Newman as Anglican
John Henry Newman was born in London on 21 February 1801 – more than two hundred years ago. He was the eldest of six children – three boys and three girls. His mother was of French Huguenot stock (we have a Huguenot cemetery across the Green on Merrion Row) and she took a special interest in John Henry’s religious education, instilling in him what he was later to describe as ‘bible religion’.
At the age of seven John Henry was sent away to boarding school at Ealing, where he received an excellent foundation in Latin and literature. As a young adolescent he began to have religious doubts as a result of his reading Enlightenment authors such as David Hume, Thomas Paine and Voltaire. It was one of his teachers, Reverend Walter Mayers, who saved his faith and converted him to a kind of Calvinistic Evangelicalism by lending him books that would have a lasting effect of his religious attitudes. He began to have a firm conviction of the truth contained in Holy Scripture and in the ancient creeds and the overriding importance of holiness.
In the spring of 1817 John Henry Newman moved to the university, enrolling as a student at Trinity College, Oxford. There he spent the next three years deepening his knowledge of mathematics and the Greek and Latin classics. For recreation he took solitary walks and played the violin, abstaining from rowdy student parties. Although he was expected to pass his examinations in December 1820, with high honours, he suffered a nervous collapse and did poorly. But he continued to read and in 1822 he won a fellowship at Oriel College. One of his tutors, Richard Whately, who in later years was to become Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, trained him to think and to speak with a precision governed by Aristotle’s logic and weaned him from his rather emotional Evangelical piety.
In 1825 Newman was ordained a priest in the Church of England. During these years he conducted a long correspondence with his younger brother Charles, who was wrestling with difficulties against faith. In these letters he began to formulate his ideas on faith and reason. The evidence for Christianity, he maintained, “Depends a great deal on moral feeling”. The rejection of Christianity therefore arises “from a fault of the heart not of the intellect”.
Newman as Catholic
In 1832 Newman had a significant voyage to the Mediterranean, spending time in Malta, Greece, Corfu, Naples and Rome. It was during this journey, becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia, that he wrote “Lead Kindly Light”.
On October 9, 1845, the Italian Passionist, Blessed Dominic Barberi received Newman into the Catholic Church. Five later in 1850 the Ctholic hierarchy was re-established in England. This, however, precipitated an outbreak of “no-popery”, which Newman felt compelled to address. Many anti-catholic popular prejudices were inflamed, in particular by an ex-Dominican friar, Dr Giovanni Achilli who went about England with lurid tales of the abuses of Catholicism. Newman wrote trenchantly against Achilli, who in turn sued Newman for Libel.
Because of delays in gathering the necessary evidence, Newman was convicted and sentenced to pay £100. Collections were taken up by Catholics in the United States and elsewhere, which more than sufficed to defray the expenses of the trial and fortunately for us, from the excess Newman was able to finance this unique and beautiful church, which he established for the Catholic University of Ireland one hundred and fifty years ago in 1856.
Cardinal Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday 19th September 2010 in Birmingham.