“As a sixteen-year old boy, John Henry Newman came to the conviction that there were two irreducible truths: the truth of his own existence and the truth of the existence of his Creator,” Cardinal Vincent Nichols told America in this exclusive interview on October 12, the eve of Newman’s canonization.
He said Newman “lived his life (1801-1890) constantly exploring between them, living the seen life in the presence of the unseen, understanding the emotional turmoil you might go through, or the intellectual questioning, or the variety of experiences, but always in the light of the presence of God.” Those two irreducible truths are “the pillars of his spiritual journey.”
The cardinal archbishop of Westminster came to Rome with 15 English and Welsh bishops to concelebrate the Mass in which Pope Francis declared Newman a saint, the first British saint to be born after 1800. He spoke to America at the Venerable English College in Rome which is hosting an exhibition on Newman.
“Newman was a teacher of holiness,” the cardinal said, referring to an aspect of his life that had been highlighted at a conference at the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican in which he had participated in that morning. He said, “Newman was absolutely clear that most holiness would remain unseen because most holiness lies in a person’s heart, in the way they go about their duty, in the way they go about understanding their duty as an obedience to God, most of their prayer is silent, their devotion is hidden.” Indeed, “that’s what distinguishes the disciple of Jesus; the disciple is always detached from the world because the disciple is attached to the Lord.”
He said, “Newman understood that once the human person forgets the unseen, they end up placing themselves, or their intellect, or their power in the place of God and that is the fundamental illness, sickness of humanity.” But, he added, “with detachment from the world and attachment to Christ, the stance of the disciple is always to be watching for Christ and always to be acting with him.” This was Newman’s way, he said, “ever watching for where he was being led, through times of stillness, through times of intellectual study, through times of storms.” Cardinal Nichols noted that his spiritual journey resulted in two of Newman’s most famous works - his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent which are of great contemporary relevance.
“Newman was absolutely clear that most holiness would remain unseen because most holiness lies in a person’s heart, in the way they go about their duty, in the way they go about understanding their duty as an obedience to God."
For Newman, “the certainty of faith was not the iron bar of logic,” Cardinal Nichols said; “Newman said you’ll never convince somebody of the truths of faith by rational arguments, especially by scientific rationalism and argument of that kind.” For Newman, “the truth of faith is much more like a wire cable that is made up of many strands but woven together, they give the certainty of faith out of which to live, the strands of intellect and emotion and lived experience and especially the strand that comes with acknowledgment and acceptance of a source of authority.” He recalled that for the English theologian “the greatest use of human freedom is to use it to do what God wants and what God wants requires the sensitive exploration of conscience formed and shaped by a teacher, an unseen teacher.” Cardinal Nichols remarked that “the penny dropped when Newman said now this is the church” and “that’s where he acquired the depth of peacefulness that stayed with him through life.” He agreed that today we would describe Newman’s spiritual journey as based on a process of discernment and said, “I think his teaching about conscience echoes strongly Francis’ talk about discernment, knowing the next step. Francis always says what we have to do is to help people to find the next step which leads them step by step to the fullness of truth.”
Cardinal Nichols thinks that “people today see Newman as a man who was able to go through real storms in his life both when he became a Catholic, the cost of that, and in the public sphere, with his libel trial, and in his treatment by the bishops in Ireland, the bishops in England and Wales, as well as the suspicion with which he was held in Rome.” He said Newman “went through all of those things with a very steady faith and with a very real conviction that his life had a purpose, that every life has a purpose.” In this context he recalled Newman’s remark that “a thousand questions don’t make a doubt.”
He thinks Newman “kind of personifies the foundational steadiness that comes (from faith), and the dignity that comes (from it), and the importance of never losing that poise, that stability of identity, which then enables you to go through troubles and continue to make a positive contribution.”
The cardinal found it “particularly interesting” that Prince Charles (who had come to Rome for the canonization) had written an article for L’Osservatore Romano on “John Henry Newman: The Harmony of Difference,” that was just published.
He noted that in it the Prince had written: “In the age when he lived, Newman stood for the life of the spirit against the forces that would debase human dignity and human destiny. In the age in which he attains sainthood, his example is needed more than ever – for the manner in which, at his best, he could advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and perhaps most of all, could see differences as places of encounter rather than exclusion.”
He hailed the article as “an expression of how important Newman is in English culture and particularly at this time because what Prince Charles is exploring is how to handle difference, how difference can become a contribution to a wider good and how the coherence of life actually eventually roots back to a belief in God.” He considers it “very interesting from an English point of view” that in exploring those themes the Prince drew very much on the experience of the Catholic community in England” and places Newman as a very important figure who helped the emergence of the Catholic community in England which - the Prince said - had been uprooted and the role he plays in that emergence opened the way to the contribution that the Catholic community presently makes.”
Cardinal Nichols thinks the Prince “is using that as an example of how a church, a group of people, a community which had lived with a lot of rejection has become, and is, a force for good. So that’s his example of where difference properly appreciated can contribute to a wider common good.”
Describing the article as “very significant,” the cardinal thinks “in a way it reflects not just a mentality that Prince Charles has shown for a long time but also something that reflects the remarkable role of the Queen at this present time in which British society is living with really remarkable tensions and yet the Queen is this steadying symbol of a bigger identity which is in danger of being lost in the tension and the harshness of public discourse and of the political process that’s going on.”
At the Vatican conference, Cardinal Marc Ouellet expressed a view widely circulated in Rome that Newman should be declared “a Doctor of the Church.” Cardinal Nichols agrees, but at the same time believes Newman could be declared a patron saint for theologians, for parish priests and for believers in general.
Cardinal Nichols believes Newman could be “a patron saint for everyone” because “he calls us to holiness. He is a disciple of Christ and the very heart of his life is something in which we’re all engaged.”
He thinks he could be a patron saint for theologians, “to remind systematic theologians that their work can never just be intellectual, can never just be about publishing books, can never just be about taking a stance.” He noted that “Newman’s theology – most of which was in response to something – was totally about the search for holiness and casting light on the fundamental elements of the deposit of faith.”
Even more so, Cardinal Nichols would like to see Newman become “the patron saint of the priest in the parish.” He recalled that Newman “lived an almost hidden life for nearly forty years. Yes, he was provoked during that time to write some of his greatest writing and yes during those forty years he was ceaselessly writing letters but, basically, he lived in Birmingham, in the discipline of the Oratory community, serving the people of the parish and the poorest.” He said “that’s why when his funeral cortege was going from Edgbaston to Redmonton the streets were packed with people, they came ‘to salute the father.’” He noted that “most of those people hadn’t read his writings but they’d seen the witness of his priestly life in the parish where he served.” Nichols added, “for me, it’s a wonderful moment that we have a priest of the parish life of England being declared a saint.” He recalled that Newman “was very close, very attached to the poor” and “one day in Edgbaston a poor man gave him his handkerchief. Newman took it and insisted that that poor man’s handkerchief was around his neck when he died.”
Overall, Cardinal Nichols believes Newman could be “a patron saint for everyone” because “he calls us to holiness. He is a disciple of Christ and the very heart of his life is something in which we’re all engaged.”
Asked about the relevance of Newman’s work on the development of doctrine for the Catholic church today, Cardinal Nichols responded, “what comes to my mind is the speech Pope St. John XXIII made at the beginning of the Council when he said that the deposit of faith is one thing but the way it is explored and expressed is another.” He said the pope “didn’t mean that they were separate but that there are two things there which live in constant dynamic unfolding. And I think in a way that’s what Newman meant.” He said, “Newman never said that the development of doctrine means that doctrine changes but it means that what is there, what’s been given to us, unfolds like a flower and in seen in greater richness and diversity but it is all rooted in the one deposit of faith. That’s where it’s a development, not a change, it’s an unfolding of what is already there but unseen or unappreciated. And that unfolding takes place in response to the particular crisis or the particular cultural settings.”
He recalled that at the Vatican conference this morning Cardinal Ouellet “was very emotionally insistent that one of the great dramas of our time is that faith and the life of faith have been divorced from the world of reason, and that’s partly because the world of reason has been reduced to positivism, to the evidence of the senses, and the world of faith has been divorced from culture.“ Cardinal Nichols recalled that Newman struggled with both those things: “he wanted to show that, properly understood, faith and reason are intertwined.” Indeed, when one thinks about Newman and culture, he remarked, “you have to think of The Dream of Gerontius” and how two Catholics – Elgar and Newman combined “to produce a concert or piece of music which is still of vibrant attractiveness.”