Cardinal John Henry Newman and our times

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After the intolerance, bigotry and hatred on the part of xenophobic groups at the recent demonstrations in Charlottesville we must turn to the lives of the saints who teach us that it is possible to overcome such egregious behavior. The life of John Henry Newman, although under very different circumstances, offers us some lessons on respect and Christian charity. An Anglican convert to Catholicism, he spent the second half of his life in Birmingham, England, where many Irish immigrants settled.

Who was Cardinal Newman? In the United States some who have heard of Newman think he is St. John Newman, the German-born fourth bishop of Philadelphia whose last name was actually Neumann. In fact, Cardinal Newman was an Englishman (1801-1890), who studied and taught at Oxford University, where he converted from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church on Oct. 9, 1845.

Before his conversion he had to overcome some biases against Catholics, which he later criticized in one of his books, “Present Difficulties of Catholics in England,” dealing with such anti-Catholic bigotry. He showed how people can grow up with falsehoods and stereotypes concerning others. The same happens today not only in matters of religion but of culture and politics. It is easy to regard others who are different as inferior or as enemies.

Once he became a Catholic he had to learn to understand and dialogue with his former Anglican co-religionists who often attacked him or severed relationships with him. To the credit of both sides, however, his friendships with Anglicans revived many years later.

Newman explained that personal contact with people of different backgrounds is often the best way to remove prejudices. He pointed out to the priests and brothers with whom he lived in Birmingham that, although they might be objects of discrimination in London, their neighbors in Birmingham would see who they truly were by their genuine Christian lives.

Newman himself set an example of respect and patience with persons of different religious convictions, and acted not only with civility but charity, remembered by all after his death. At the same time, he cared for fellow Catholics in Birmingham from among the poor working-class immigrant Irish families. His relationship with these persons coming from a very different social and cultural background is a lesson for all in respect and Christian charity.

 Newman was an educator at heart and the quintessential university man. He is fittingly the one for whom the Newman Centers throughout U.S. colleges and universities are named. The first such center was opened at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1890s. After studying and teaching at Oxford University he started the Catholic University of Ireland in response to the request of the Irish bishops. During his years as first rector of this university he delivered lectures on university education which later became the famous “Idea of a University,” and he developed a system of small college houses for the students and other practical means for “making men” out of them. When he resigned as rector of the university and returned to Birmingham, where he was the head of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, he began a school for boys that continues to this day.

My recently released book, “Holiness in a Secular Age, the Witness of Cardinal Newman” (Scepter Publishers, 2017), explains in various chapters what Newman thought a university education, as well as the grammar school education preceding it, should be. In his time when Catholic education was relegated to priests and religious communities, Newman stressed the importance of laypersons being involved in the teaching and administration of a university, as well as the involvement of parents in the primary school education of their children.

In the same book, I present Newman’s teaching on holiness. Upon hearing the term “holiness,” we often think of the few men and women who are the canonized saints. Newman explains that holiness is a life of prayer and virtue, above all of charity, to which men and women in all walks of life should aspire. This is a teaching more familiar to us today following the preaching of St. Josemaría Escrivá, and later, the promulgations of the Second Vatican Council; but many years earlier Newman helped the faithful see that the Holy Spirit carries out this work in the believer, especially through the Sacraments.

“Holiness in a Secular Age, the Witness of Cardinal Newman” presents us with the Church’s teaching on the Bible, the development of doctrine, and the moral life as expounded by Newman. Without a proper understanding of God’s Word, the Church’s mission to teach doctrine and discern its growth over the centuries, and how the moral conscience works, Christians are left with a superficial and relativistic way of practicing religion. There are people who might say, “my conscience tells me so,” to excuse some wrongful behavior, or “your truth is as good as mine” to forego further study of the faith and to avoid controversy. Newman would tell the laity that they must know and defend their faith.

Through this book I relate how Newman also helps the reader to understand why the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth. In a world in which there are so many religions and Christian denominations, people are often apt to think that all religions are basically the same or have minor differences only. Newman shows us that the respect and tolerance of others does not remove people’s obligation to seek religious truth.

Cardinal Newman speaks to our times, to materialism and the concomitant loss of faith, to moral relativism and a mistaken version of ecumenism. In the long tradition of the Church’s saints he invites us to holiness of life, characterized by respect and charity for all regardless of race or creed. The reading of a good biography of this modern-day saint and some of his works, especially his sermons, will revitalize and deepen the faith of many. College students in particular will benefit from the teaching of Cardinal Newman as they face the challenges of university life, and intolerance and prejudice in society.

Father Juan R. Vélez, a priest of the prelature of Opus Dei, residing in Chicago, is author of “Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman” (TAN/St. Benedict, 2011) and “Holiness in a Secular Age, the Witness of Cardinal Newman” (Scepter Publishers, 2017). He had served previously as a priest in Massachusetts.


© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts