Thought for the Week

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 Dear Parishioners and visitors to our parish website,

Given that we are an hour behind Rome, by the time I reach the end of the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass on Sunday morning I will be able to insert John Henry Newman in the Commemoration as a Saint.  Tomorrow John Henry Newman will be canonized, the first Englishman to be raised to the altars of the Church as a Confessor since the Reformation.  Newman is one of the giants of the Victorian era, ranks among the leading English intellectuals in a century where there was some considerable competition for this accolade, and the English theologian who has had the greatest influence on contemporary thought within the Church and beyond.  There can be no doubt but that Newman was a remarkable figure.  He was as complex as he was remarkable and if on the occasion of his canonization his admirers are occupying the high ground in both the academic and popular press, JHN is not without his critics nor without those whose opinion of his genius is highly qualified.

Biographies of Newman abound, most of them very scholarly, some of them turgid and demanding of maximum concentration.  I am wading through Ian Ker’s magisterial biography but in my perusal of this definitive study Newman is still a young Anglican clergyman (so I have a long way to go!).  I have found Dermot Mansfield’s biography of Newman the most readable and the most interesting, not least because he gives so much attention to the Irish dimension of JHN’s life.  The university which both Mansfield and I attended was founded by Newman in the mid-19th century and the core building of what is now University College Dublin is Newman House.  What Dermot Mansfield does with greater success than those others who have written about Newman is highlight the human side to his complex character.  Newman was sensitive and prickly, kind and engaging, but also got himself into many scraps, some of them dis-edifying.  Lytton Strachey dismissed Newman in his Eminent Victorians as being a “great hater.”  And yet the streets of Birmingham were lined with thousands of people in tears, mourning the death of a beloved parish priest, when his funeral cortege was carried off from the Oratory.

What made Newman so universally loved and won him the affection of so many who would never have read his theology or polemical writings are his poetry and his hymns.  Newman has helped many to pray, his words have brought many closer to God.  The intellectual problems which preoccupied Newman and the theological issues which as an Anglican were of such concern to him have never managed to arrest my attention or sympathy.  I am not sure I would have warmed to Newman had I met him.  But none of this excludes the possibility of his being a saint.  Today, in the exercise of his infallible prerogative, the Pope declares John Henry Newman a saint and raises him to the altars of the Church.  His sanctity may well lie precisely in the fact that despite being a contentious and difficult character, despite his having made enemies in life and being dismissive of many of his friends, he is still a saint.  And therein lies his greatness and therein too lies the encouragement Newman’s canonization offers to our own pursuit of holiness.

Father Patrick

 

Fr Patrick’s previous “Thoughts” are in the Gallery.


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