A convert’s journey with St. John Henry Newman
I have been following St. John Henry Newman around for a number of years. In 2007, I travelled to Oxford, England for a conference and spent my last night there in the community he founded in Littlemore, on the outskirts of the city. When he was an Anglican, Newman started the community for himself and some friends as a place for prayer and study. Here Newman wrote his famous An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and here Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845.
In 2011, I returned to the United Kingdom and, this time, received permission to stay at the Oratory Newman founded in Birmingham in 1849. I spent time in Newman’s beautiful library, filled with books by early Christian writers. I re-read Newman’s autobiographical recounting of his conversion, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a few feet away from the desk on which he wrote it. And I saw his private room, which contains the altar his fellow Oratorians built for him after he was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. I was moved to see the photos of family and friends surrounding the altar, for whom he would pray as he offered Mass each day.
Like Newman, I am a convert to Roman Catholicism, but it is the way Newman converted that is most important to me.
And on Oct. 13, 2019, I followed Newman to Rome for his canonization by Pope Francis.
I arrived in Rome a few days prior to the canonization and was surprised to see the number of pilgrims in the city here for the numerous events planned to celebrate the occasion. Newman is an important figure for me theologically and spiritually, and I certainly knew that others have been similarly transformed by him. But it was moving to be in visible community with so many who shared my devotion to the saint.
On the morning of the canonization, I arrived at St. Peter’s Square early, just as the security checkpoints were opening. In the queue with me were pilgrims from the United Kingdom and the United States, including some Oratorians in formation from Pittsburgh, but there were also pilgrims from India, Brazil and Switzerland. Four women were to be canonized alongside Newman, and while the majority of people in the square were there for the canonization of Newman, thousands of pilgrims were in there for these four women.
At the security checkpoint, I talked with some young Indian sisters from the Congregation of the Holy Family who were there to celebrate the canonization of their foundress, Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, a mystic who experienced visions and the stigmata and whose reputation for holiness made her tomb a site of pilgrimage.
Around my seat in the square were Brazilian pilgrims there for the canonization of Dulce Lopes Pontes, a woman who devoted herself to the poor and whose body was discovered incorrupt. As we waited for the Mass to begin, the Brazilians entertained us with chants and songs.
Near me also were Swiss pilgrims here for Marguerite Bays, a laywoman and mystic who was miraculously cured of bowel cancer on the day that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854. She regularly received the stigmata as a sign of the degree to which she identified with the suffering of Christ.
And there were Italian pilgrims present for the canonization of Giuseppina Vannini, a Roman woman who heard the voice of God regularly and founded the Congregation of the Daughters of Saint Camillus.
The canonizations took place early in the Mass. After the singing of “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, the prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, made a formal petition to Pope Francis to declare these five people as saints, and he read brief biographies of each. And after we sang the Litany of the Saints, Pope Francis made the declaration that so many of us had travelled to hear:
For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother Bishops, we declare and define Blessed
John Henry Newman
Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan
Dulce Lopes Pontes
and Marguerite Bays
to be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.
As I listened to this formula of canonization and looked at the portrait of Newman hanging from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, I could not help but think about how Rome was not a city where Newman felt entirely at home. Newman’s study of and devotion to the patristic period of the church foreshadowed the church’s turn to the fathers at the Second Vatican Council, as did his arguments regarding doctrinal development and the formation of conscience. But in the 19th century, such things were often associated with liberalism and modernism, and both were viewed as great dangers to the church.
There is a humility in Newman that allowed him to make himself known and vulnerable to the people around him.
So it was fitting, even satisfying, to hear Pope Francis declare Newman a saint on the footsteps of St. Peter’s Basilica in the presence of tens of thousands of pilgrims whose lives have been transformed by Newman’s life and writings.
When I told people I was coming to Rome for Newman’s canonization, I was asked often what it is about him that most appeals to me. Like Newman, I am a convert to Roman Catholicism, and his story of conversion resonated, and still resonates, with me. However, it is the way Newman converted that is most important to me. Too often I come across converts to Catholicism whose approach to their former tradition is negative and who view their new faith in triumphalist ways. While acknowledging what he perceived to be the shortcomings of Anglicanism, Newman was nevertheless keenly aware of how much he had been shaped by the Anglican tradition, and he was grateful for it.
Like Newman, I was drawn to early Christian writers from the patristic period. And like him, my understanding of theology, the sacraments and the church was shaped by this reading. Newman is rightly seen as a huge influence on Vatican II in no small part because of the emphasis he placed on the example and witness of the early church during the patristic period. This was a witness that the fathers of Vatican II took very seriously, so when I read the documents of Vatican II as someone contemplating becoming Catholic, I saw a church that looked familiar. The fingerprints of the patristic writers were all over those documents, but so too were Newman’s.
Ultimately, however, Newman appeals to me most on a level that goes deeper than just the intellectual or theological. Despite the fact that Newman lived more than 100 years ago, I cannot help but feel a nearness to the saint when I read him or his life. His writings, particularly his autobiography, are texts that I return to over and over again.
Perhaps the best way to describe what Newman means to me is to quote the words of Thomas Merton, the U.S. Trappist. Newman was for Merton an incredibly important and influential thinker, and in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he described what Newman meant to him: “There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely observe, meet, or know. A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of another.”
There is a humility in Newman that allowed him to make himself known and vulnerable to the people around him. I feel I have come to know Newman profoundly by reading him, and I have also come to know and understand myself in the process.
When he was made a cardinal, Newman chose as his motto “Cor ad cor loquitur,” which means, “Heart speaks unto heart.” He was speaking about his relationship to God, but his motto also reflects the profound way that Newman’s writings continue to communicate with people like me.
St. John Henry Newman, pray for us.