October 13 commemorates the Feast and Canonisation of John Henry Newman
Canonisations have less to do with rewarding the dead than with encouraging the living. The canonisation of John Henry Newman will be an occasion for celebration, particularly in educational institutions. Many schools, university colleges and student associations have been named after him. Newman was an exceptional scholar who joined in public conversation and controversies about faith as well as leading a Catholic university in Ireland. The depth and breadth of Newman’s faith and the way in which his faith and public life were woven together are exemplary for any Catholic educational institution.
Catholics with an interest in theology will also celebrate Newman’s canonisation, perhaps for differing reasons. Some will find encouragement in the breadth of his faith and his insistence on the primacy of conscience. Others will be reassured by his insistence on the authority of Scripture and of Church Councils in Catholic reflection on faith. He held together strands of living faith that are often opposed to one another in uninformed Catholic debate.
Newman was a man who crossed boundaries of temperament and culture. He was a deeply private man who engaged fully in public life. He lived his faith in contact with the secularising trends that shaped politics and religious faith. He lost his faith at school after reading contemporary philosophical writing and returned to it through his contact with Evangelical teachers. He had to deal with liberal ideas about faith and the place of church in society in the debates that marked the Anglican Church in the first half of the nineteenth century. In his reading during these debates, he refined his understanding that continuity with the Christian tradition was represented in the Catholic Church. When he became a Catholic he had to deal with the experience of exile in the culture and ethos of the Britain in which he was raised and the narrowness he often found in the Church to which he came.
Newman’s writing and preaching, however, transcended the differences between church denominations and groups within them. His wide reading, scholarship and respect for the finding of right words meant that he wrote for the heart as well as for the head.
The gift of finding good words is often treated as a decoration on the hard reasoning involved when we think and speak of faith. Newman stands as a reproach to that view. The rhythms, images and music of his words opened the hearts of his readers and hearers to attend to his argument, and carried them through the complexities of the reality that he unfolded. His famous sermon on the Second Spring of Catholicism in Great Britain encouraged an emboldened a small community to look beyond their poverty of resources to the great tradition that they represented. His care with words, too, was a reproach to simplistic, partisan, populist and polemical representations of Catholic life.
In addition, at a time when debate often incited people to adopt simple and narrow positions without depth, his vision of faith was always organic. Like trees, it had deep roots and spreading branches, with all its parts related to and dependent on one another. He consistently commended the organic connections within the faith of the early church and with other churches, and argued against the simple slogans and alternatives offered both within and outside the Catholic Church. For him the health of the foliage and the depth of the roots were crucial in a healthy faith.
As any saint should, John Henry Newman continues to challenge and encourage us in our very different age.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.