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Víctor García Ruiz, Professor of School of Philosophy and Letters

Holiness before peace: John Henry Newman

Sat, 05 Oct 2019 18:02:00 +0000 Published in ABC

In the middle of the 19th century an Anglican preacher, famous at Oxford University, became a Catholic. Years passed and, at the end of his life, Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal. He wrote a lot and apparently very well, especially a book graduate Apologia pro vita sua. His name was John Henry Newman, he lived a long life (1801-1890) as an eminent Victorian, but at the same time quiet and somewhat obscure. In Spain he is not well known; rather, he is often confused with a handsome American actor of the same name. On October 13, Newman, the great convert from Anglicanism (not the actor) will be canonized by Pope Francis at St. Peter's place in the Vatican. But Newman had already been canonized, shortly before his death. By his bishop. Privately. 

It was like this: the bishop, who in his adolescence had traveled the seas as a cabin boy and, later, as a missionary in the roughest Australia, had dealt with thugs and other deportees in that penal colony, went to visit Newman, who had lived for more than forty years semi-forgotten in the ugly industrial city of Birmingham. Now, since he was a cardinal, he enjoyed a certain notoriety. The two got along very well and chatted for a long time. Suddenly, without warning notice, the arthritic Newman, in his late eighties, got down on his knees and asked the bishop to "please give me your blessing". Cardinals - and more so those of yesteryear - do not ask for blessings but give them. But Newman was intimately unconcerned by such formalities. In old Oxford, some enthusiasts spoke of the mystery of Newman, referring to those unforgettable sermons that filled St. Mary's Church on Sunday afternoons. Someone who knew him well gave the core topic: "Newman's only mystery is that he doesn't give a damn about the things of this world," including the public delivery of his sermons. 

But let us return to the bishop: on leaving the house, Newman did not want to cover himself with the red biretta, and said to him: "I have spent my whole life indoors, while you fought in the world for the Church". The bishop thought to himself, "This man is a saint!". Many years earlier, Newman had confronted an admirer who had canonized him on her own. He replied, "I am not a saint at all, and it is a hard (and salutary) humiliation to be thought to be on the verge of being one. I am not going to be a saint, sad to say, and the people around me grade immediately. Those who are far away think one is something impressive; but that's kid's stuff. I will be content, in heaven, to clean the shoes of the saints; of our patron saint, St. Philip Neri, if he uses shoe polish...". This letter tells us two things: that, already in his lifetime, he had some reputation for holiness and that his reaction to that reputation is genuine humility. Newman took the aspiration to holiness very seriously, as anyone who has gone through his sermons, particularly the Anglican ones, knows. In one of them he says, precisely: "We are afraid of being too holy".

Holiness before peace: it is an ideal that the young Newman took from a Protestant author and, who would have thought it, after many dangerous turns, deposited it in the Catholic Church. The story of his conversion is an admirable and moving intellectual and moral adventure. It also had a strong social dimension: the proudest country on earth was being told, to its face, that its most national institution, the Anglican Church, had once been born with a grave original sin; and that, after all, as Newman dared to see, "Rome was right". Many others, friends, followers, men and women, readers of the Vicar of St. Mary's, followed him down that road; some to the end, some almost to the end. History calls it the Oxford Movement.

And now it is Rome that includes John Henry Newman among its altar saints. A saint more intelligent than usual and more humble than usual. Intellectual and humble, now that's a miracle.