Last week the archbishop of Birmingham in England expressed joy that the 19th-century convert from Anglicanism, Blessed John Henry Newman, might soon be declared a saint.
He spoke after it was revealed that the Archdiocese of Chicago had investigated the inexplicable healing of a young American mother who prayed for the Victorian cardinal’s intercession when she became afflicted by a “life-threatening pregnancy.”
Doctors have no explanation for her sudden and complete recovery. The research into her case has been passed to the Congregation for the Causes of Sainthood, and if Vatican theologians and doctors conclude the healing is a divine sign of Newman’s sanctity, the pope will be invited to canonize him.
Who is Cardinal Newman, and why is his canonization so important?
John Henry Newman was born on Feb. 21, 1801. Brought up in a nominally Anglican family, he experienced a religious conversion at the age of 15.
Marked out as a brilliant student, he went to Oxford University and soon emerged as one of the brightest minds of his generation. Like many men who graduated from Oxford, Newman was soon ordained into the Anglican ministry and began a career as a priest and academic. He took his place among the elite at Oxford University.
By 1842, Newman was beginning to realize that his path was toward the Roman Catholic faith. He resigned as a fellow of Oriel College and Vicar of the University Church and went to live in the poor village of Littlemore, where he established a semi-monastic community with like-minded high church friends. That he left the gilded halls of Oxford University to live in a converted cowshed in a low-class part of town was considered radically dangerous and bizarre by the English, Anglican establishment. He was pilloried in the press and hounded by negative publicity. Finally, in October 1845, Newman was received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
After his conversion Newman traveled to Rome where he was ordained a Catholic priest, and on his return to England he joined the religious order of the Oratorians. Established in Birmingham, he turned his attention to his studies, and apart from four years in Ireland, he led a secluded life of prayer, study and writing.
John Henry Newman’s life as a Catholic was to be tumultuous. Vilified as a traitor and turncoat by the Anglican establishment, he was also distrusted by his fellow Catholics. Most Catholics in England at the time were from Irish working-class immigrant stock, and they didn’t know what to do with the high-flying intellectual convert from Oxford.
Despite early life-threatening illnesses, Newman lived a long life. At last, after decades in isolation — being suspected as a liberal by Catholics and a traitor by Anglicans — his brilliance was recognized by both. In 1878, he was elected a fellow of his old Oxford College, and in 1879 he was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. He lived on for another 11 years. His health declined, and he finally died of pneumonia in 1890.
Those were his accomplishments, but what was Newman like as a man? He was essentially a shy and spiritually sensitive intellectual. A man of vast intellect, wide reading and gifted with a razor-sharp mind, he had a magnetic personality. He was deeply loyal to his friends and untiring in his service to others. To the end he continued his life of work, prayer and study, publishing books and papers that have brought many to a deeper appreciation of the Catholic faith.
A saint, however, is not a saint because of his intellectual accomplishments. Should he be declared a saint, John Henry Cardinal Newman will undoubtedly be up there with St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, St. Edith Stein and St. Thomas More as one of the intellectual heavyweights. The galaxy of saints, however, contain stars who were not famous for their intellectual prowess or academic accomplishment, including St. John Vianney, St. Joseph Cupertino, St. Therese of Lisieux and many others.
If John Henry Newman is a saint, then there is something else about him that we need to consider. A saint is an ordinary person who has, by God’s grace, reached his or her full human potential. Therefore, if John Henry Newman is to be a saint, we must ask whether, by God’s grace, John Henry Newman had become all that John Henry Newman was created to be.
When we look at his life we see that he was gifted with a brilliant mind, a tender heart and a deep love for God. Each one of those characteristics was fulfilled in his life. It is arguable, therefore, that John Henry Newman used his vast intellectual and spiritual gifts fully to the glory of God. Whether this beautiful soul and beautiful mind are granted the final formal recognition of being a saint is not so much a question of “if” but “when.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a former Evangelical, then an Anglican and now a Catholic priest. Visit his website at dwightlongenecker.com to browse his books and be in touch.