish an Oratory at Oxford. “And his whole life”, said Fr Harrison, “in a way was a series of plans that came to nothing, or which didn’t go the way he had first intended”.
Ahead of his time
Nonetheless, especially in the decades following his death, many of Newman’s inspirations have been embraced within the Church.
“I think it’s because some of the ideas which [Newman] had when he was alive, and when he was writing, were, I won’t say radical, but were rather far-seeing”, Fr Harrison said. “And now the mind of the Church has developed, and we are seeing that some of his ideas have taken root in the life of the Church”. He gave as examples Newman’s teaching on conscience, and the objective truth about right and wrong; the theory of the development of doctrine; and Newman’s “insistence” on the importance of a well-informed laity.
“These ideas seem to us fairly mainstream nowadays”, Fr Harrison said, “but at the time he was proposing them, many people, even in Rome, were suspicious, and thought he was frankly, in some ways, even a dangerous liberal”.
A long pilgrimage
Returning to John Henry Newman’s sanctity, Father Harrison said, “Newman’s life might be characterized as a long, long pilgrimage — through the Church of England, through the Catholic Church, and it certainly wasn’t a seamless tapestry, it was much more… like a rather motley patchwork quilt”.
He pointed especially to Newman’s “perseverance in the quest for holiness”, and his “willingness always to be at the service of the poor” as two of the virtues that are characteristic of the new Saint.
To learn more about St John Henry Newman, you can visit the website newmancanonisation.com, supported by the Oratories of England (Birmingham, London, Oxford).