Out of Shadows and into Truth
Blessed John Henry Newman, a Model of Faithfulness
By: Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB
“The cloud is lifted from me forever.” This was John Henry Newman’s response when he learned that he had been made a cardinal on March 18, 1879, just a few weeks after his seventy-eighth birthday.
In making the announcement, Pope Leo XIII said that his intention was “to honor the Church in honoring Newman,” and the dual honor continues today. Newman’s name is universally revered. His writings are in constant use. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010. His influence at Vatican Council II was so important that Bishop Christopher Butler of Westminster, England, called him important cleric in the Church of England. His actions were constantly being scrutinized and judged according to popular sentiment. There was a huge outcry when he converted to Catholicism at the age of forty-four. Either he had been a dishonest Anglican, or he had now become a dishonest Catholic. Leading churchmen from both communions treated him with suspicion and felt they could not trust him.
Oriel and St. Mary’s. Newman’s life certainly did not start out under a cloud. He was born in London on February 21, 1801, the eldest of six children in an observant Anglican family. He received a good elementary education and then, at sixteen (the normal age), entered Trinity College at Oxford. An emotional breakdown at the end of his third year set him back, but he rallied, and only a year and a half later he applied for and was awarded a fellowship at Oriel, the most prestigious of Oxford’s colleges. So there he was, only twenty-one years old, now admitted into the circle of acknowledged intellectual leaders of Oxford and the Anglican Church. As he put it, he had been raised “from obscurity and need, to competency and reputation.”
Newman was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1825 and spent the next couple of years as a curate in an Oxford parish. Three years later, he became pastor of the prestigious University Church of St. Mary. It was through his weekly sermons at St. Mary’s—sermons that were attended by many in the university community—that Newman began to exercise considerable influence on the renewal of the Church of England. Newman’s sermons were eventually published as his Parochial and Plain Sermons, which remain widely read today.
Around this time, Newman also began an ambitious study: he undertook a consecutive reading of the early Fathers of the Church. As he pored over their sermons, treatises, and tracts, he came to a deep appreciation of Christianity’s most ancient traditions and teachings. Not only did his study of the Fathers have a powerful impact on his preaching; it also deeply affected Newman’s personal faith and spiritual life.
“Hits from Rome.” For the next ten years, Newman and his Oriel colleagues were the nucleus of a renewal movement in Anglicanism called the Oxford Movement. They began to write a series of “Tracts for the Times,” short essays on fundamental Christian realities: faith, baptism, apostolic origins, justification. The urgent tone of these tracts aroused excitement (and opposition) around the country, and by 1839, Newman had become the most influential churchman in England.
It was precisely at this zenith of his career that Newman began to receive, from his reading of the Church Fathers, what he called “hits from Rome.” His Anglican convictions weakened as he came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church was the true Church established by Christ. He tried to shore up his weakening convictions in 1841 by publishing a tract arguing that the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (the creed of the Anglican Church) could be interpreted in a Catholic sense. This tract aroused such furor in the Church of England that Newman was brought into serious disfavor throughout the country. Rumors swirled around him as people attacked his sincerity, his scholarship, and his faith.
Newman was shaken by this reaction and by several moves of the Anglican Church leadership, which showed deep differences in doctrinal understanding between Rome and Canterbury. In September 1843, he resigned as pastor of St. Mary’s and went into seclusion at Littlemore, a rural suburb of Oxford with a mission chapel. There he devoted his time to praying and studying the history of the Church. During this time of intense reflection, Newman published his classic study, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Even more important, he decided to become a Catholic. He was received into the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845.
A Catholic. Leaving Anglicanism meant breaking with all that Newman had loved. Only faith could have propelled him to a decision that cost so much. One of his sisters broke off all communication with him and was never reconciled.
Bishop Nicholas Wiseman took Newman under his wing and sent him and a group of companions to study in Rome. Newman was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847, and upon his return to England, he and his friends formed an Oratory, a form of religious community founded by St. Philip Neri in the sixteenth century. Throughout the next decade, he guided the new community and gave a series of public lectures designed to foster understanding between Anglicans and Catholics.
You would think it would be smooth sailing from this point on. Newman had found his true home, and he was welcomed with open arms. But that’s not exactly what happened. Because of his prominence in the Anglican world, he had been considered “the enemy” by many Catholics, and now he would be paraded as a trophy. He later described the dreariness of his first year under the gaze of many eyes, like “some wild incomprehensible beast, caught by the hunter.”
Both because of the suspicion that surrounded him and because of some poor decisions made by his superiors, Newman experienced many setbacks in his early years as a Catholic. An ex-priest sued him for libel, even though the remarks Newman made about him in a lecture were true. The Irish bishops invited him to found a Catholic university in Dublin—an ambitious project which he successfully undertook during the 1850s. But differences on what a Catholic university should be caused the bishops to withdraw their support at a crucial time, leaving Newman to return, humiliated, to England.
A few years later, Archbishop Wiseman, now a cardinal, asked Newman to be the editor of a new English translation of the Bible. Newman devoted much time to establishing the project and even engaged translators to work with him. But then he discovered that the cardinal had changed his mind.
Despite these humiliations, Newman remained devoted to the Church. He was confident that if he followed the path of obedience, God would vindicate him in due time. It might not happen until after his death, but it would happen if he remained faithful. So though he withdrew from the public eye, it was not in bitterness. Rather than take on any major projects, he chose to devote himself to the Oratory School for Boys, which he founded in 1859. As a consequence, his influence receded into the shadows, causing one commentator to refer to him as a “spent force.”
Apologia. And then suddenly, in early 1864, Newman was in the news again. While reviewing a book on the history of England, Reverend Charles Kingsley, a popular Anglican author, wrote: “Father Newman informs us that truth for its own sake need not, and on the whole ought not to be, a virtue with the Roman clergy.” Newman was shocked and scandalized by this bolt out of the blue. He knew he had said no such thing. He recognized in the article yet another attack on his personal honesty. He had seen many like this before. But this time, the attack included the Catholic priesthood and the Church as a whole.
When Kingsley would not retract his statement, Newman felt forced to act. He began publishing in the press, at weekly intervals, an autobiography of sorts: Apologia Pro Vita Sua (An Explanation of My Life). It was both a history of his religious thought leading to his conversion and a passionate, yet intellectually rigorous, defense of the Catholic Church.
A Cardinal. The reaction from all sides was immediate and positive. Letters poured in from friends of his Anglican days, and statements of appreciation were signed by groups of Catholic priests all over England. Newman’s influence revived. He began publishing again and dialoguing with his former Anglican friends.
By the late 1870s, the clearest heads in both Anglicanism and Catholicism were coming to the same conclusions about Newman’s honesty, charity, and fidelity in searching for the truth. In 1877 he was elected the first honorary fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, his alma mater. Then in March 1879, came the news that Pope Leo XIII had named Newman a Cardinal: “The cloud is lifted from me forever.”
For the next eleven years, Newman continued to study, write, and speak as his health permitted. He died at age 89 on August 11, 1890. His tomb bears the epitaph he composed: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem—“Out of shadows and images into the truth.”
Jerome Kodell, OSB, is abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco in Subiaco, Arkansas. He is also a biblical scholar and author of the book Life Lessons from the Monastery, published by The Word Among Us Press.